What Does an Editor Do?Aug 29, 2021
People within and outside the world of creative writing and professional publishing often wonder: what does an editor do? And why are there so many different types of editors we hear about? There’s the famous copy editors, but we also come across other titles: assistant editor, managing editor, editorial director, executive editor, senior editor... What does it all mean, and what role do they play in a publishing house?
In this blog post, our very own Lily Lindon sheds some light on how many editors spend their time. Ultimately, all editors – from self employed freelance editors to editorial assistants to academic editors to technical editors – have a shared goal: to make a piece of writing the very best it can be.
Lily was previously an editor working at Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House and she’s now become a published author, so she understands the ins and outs of an editing career from both sides of the desk. Here, Lily explains how editors work, and sheds some light on the qualities that can help you become an editor just in case there are any aspiring editors reading!
There are lots of stereotypes about the life of an editor
When I tell someone I’m a book editor, I can sometimes see their imagination bubble pop up: me, sitting alone in a dusty reading nook somewhere in a publishing house, wearing thick spectacles and a black polo neck, using angry, blood-red ink to scratch out split infinitives and misplaced semicolons.
Unfortunately, this is not quite true – not least because I don’t wear glasses.
Like many creative industries, publishing can be impenetrable and opaque from the outside (and often from the inside, to be honest). I hope that giving you more information about what editors do will enlighten and empower you in the process of getting your book published.
Writers (understandably) spend a lot of time worrying about whether an editor will publish their book – but they don’t always know what that will entail at the other end.
Like many creative industries, publishing can be impenetrable and opaque from the outside (and often from the inside, to be honest). I hope that giving you more information about what editors do will enlighten and empower you in the process of getting your book published – as well as humanise us editors a bit!
So what does an editor do?
One of the most common things for editors to say when asked is that it’s an incredibly varied job. ‘Every day is different.’
And, as with most careers, there is a huge amount of variety in what the title ‘editor’ means, influenced by job title and experience, the attitude of different companies and teams, the specific requirements of fiction, non-fiction, genres and formats, and of course, the individual editor’s skills.
Some of the many titles you might hear include:
Editor in chief
But broadly, we can divide the role into ‘acquiring’ a book, ‘editing’ a book and ‘publishing’ a book.
To ‘acquire’ a book simply means to buy the rights to publish it.
What this means for you, the writer, is that you have just been offered a book deal. (Hooray!) But what this means for the editor is that they will begin the whole process of project managing your book, all the way through from the legal contract to beyond its publication.
Most editors at publishing houses don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. This means they are only able to read books sent to them through literary agents.
Some publishing houses have a folder for unsolicited manuscripts (infamously nicknamed the ‘slush pile’) but due to demands on their time and the prioritising of manuscripts from relationships with agencies, they cannot guarantee reading these.
This is why an agent is so vital for getting your manuscript into the right editors’ hands. A good agent will have close working relationships across publishing houses, and will know individual editors’ tastes. They might even have teased the editor with news of an upcoming submission they should be excited about…
How acquisitions editors work on acquiring manuscripts
Let’s play it out. Your agent sends an acquisitions editor your manuscript, knowing that she’s interested in books like yours. The editor reads it, falls in love with it, and wants to publish it.
But she can’t just decide that alone or pluck numbers out of thin air. She will have to go through a gruelling internal process in her publishing house. Most editors will need to do some, if not all, of the following to acquire a manuscript:
Get reader reports from other members of staff (both editorial and from across the other teams, like publicity, marketing, and sales)
Pitch the book in an acquisition meeting
Make a case for how it’s financially viable for the company
Compile comparison sales figures to estimate a competitive offer
Send that offer to your agent
Much of the editing profession involves this kind of research, paperwork and interpersonal communication; it’s not just strong writing skills and a love of reading!
Acquiring great books is how an acquisitions editor builds their experience, expertise, relationships, and reputation to create a successful editing career.
An editor knows that when she’s making an offer on your book, she’s committing to champion your book through thick and thin, and to work together closely for a very long time (sometimes for your whole career).
It’s a collaborative and all-consuming process and will be made because someone really, really believes in your potential. Editors tend to have a strict maximum of books that they are allowed to publish on a list per year and will be thinking about many factors including market forces, their other workloads amidst the multiple projects they’re juggling, as well as target budgets.
The submission process is a huge moment for aspiring authors, but it’s an emotional rollercoaster for the editor too.
She may well be bidding on your book against colleagues and friends, and staking her reputation and editorial position on the reception of your novel. Offers are not made lightly.
The takeaway? The submission process is a huge moment for aspiring authors, but it’s an emotional rollercoaster for the editor too.
