What does an editor do and why you need one – stack of books on yellow background

What does an editor do?

Let’s start with a distinction.

We’re not talking about magazine or newspaper editors  – the people at the top who are the public face of their publications who oversee teams of writers and editors.  

We’re talking about the editor at the coalface of individual projects. Those who review, correct and make changes to text in projects such as newspaper and book articles, book manuscripts and website content.

Within this category, there are a few different roles. Let’s look at some of these below.

Copyeditors are sometimes called ‘line editors’ and in a newspaper or magazine setting might also be called ‘subeditors’.

They edit the content line by line for sense, formatting, grammar and punctuation. They also align the text with the agreed editorial style and check for any inadvertent copying from other sources. 

A copyedit may require a structural edit. Here the copyeditor will look deeper and edit for meaning, flow and sense. They may come back to you and suggest paragraphs be moved or rewritten, or they may question the tone or accuracy of the text. 

Proofreaders are the last stop in the process. Ideally, a piece of writing has been seen by an editor before it is proofread.

Proofreaders check all content for typos, grammatical errors, punctuation, page numbers, header and footers, and editorial style. They will also check captions, tables of content, images and headings.

A good editor will develop a relationship with their author or client and refer to them about changes they’d like to make that are beyond simple grammar and punctuation. An editor should never work in isolation. If they don’t have access to the writer or author, then they should be working from an editorial brief.

The ‘Australian Standards for Editing Practice set out the responsibilities of professional editors. These include legal and ethical responsibilities, as well as substance and structural tasks.

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” – Dr Suess

Legal and ethical matters

Editors are trained to recognise content that appears to be written or created by a person other than the writer.

We can recognise the change of voice. When you’ve been editing for years, it’s very easy to see a different writer at work in your text. It’s like an internal alarm bell goes off.

Often people don’t realise they’re plagiarising and once it’s pointed out we quickly amend it.

If the copied content is necessary to the piece of writing, then we look into obtaining permission to republish it.

Alternatively, we can summarise or paraphrase text from other sources and acknowledge the source.

It’s usually a straightforward process to apply for copyright permission, and often people are flattered that you want to use their content.

It’s always courteous to acknowledge content created by somebody else. Think about inserting a link to their site because backlinking will help improve their SEO, as well as your own.

Permission may not always be needed, and this can be confirmed by checking the terms and conditions on the website where the content is published. 

A website’s terms and conditions are generally located at the base of their homepage. Also check ‘Privacy policy’ for copyright info.

Cultural sensitivity and discriminatory language

Cultural sensitivity is being aware and not making judgements about people’s cultural differences and similarities.

Context is important when looking at this type of content and common sense is usually applied. If in doubt, professional editors generally have access to a lawyer who can check for them.

Discriminatory language can sometimes appear in content unintentionally.

As a general rule, this entails irrelevant references to age, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, accent, disability or any other characteristic a person cannot control.

An editor will identify any issues they encounter and suggest alternative text.

Design and formatting

Experienced editors are accustomed to marking up corrections for graphic designers who, in turn, are trained to interpret and implement the editorial mark-up.

Editors do not design pages, but they look at all the elements on a page and identify any parts of it that are not working optimally.

When I was training to be an editor I would imagine a page to be the room of a house and the headings, graphics, images and other elements of the text design to be furniture in that room.

All of these elements needed to come together in a cohesive, aesthetic way for the page to work. 

When I was a trainee editor I would imagine a page in a book I was editing to be the room of a house. 

The headings, graphics, images, and all the other elements of the page were furniture in the room.

All these elements needed to come together in a cohesive, aesthetic way for the page to function optimally.

The design also needed to support the text and not inhibit or misrepresent its meaning.

Drawing of house with tags such as text, captions, photos, headings around it.

Can you really rely on a spellchecker?

Spellcheckers regularly get things wrong.

To start with, you may be checking UK (Australian) English in a US spellchecker.

So ‘specialisation’ will be marked up as an error because the spellchecker thinks it should be ‘specialization’.

Spellcheckers check if words are spelled correctly, not whether they are used correctly.

So a sentence such as ‘Witch one was rite?’ could be assessed as correct.

Similarly, homophones are troublesome for spellcheckers. So ‘heir’ and ‘air’ could be substituted and missed. So could ‘bare’ and ‘bear’.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, a spellchecker might not know the difference between ‘socialite’ and ‘socialist’, or ‘definitely’ and ‘defiantly’. It may also confuse ‘public’ with ‘pubic’. Imagine that.

Grammar and punctuation

If you’re a subject matter expert you’ll be focusing on the meaning and structure of the content, not relative pronouns and commas.

It’s difficult to explain complex concepts or review academic research and try to be word perfect at the same time. In these situations, an editor can be a writer’s best friend.

A good writer–editor relationship is invaluable.

Have you noticed how best-selling authors often talk about their editors in glowing terms? That’s because they understand each other and are, pun intended, always on the same page. Effortlessly so.

Grammar usage is always evolving. With every new edition of a dictionary words become extinct and new words are invented.

Words start to be used as compounds and hyphens are inserted between them. Other compounds lose their hyphens and become singular words. An editor keeps track of all these evolutionary changes.

It’s a hell of a job knowing a dictionary back to front, but an editor will generally know common usage without referring to the dictionary – and probably has a shortcut on their screen to locate a current usage within seconds.

An editor will know when to use ‘which’ and ‘that’ – and this small interchange is the difference between amateur and professional content.

Some people avoid punctuation because they’d rather have an absence of it than an error. If that’s you, consider this sentence:

“Let’s eat Evelyn,” versus “Let’s eat, Evelyn.”

If you want to be clearly understood there’s no way around it. You need to learn punctuation rules or hire an editor.

A typed page of writing with editorial markup shown in red pen.

Words start to be used as compounds and hyphens are inserted between them. 

Other compounds lose their hyphens and become singular words. An editor keeps track of all these evolutionary changes.

It’s a big job knowing a dictionary back to front, but an editor will generally know common usage without referring to the dictionary.

They likely have a shortcut on their screen to locate a current usage within seconds.

An editor will know when to use ‘which’ and ‘that’ – and this small interchange is the difference between amateur and professional content.

Some people avoid punctuation because they’d rather have an absence of it than an error. If that’s you, consider this sentence:

“Let’s eat Evelyn,” versus “Let’s eat, Evelyn.”

If you want to be clearly understood there’s no way around it. You need to learn punctuation rules or hire an editor.

Why you should worry about editorial style

Style is closely related to consistency.

If a medical college uses upper case ‘C’ in ‘College’ in all instances, then that style needs to be consistent throughout the content, or the readers become confused and distracted.

It’s also about saying the same thing in the same way throughout a document. For example, Jacaranda University shouldn’t be shortened to ‘Jacaranda uni’ in the same piece of content.

You also wouldn’t use ‘and’ and an ampersand ‘&’ in the same document (unless it were in a company name), and you wouldn’t punctuate lists differently in the same document.

Consistency is important because it builds reader confidence and reduces distractions in the text.

It also demonstrates clearly that the content has been created by professionals, which is exactly what you want. It’s difficult for readers to trust content when it has errors and inconsistencies.

Even if the writer is highly qualified in their field, errors can devalue their authority and make them look like amateurs.

A style guide also clearly defines a brand’s tone and voice. It lets us know the differences between the brand’s usage and common usage – and there are often idiosyncrasies based on the preferences of the people in charge.

You can download the free Textshop Editorial Style Guide on this page.

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