Let me start this post with a few caveats (exceptions, ironically, seem to be a big part of the job). First, I do not speak for every type of editor. I am not a copy editor, for example; I’m a managing editor/freelance editor/bombastic expositor on the brilliance of language. Also, I can only speak from my own experience, which mainly includes web, technical, and magazine editing—with a large dose of fiction editing and a bit of science news writing thrown in for fun.
But I’ve been hacking away long enough to talk a bit about why editing is important and why people pay us.
- Grammar geek: As I said, I’m not a copy editor for the most part (those who mainly focus on the typos, grammar glitches, and typesetting). But I love understanding the whys of language. I get paid for knowing what optative subjunctive is, for example. This is the job most people associate with “editor,” but much of my time is actually spent in other areas (unless the material is very rough).
- Structural engineer: The reason I love editing is simple: I like to tear things apart. No, I’m serious. I drive my wife crazy because I can’t just enjoy a movie or book without analyzing every detail and discussing it to death. With prose, I love showing writers how they can make something work, where the issues are, and working on the whole structure or plot. It’s better than coffee.
- Crouching tiger, hidden pen: A good portion of my job involves writing uncredited material. Whether it’s an intro to someone’s work, titles, descriptions, anonymous copy, or even a massive rewrite, editors are often hidden behind the curtain. So, a good editor definitely needs a humble attitude—which is not always an easy thing, I confess.
- Conciliator: This part is a bit less glamorous, but editors need to be very (and I mean very) diplomatic with writers and other content providers. It pays to know the person and to know how to approach various personalities. Some will take suggestions well and happily; some bristle at even a hint that the writing is not where it should be. Editors liaise (as I like to say). We depend on others for our income and content, and keeping those people happy is definitely a good idea—all while not compromising on the quality.
- Keeper of the gate: Working in web publishing, I also help decide what makes it, what goes back to the author, and what gets tossed. I’m not out to crush hopes and dreams, but I am out to make good use of limited resources.
As I said, this is not a complete look at all editors, but I hope it gives you some insight into what we do. Next week, I’ll take you through some of the common things that editors do on a daily basis (well, this one at least).
Feel free to chime in with your own take.