2013 / editing / Event / Insight / Publishing

What Do Editors Do?

On Friday 31 May the Bogong Room at Gorman House buzzed as 65 writers and editors mingled like moths.  Lured by the promise of wine, cheese and other nibbles, the writers took the opportunity to ask whatever they wanted to know about the editorial process, and the editors came to meet the writers.  The conversations were lively, as those gathered found much to talk about and myriad ideas to share.

– by Kaaren Sutcliffe

A panel of five editors agreed to field questions — and boldly endeavoured to answer anything the writers and editors present wanted to know.  The panel members were diverse in their editorial experience in terms of the types of work they are accustomed to editing as well as their paths to becoming an editor.  Some focus on technical and scientific work, others edit government or academic texts, and two edit a range of fiction and non-fiction.

The questions flowed readily, as did additional comments from the floor. Some of the questions asked truly helped to chisel out exactly what an editor is, what an editor does, and when a writer needs to call on the skill set of the editor. Here are a few of the questions that were most helpful for writers looking to have the role of an editor defined:

What do you do when someone approaches you for an edit?

All panel members agreed that they first clarify the scope and extent of the work, the intended audience, the timeframe and the level of edit or assistance being sought.  Usually a sample of the work is requested so the editor can see what will need editing and provide a more accurate estimate of how long the task will take.

How does a writer find a suitable editor?

The suggestions included: look on the CSE website, look on the Institute of Professional Editors website, ask the staff at the ACT Writers’ Centre, ask others who write in your genre who they would recommend.  Check out various editors’ websites, blogs and twitter, see if you like their style.  Another idea is to pay for an extract of the work to be assessed via the manuscript assessment service (costs $73 for a sample of 5000 words) and see if the assessor / editor provides constructive ideas. If you like their approach, ask them if they would be able to edit the whole manuscript.

How does an editor establish how much to charge the author?

The price for an edit is mainly a function of the estimated time the job will take times the hourly rate. The editors on the panel varied in approach: some have variable rates for corporate and government clients as opposed to starving-in-a-garret authors or students; some changed the rate depending on the degree of complexity, so a substantive edit would cost more than a proofread; others thought the rate should be constant.  Most said they provide an up-front quote and adhere to this unless the scope of the job changes.

What is the difference between a structural edit and a manuscript assessment?

Good question! These are very similar, but the view leaned towards a manuscript assessment being more of a read-through and detailed report on the effectiveness of the manuscript that points out options and leaves the decisions and rewriting to the author, whereas in a structural (or substantive) edit the editor would be more hands-on in suggesting what to move, expand or delete.  A manuscript assessment is much cheaper than an edit and is a sound investment as a more polished draft will save the editor time, and hence the author money, later.  The Editor Commissioning Checklist that can be found on the CSE website lists the different elements covered in the various layers of editing; writers may find this a useful guide.

Is there a difference between editing a work for an individual author or editing a work that has been accepted by a publisher?

The panel members responded that most of their work comes from the authors directly, and involves helping to prepare a work for submission to agents or publishers. The caution was given that if a work was accepted it would be assigned an in-house editor by a publisher, who may request further changes to suit the publishing house style or to bring the work closer to the ‘vision’ of the commissioning editor.

What would you do if you felt that the work you were being asked to edit had no prospect of publication? Ethically, are you bound to tell the author this?

This question drew differing views!  Reactions varied from suggesting the author approach a ‘more suitable’ alternative editor, saying they were too busy, warning the author that a lot of work and rewriting would be required—but acknowledging the author’s right to have their work edited.  One editor commented that it is difficult to predict how hard an author may be prepared to work and shared the story of one author who once shown how to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ so completely transformed his 100 000 word novel that it was barely recognisable.  This author self-published a thousand copies and sold them all within three months…

So, how courageous does an editor need to be?

Yes, editing takes courage and tact.  The panel members agreed that honesty is paramount, but also that their role is to encourage and support writers, not discourage them. It sometimes takes a while to constructively phrase feedback that is not welcome.  But editors are, after all, skilled in language and tone …

How does one become an editor? Do you need a piece of paper?

The panel was unanimous that a love of words and language, an eye for detail, and experience were the most necessary components.  Being an avid reader was regarded as an advantage, too.  Some of the panel had studied editing as part of a writing-related or journalism course, others had done correspondence courses.  Those who edit fiction commented that attending fiction writing courses or workshops was extremely helpful in building the solid foundation of understanding story and characters.  All panel members agreed that accreditation through IPEd was a great ‘acid test’ of editorial proficiency given the rigour of the exam and the 80 per cent pass mark … and writers should be able to have faith in an accredited editor.

There are, of course, many excellent editors who are not accredited as the exam has been held only three times to date.  The exam is held every two years, there are sample exams on the IPEd website and most of the local societies of editors run exam preparation workshops.  Advice came from the floor that potential applicants need to be aware that the exam is paper-based, which can be a challenge if you are accustomed to on-screen editing or suffer from any hand or wrist ailments.

Do editors enjoy their work?

Absolutely! It is enormously satisfying to work on a piece and iron out those wee errors, sharpen the prose,  tease out clarity and lucidity, even out the pace and depth and enhance the flow — until the author is content that the work is what they wanted to write and achieves what they intended or dreamed.

The evening was hailed as a success and the last writers and editors had to be politely ushered out the door long after the event was supposed to have concluded … keep your ears open for the sequel event; there’s bound to be one later in the year.

2 thoughts on “What Do Editors Do?

  1. Pingback: What Do Editors Do? « Canberra Society of Editors

  2. I’ve been editing for almost a year now. Before I had no idea what it was all about, and thought it’s just a case of looking for mistakes. There’s much more input to it though, and I think you’re right. We do enjoy our work 🙂

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