Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | April 17, 2021

What does an editor do?

What does an editor do?

{sigh} I had a phone meeting with a potential new client. She’s not quite done with her book, her manuscript, but is exploring the world of self-publishing. She’s already imagining hiring a professional photographer to do a photo of her for the front cover—her personal experiences figure prominently in the book. She has two coaches who are helping her get through the writing process, which is of course the most arduous part of producing a book—except for promoting it! And she’s looking for someone who will be able to design it all and make it look attractive.

But an editor? “I thought an editor was just the person who corrects the spelling, the grammar, the punctuation,” she said. I let out an involuntary laugh—almost did a spit-take because I was drinking coffee. {sigh}

The Red-Pen Editor

That’s the image many people have of an editor—a stern schoolmarm-type with a red pen in hand, applying obscure rules of the English language to an author’s precious manuscript, leaving it a bloody mess. Well, yes, it’s part of the job to correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. But editors actually do much, much more. (See below: The 6 Stages of Editing)

Believe it or not, there have been books written by and about famous editors. (See especially Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. Perkins edited authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and James Jones. Perkins not only edited their books, but discovered several of these authors, persuaded them to make changes, and held their hands while they struggled to finish a manuscript.)

What Else Editors Do

Editors are the first “real” people to read the writer’s book (manuscript). NOTE: spouses and friends don’t count as “real” readers, unless they are writers or editors themselves.

Editors know what to look for in the first reading, and the second reading, and the third, fourth, and however many readings/edits it takes to get a book from the manuscript stage to the publication-ready stage.

For many writers, their editor is like a safety net that allows them to just get it out on paper, without having to worry about all those picky little things like spelling and punctuation. Those writers know that a copyeditor or proofer down the line will clean that stuff up. For some writers, the editor is a coach, a hand-holder, a cheerleader, a sounding board. For many writers and editors, their discussions are not just about their writing, but about the book design and the publication process.


In the publishing industry, the different levels of editing are distinctly different jobs, though very frequently these jobs overlap, especially in self-publishing. A lot depends on what stage the manuscript is in when an editor first sees it.

1. Developmental Editing—This involves editing the very concept of the book, basically helping a writer in the beginning stages when their book may be mostly an outline. At this stage, I make sure the writer’s arguments line up or their stories are in the right sequence, and that everything seems to flow. Some writers then need coaching to help get from outline to full manuscript. This is when I feel like I’m acting more as a sounding board or advisor or coach, commenting on the writing in almost real time, aka/ writing workshop style.

2. Evaluation Editing—The key difference from developmental editing is that you need a finished manuscript, not just an idea to edit. At this stage I read as a discerning reader would, looking at the big picture. Does the beginning grab my attention and make me want to read on? Is there a logical sequence, a compelling reason to continue reading, i.e. a promise that I’ll be entertained or learn something? If it’s a novel, do I want to find out what happens to the characters? As an editor I would not only give feedback on these things, but advice on how to improve the manuscript so that it could be a compelling read.

3. Content Editing—This is substantive editing, digging into the words at the paragraph level, but also evaluating tone and style and voice, especially in relation to the potential readership.  At this stage, I shouldn’t be moving chapters around, but I might recommend re-organizing sections or paragraphs, or moving content to different chapters, or deleting content entirely.

4. Line Editing—At this stage, I’m not looking at the big picture, but focusing on word choice and eliminating wordiness, tightening up each paragraph and each sentence to make sure it has the intended impact, almost polishing it like a jewel.  I would still not be so concerned with punctuation and such, but rather the words used to communicate with the reader.

5. Copyediting— a meticulous editing for the mechanics of language—spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This is the stage in which the editor becomes that stern, red pen-wielding English teacher. Quite frankly, using Word’s spell-check, grammar-check, and other apps are hugely helpful at this stage.

6. Proofreading—the proofer’s task is to review the final proof copy before the book goes to print. In a big publishing house, this would be a completely separate position from the copyeditor’s job, but in self-publishing—yeah, that’s frequently me also.

Building a House: Taking the manuscript from blueprint to “the big reveal”

Tucker Max, founder of Scribe and best-selling author, likens the process of producing a book to the process of building a house:

Think of it this way, Marx says: A developmental or evaluation editor helps you build the house (the book) and figure out which rooms (chapters) should go where.

With those rooms in place, the content editor’s job is to help you arrange the furniture (sections and paragraphs) inside those rooms in a way that’s appealing.

Unlike line editors, they’re not concerned with the decorations (sentences).

Extending Max’s metaphor, this would mean that the editors working on the final stages of a book—copy editors and proofreaders—are like the designer’s helpers going through a staged house right before it is to be shown to potential buyers, picking up a stray toy left behind by a child, polishing some fingerprints off a mirror, spraying an inviting scent in the kitchen, fluffing up the pillows on the couch.

The work of an editor, if done correctly, is invisible

If the editing is done right, you’ll never see the inconsistencies, the redundancies, the repetitions that have been corrected. You won’t notice the paragraphs or chapters or sentences that have been removed or moved around. You won’t even be aware of the fact that the ending was completely re-written or that a novel’s main character’s name, or the plot, was changed somewhere along the way. You will not see the insertion or removal of commas, semi-colons, or quotation marks.

The work of the editor, if done correctly, is invisible.


  1. Thank you for this post: it is interesting and clarifying. As writers are told to spend as much time on researching literary agents/small presses to pitch their manuscript to — as actually writing their manuscript — your step 1-Developmental editing is insightful. That’s been my experience from reading the trades the last 30 years, and going to workshops, etc., and I know that self publishing is different. Perhaps those those writers who chose to self publish should be reminded of stage 1-Developmental editing. If someone opts for the traditional route, and hopes not to self-publish — it’s still good to know, that for all your work researching/pitching your book, even if you land an agent/small press — you will likely have to re-work your book in some way via your editor — so perhaps it is best to work on the manuscript and the pitch at the same time. This is something I have to think about as I usually am in the mode of manuscript first, then pitch but I am open to a new method even if it means changing the way I write and put together books. To note, I just read a debut novel. The writing was beautiful similar to a prose poem (author was a poetry fellow but this was fiction), but the editing steps 4-6 not so much. It wasn’t a long novel 230 pages paperback, but he used the word: lacquered — three (3) times which should have been subbed out/caught by someone. So either no one did and it slipped by, or he dug his heels in and would not make the change and they let it go? Definitely wasn’t invisible. It was his debut, more books now so it did not crash his career, but I think it definitely mars a book that could be a classic going forward. Seems odd because it was Little Brown/Hachette — not self published.

  2. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comments. Yes, I think most writers — whether self-publishing or going the traditional publishing route — think that when the writing is “done” that’s when the editing begins. But I’ve worked with several manuscripts that were kind of a hot mess at that point and needed major re-working. And to use Maxwell Perkins as example again, his work with Thomas Wolfe definitely started at the developmental phase and involved every level of editing, except perhaps proofing. Re the word “lacquered” grating on you by the third use — yes, exactly. I just finished reading a best-selling memoir and noticed some small proofing errors towards the end. Really, the last thing a reader should be doing is turning into an editor! A critic, perhaps. But as said, the editing should be invisible if done right and done well.

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