Editors – Part two

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

What do editors actually do?

We scrutinise every word and mark on the page, from the tiniest mechanics of semicolons versus commas, through to the structuring of an elegant paragraph and on to larger stylistic decisions about layout and tone of voice. Many of us will provide you with a personalised style sheet – a record of your editorial decisions, this speeds up production of the next book for us both!

Where and how?

Editors work for publishers and independent (indie) or self-publishing authors.

We use Word, PDFs, PowerPoint, Google Slides, Google Docs, InDesign and even paper!

General tasks include analysing the basics: spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG). 

As an author, your editor will ask you style questions that will go into your personalised style sheet, such as which spelling to use, UK, US or Australian English. Then, on top of that, you’ll choose -ise or ize endings – Oh, I didn’t realise/realize I could choose that! and on to choices you were probably never aware of having made all your life, such as -t/-ed endings – What? I’ve always spelt/spelled it like that!

Another area for stylistic choice that authors may not be aware of is the continually evolving use of hyphens, … or no hyphens, … or combined words. Whatever you and your editor decide – stick to it! Did you ever wonder why dictionaries, newspapers, Word and Google disagree about when to hyphenate? (I’m not even going to mention capitals, at this point!) 

Let’s look at a couple of words.

Please vote: ☐ goodnight ☐ good night ☐ good-night 

☐ breathtaking ☐ breath taking ☐ breath-taking

Using a corpus (a university database which counts English usage in real-world written and spoken English texts across the world), I see that breathtaking, has a frequency of 3.38 instances per million words, whereas the hyphenated breath-taking drops to 0.43 instances per million words, with no results for breath taking. Google has a nifty tool, Ngram, for searching its books too. So which should we use? It’s a question of choosing the style that best suits you and your writing. But then there are some definite no-nos. We agree that self-conscious needs a hyphen but unselfconscious does not, because unself-conscious – or worse un-self-conscious – would be unwieldy for a reader, making them lose the flow of a sentence. 

And there we have it summarised again. Rest assured, we editors aim to make ourselves invisible so that your words reach the reader as smoothly as possible, minimising any hiccups or oddities that could startle them away from your story.

But I can Google all this (other search engines are available), so why do I need an editor?

Trained and experienced editors search the internet too, of course, but we’ve also invested in expensive training courses, classic reference books and style manuals, as well as online subscriptions, software and tools that professionalise the job. We also buy membership to professional bodies, such as the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) https://www.ciep.uk/, where codes of practice and industry standards are upheld.

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 copyeditor and proofreader smiling for the camera

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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