Editors – the what, how and why?

Alex Mackenzie copyeditor and proofreader smiling for the camera


This week, Alex Mackenzie, a British copyeditor and proofreader living in Asturias, writes part one of an insight into the what, how and why of an Editor’s role. Check back for part two next week.

Part one: Can somebody please explain the different degrees of editing?  

It is confusing, and there’s a lot of overlap. It’s also a risky expense. First, define your needs – what kind of help do you want? 

Are you looking for someone to guide you through plot, structure and characterisation? You can pay an editor to read your novel cold and write a critique – usually in letter form – giving feedback and explaining potential issues readers may encounter. But here there is no correction of your work, you’d have to act on the feedback yourself.

Perhaps your self-help guide is complete, but the sections are of uneven length and some parts are repetitive or not as engaging as you’d planned. That means a substantive, developmental or in-depth edit, where your editor will engage with you in conversation (email, Track Changes comments in Word, WhatsApp chats or video calls – whatever you both agree). Together you will knock your writing into shape and create a more polished version, but after your rewrite you’ll probably need another editor’s perspective too.

Or is your text already in pretty good shape? It just needs a fresh pair of eyes – little more than a spell check, really – so a proofreader, then? 

The foggy middle ground is covered by what is known as copyediting (or a heavier edit, also known as line-editing). Here editors intervene a lot more than a proofreader would, focussing on making your words a pleasure to read. Discussion is key, of course, your author’s voice must remain strong – but the editor’s insight, experience and writing skills are what you are paying for here. 

As long as you and your editor agree on what needs doing (and what constitutes going beyond the brief) it doesn’t really matter what we call it. What is important is the communication between you, the author, and your chosen editor. It’s a sensitive relationship requiring personal skills from your editor, such as patience and kindness – I believe you’ve switched the order of chapters at some point, could I suggest …, and sometimes gentle coaxing – Readers may not believe that he uses this word, let’s read it aloud and try out a few alternatives … all done with the ultimate intent of delivering your best possible story to the world.

When deciding the level of editing to pay for, one good guide is the number of interventions your work has already gone through. It’s extremely unlikely that an inexperienced writer would move straight to the proofreading stage before going public. But since many writers’ limited budgets force them to do their own developmental edit, this does happen. Please be warned – if the first person to see your finished text is a proofreader, they may find themselves needing to negotiate a more intense role (and a higher fee). They could end up engaging in a light-to-heavy copyedit, sparking several painful decisions from you and some unforeseen cuts and rewrites.

So to sum up, we editors make sure your readers have an easy time of it, immersed in your story or world vision without having to re-read sentences because of unexpected word choice, uncomfortable dialogue and even poor spelling and punctuation. Ideally, of course, your readers will also be thoroughly entertained and go on to buy your second book!

My essential physical, paper reference books: 

Oxford Dictionary of English, 

Chicago Manual of style (CMoS) 

New Oxford Style Manual, incorporating New Hart’s Rules 

R.L. Trask’s Penguin Guide to Punctuation 

My current online faves: 

Lexico https://www.lexico.com

Collins online dictionary https://www.collinsdictionary.com/

Google Ngram viewer https://books.google.com/ngrams

Alex Mackenzie is a British copyeditor and proofreader living in Asturias, Spain.

She is an intermediate member of CIEP and holds an MA in education. 

Alex offers authors 300–500 word free samples of her editing, so please get in touch!

Published by Ian

Music maker and story teller.

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