What Does an Editor Do?

I was reading a blog about self-publishing the other day, and the blogger was very sincere and charming.  Unfortunately, her blogs were all in 1,000-word paragraphs, and it was very difficult to read more than five or six sentences in each before giving up. I watched one of her videos, and ironically she stressed hiring a professional editor (!), but apparently only for books. A few simple things would have made her posts much more readable, so I decided to write a quick post on what editors look at.

Grammar

I think everyone knows that editors correct grammar, spelling, and typos that the computer misses.

Words

Perhaps one of the most valuable things an editor does is cut out extraneous words. Effective writing expresses ideas clearly in as few words as possible. An editor may also suggest words choices that are more precise.

Sentences

A writer who only uses one type of sentence quickly puts readers to sleep. Here are the three basic types of sentences with samples:

  • Simple – Usually contains one fact or idea. Example: I am writing.
  • Compound – Provides two or more facts or ideas of equal weight. Example: I am writing, and you are reading.
  • Complex – Used to express a connection between two or more facts or ideas. Example: Because I am writing, you are reading.

Then there are compound-complex sentences, which quickly brings us to two other important editorial tasks:

  • Dividing sentences that are too long
  • Varying sentence structure to better show the connections among the facts and ideas expressed

Rhetorical sentences are short sentences used for effect. I love’em!

Paragraphs

Some novelists with patient readers (for example, the Austrian Thomas Bernhard) write entire books in one sentence. The rest of us, who are reading for more mundane facts and ideas, need shorter paragraphs where the sentences fit together clearly and logically. Professional editors are very skilled in making this happen, even if we hand them something that reads like a “stream of consciousness” novel.

Editors will also suggest graphic devices (such as bulleted lists, tables, and graphics) to add variety to the text and make relationships among facts and ideas clearer.

Structure

Depending on the type of piece the editor is working on, he or she may suggest changes in the overall structure, beyond reordering paragraphs. For example, the editor of a white paper might suggest an Abstract or Executive Summary at the beginning. This provides the basic ideas in the paper, helps readers decide if they want to go through the entire piece, and can sometimes be used to lure them into skimming the paper. To facilitate skimming, editors will check that heads and subheads are meaningful and attractive, and reflect the overall logic of the piece.

If you have included material that is self-contained and is not critical to the development of the paper as a whole, the editor may suggest moving the section to an appendix to help readability, and only referencing it in the main text. Editors also can help with references that lead readers to the outside sources for quotations and statistics.

Style and Purpose

A good editor will help you find a style and level of difficulty appropriate to your audience. You wouldn’t describe how online banking works to an engineer and to a customer in the same way.

An editor will also help you focus your piece – and may suggest adding facts or ideas that seem to be missing. Perhaps the best service a good editor provides is objectivity, something we authors often lack.

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About Regina Domeraski

I am a writer and have been for as long as I can remember. I worked as a technical writer and now a marketing writer for high-tech companies, but my interests go far beyond technology and include writing as an art and a craft, creativity, film, classical music, and the mystery genre (after all, Hamlet is a murder mystery).
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