What Editors Do … or Don’t

Jack Kerouac Manuscript Photo in San Francisco...

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and I don’t have as much industry knowledge as I should for someone who wants to be published, so I’m posing this as a question, really.

I’ve learned from industry blogs and such – like Nathan Bransford’s, for example – that editors don’t really edit very much, if at all.  Editors buy books.  They receive manuscripts from agents and sometimes directly from the public (not so often, I’d imagine), and they pore over them to determine which books they want to take on.  Then they pitch the books to the publishing committee of the publishing house and the ones to clear that hurdle actually get published … eventually.  After much editing and back-and-forth stuff.

But the editor doesn’t really do much editing.  Some, perhaps. to get the manuscript to a point of being publishable (in their opinion), but that’d be story issues or inconsistencies more than what I’ve come to think of as “editing”.

Copy editors, on the other hand, don’t get the Internet and blogosphere notoriety of editors.  They, however, do what I’ve always thought of as editing.  They look things over, make sure the language used flows and is grammatically correct, fix spelling and punctuation problems, and note any typos and nuts-and-bolts linguistic problems (which, in my opinion but I don’t know for sure, would include if-you-say-it-this-way-it-will-read-better suggestions, too).  They are the little red-pen demons who slash and dash through the manuscript and fix what needs fixing.  But they don’t see the manuscript until it’s already accepted by the publishing house and being prepared for publication, so the copy editor doesn’t seem to have a role in deciding if the book is worth printing or not.  It’s already been screened, theoretically, by the agent (if used), the editor, and the publishing committee.

I’ve always wanted a job where I’d sit down with a red pen or a blue pencil and actually do the editing of manuscripts.  Okay, not always, but long enough.  Unfortunately, with no experience and no credentials, I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen.  It is a dream, though.  (Though I’ve recently learned from my buddy Sherri that copy editing isn’t as easy as it sounds; gotta be careful not to alter the original voice of the author in favor of your own by chopping/rearranging too much.)

Copy editing jobs are few and far between.  I can gather experience by doing copy editing for others pro bono, but I’m not sure how serious experience of that nature is taken in the industry if the manuscript never sees print.  So I continue to wonder – how do I get into that field?  How can I break through the glass wall without killing someone to open a job vacancy?  Hm.

So, the question is – if copy editors do editing, and editors buy books, why the heck are “editors” called “editors”?  I assume at one time they did editing, but if that’s not the focus of the job anymore, shouldn’t the title be changed?  Publication Acquisitions Representative, or Manuscript Acquisitions Manager, or whatever?  And why the “copy” portion of “copy editor”?  Why not change the title there to simply “editor”?

Seems a lot would be cleared up if they did this.  It’d make more sense of an industry desperately in need of making sense.


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4 thoughts on “What Editors Do … or Don’t

  1. I think that “editing” can also mean more like “selecting the printable” so content editors pick the stories that should go into a publishers printable lineup – they are editing the lineup, and copy editors edit at a lower level – the stories themselves.

    Folks like sports editors for the newspaper do both – they edit the sports page by picking the stories to run, then they edit the stories themselves.

    There, that’s my best guess.

    I think that’s a good guess, honestly. I hadn’t really thought about “editor” from a news print or media standpoint. The writers are responsible for the story content and the “editors” are responsible for the newspaper content of their section. That throws a little light on it, if accurate: editing at different levels. Good stuff, Bryce, thanks!

  2. Editors help with the revisions. They are the go-betweens for publisher and writer.

    If you want to copy-edit, check out the courses at a local community college for editing and grammar refresher courses (they are often inexpensive and one or two sessions at the most. You can use them on your CV. Volunteer your services to internet magazines. A lot of them are small and you can trade your sweat for gaining experience.

    Great ideas. (Even though for now community college is out of the question, but it won’t always be. I hope.) Thanks!

  3. When I was trying to break into the field, I found a busy, free-lance editor to intern with, and let her delegate the more tedious copy-editing to me. Eventually the plan was that she would send paid work my way, when she felt she no longer had to double-check my work.

    It was a good theory, although she felt that she could also use my volunteer time to send me to the market to pick up her Diet Pepsi and kitty litter, so that relationship didn’t last. Still, it could work with someone who would actually be respectful of their intern’s time.

    Okay, now that’s just abusive. I’d never do that. And not being young, or overly eager, OR tolerant of BS, I prob’ly wouldn’t have done much for that person. Still, a good in-road you’ve identified, and with LinkedIn and such, it might be easier to make those connections. Thank you!

  4. I think it’s cool that you have a desire to do something that may be considered by some people as inferior to editing. I am a copy editor hoping to become an editor someday. To me, the difference is big picture vs. little picture. I have to be so focused on the details and make sure that every comma is in its place that I sometimes lose sight of the big picture. Editors get to actually develop the product. They rearrange and slice and dice. I believe the most important thing is that they keep the author’s voice intact while still being able to produce the product that the publishing company wants. Editors are in an interesting position. They are the advocates for the publisher to the author and vice versa. They may not do the tedious work of a copy editor, but the editing they do is very valuable. Without them, there would be nothing for copy editors to edit.

    Thank you for coming by and letting me know your thoughts. I appreciate your time. 🙂

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