Anne here, and as I've recently sent in the final revisions on my latest book, I thought I'd talk about the editing process. I'm mainly talking about "traditional publishing" which means I'm with one of the "big" publishers, in my case, Berkley, which is part of Penguin, NY. But I'll also mention "indie" publishing, where authors are doing it for themselves.
There are three levels of editing — the structural edit, copyediting, and proof-reading. These days it's all done electronically, and each part is done by a different person. Today I'm talking about the editor who does the structural edit.
People often expect an editor to be a bit like some school-teachers used to be, happily slashing away with a red (or blue) pen, changing sentences, and in some cases, rewriting whole chunks. In the days we had printed manuscripts and got them posted back with editorial comments written on them. I used to take them to library talks, and people were always surprised how few comments and corrections there were.
There are still editors who do that kind of editing, I believe, but I've never had one, and I've had nine editors so far in my writing career. (That's not because I've driven them bonkers, by the way — in publishing editors tend to move around a bit, both within the company and moving to different publishers. And having babies. And I have moved publishers, too.)
Most editors these days don't correct typos, or make small or large changes to sentences or chapters. Theirs is more a "big picture" edit. They read for story concept, character development, plot, theme, structure, and so on. They spot strengths, flaws and weaknesses in the manuscript and make suggestions to make it a better book. They can see a manuscript much more clearly than the writer, who is usually too close to it — it's hard, when you've just finished writing a book to distinguish the wood from the trees. A really good structural editor will help a writer lift a story from competent to good, from good to outstanding.
The kind of editing I get is generally a letter, giving the editor's overall response, and explaining the areas they think need to be worked on — perhaps a "sagging middle" or something they think will confuse readers. As well, she will return the manuscript I sent with comments in "track changes" so I can see the parts she's talking about. She might correct a typo or something along the way as she spots it, but that's not her main focus.
I've had an editor point out a scene that she thought was a bit too conveniently coincidental — I changed it completely and the book was much stronger for it. In another book, she asked for the romance to start developing earlier. In another there was an awkward transition that needed to be smoothed. I've also had a few suggestions concerning historical events that were true, but which might upset modern readers.
But all of these are suggestions and requests—not instructions—and it's up to me whether or not—and how—I follow them. It's been my experience that when an editor flags a problem in a book they are almost always right. Their suggestions for fixing it, however, are not always right—they are editors not writers. So I always listen to my editor, but don't always fix things the way she suggests.
So I revise the manuscript and send it back, and she will generally approve it. Some editors will ask for several lots of revisions—thankfully I've never had that. I have had books accepted without any revisions, but that makes me a little uncomfortable, because it's my belief that a book can always be improved. Once the manuscript is approved, the editor will pass it on to a copyeditor. I'll talk about that next time.
Indie (independent self-publishing) authors often hire a freelance editor to do all of the above. Not all indie authors do, of course — that's the point of going indie — the author decides.
But that's not all. . .
Editing a manuscript is by no means all that the editor in a traditional house does. They also act as the author's main source of encouragement, and her representative in house. They're the first — and generally the only—point of contact for the author and her agent.
They are the communication conduit between the author and the other publishing departments—contracts (who prepare and oversee authors' contracts), the art department (who design the covers and any marketing displays), the other editing departments (copyediting and proofing), the foreign rights department (who sell our books to overseas publishers), the marketing and publicity departments, legal and accounting, production (who physically produce the books) and more. My editor also prepares the back cover blurb—in my case in cooperation with my agent and me. In other words she oversees the whole process—and if you think that looks like juggling a dozen balls at once, you're probably right.
And if the author is in town, she will probably take her out for a meal.
So, that's what an editor in a traditional house does. Did any of that surprise you? Do you have any questions? Fire away.