How editors typically work on your manuscript
Hooray! You’ve accepted a book deal, you’ve signed the contract and your book is going to be published.
Your editor clearly thinks you’ve written a brilliant novel – but it could be even better.
This is where the red pen comes in.
At most trade publishers, your Editor will work with you on structural edits and line edits, but they will not be your copy editor or proofreader.
But Lily, I hear you cry, what on earth is the difference between these seemingly synonymous terms?
These improve the big picture of your story.
Structural editing is a collaborative process with your editor, in which you’ll discuss any major or foundational changes to be made. You’ll dive deep into the story elements to make sure everything is where it needs to be.
Structural edits will be different for every book, obviously, but will often be questions of whether the novel fulfils its promise for readers of the genre. Is the opening the most intriguing it can be? Is the ending satisfying? Are there any missing or extraneous scenes? Are there plot holes to fix? Are we interested in each of the characters? And so on.
Line editing refers to sentence-by-sentence improvements.
Once the structure is all in place, the editor will zoom in and use their fine-tuned editing skills on the smaller details.
Are there words you use too much? Are there metaphors that don’t quite work? Jokes that don’t land?
Your editor will make expert suggestions to polish every page until you’re both happy it’s the best it can be.
Copy editing involves fact-checking and sense-checking.
Now we’re at the nitty-gritty. And by the way, fact-checking is for both fiction and non-fiction: your copy editor should ensure that real things you’ve referenced are accurate (e.g. if you have said your characters fly from the UK to the US in twenty minutes, they’ll flag that humans haven’t invented commercial flights that fast yet).
A successful editor will also check for internal consistency (e.g. have you accidentally spelled the name of a magic spell differently?).
Copy editors will also be formatting your typed manuscript with instructions for the typesetter.
Now we deal with correcting typos. Checking the typeset manuscript against the copy-editor’s markings, to ensure that in the final printed text, there aren’t any ugly line breaks or errors.
Proofreaders make sure that all of your is are dotted and ts are crossed, and that there aren’t any accidentally the other way round.
Copy-editing and proofreading are highly specialised and time-consuming processes, usually performed by a freelance editor or separate in-house teams.
Any suggestions will then go back to the editor, who will share them with you, the author, to approve. As ever, you have final say.
Now your book is ready to be read!
Publication from the publishing house point of view
The business of actually publishing the novel is the part of the role which people tend to know the least about, but which actually takes up the majority of the editor’s time. It’s not all poring over the minutiae of the written word or analysing each author’s writing skills.
In trade publishers, editors are essentially project managers. They are the first point of contact for your book, fielding internal and external questions. A good editor must be aware of all the comings and goings, give the relevant information to other teams, facilitate meetings, ensure that deadlines are met, and problem-solve if things go awry. Editors must therefore not only be fantastic story-tweakers who can appreciate and hone a writer’s voice, but also excellent communicators.
As the expert and head cheerleader for your book, the editor is present at all the major meetings involving your book.
They are there not only as a fact source but also a creative collaborator. Aspiring editors and writers alike might like to know that some of the editing jobs involved at this stage include:
Briefing designers on directions for your book’s cover design
Hearing campaign plans from the publicity and marketing teams
Liaising with sales teams to ensure that your book is available with retailers
Discussing the production of your book – would it be better blue endpapers or purple, embossing or sparkly foils?
Your editor is there to weave all these strands together towards the deadline of your publication day when your book is officially launched into the world. And beyond!
Being an editor at The Novelry
The Novelry’s editorial team is made up of people with years of experience across the roles of different types of editors. Together, we’ve acquired, edited, and published books at ‘Big Five’ Publishers, so we’ve had plenty of ‘formal training’, so to speak.
At The Novelry, our responsibilities focus on the ‘editing’ part – the hands-on creative feedback, where we collaborate with you to help make your manuscript the best version of itself. This is many editors’ favourite part of the job (including mine!) and it’s an honour to be an early reader of your work. The feeling of discovering a shiny new story never gets old.
But we editors also bring our experience of the ‘acquiring’ and ‘publishing’ processes to help you with pitching your book. Agents used to submit novels to us: now we’re helping to submit your novels to agents! And because we’ve been on the other side, we know exactly what editors are looking for.
When you sign up for The Finished Novel Course at The Novelry you’ll enjoy our combined author and editor expertise to take your twinkling of an idea all the way through to the real deal. We carefully evaluate manuscripts at the end of our most comprehensive writing program for writers serious about their career path as an author.
Editor at The Novelry
Before joining The Novelry, Lily Lindon was an editor at Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House, home to authors including Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Haruki Murakami, and Salman Rushdie. Lily is also the author of debut novel Double Booked. Edit your novel with Lily at The Novelry.