What Does An Editor Do?

Over the years, my novel Déjà Vu has been through the hands of several editors, most notably Aliya Whiteley (the 2005 edition), Katherine Flynn, George Sandison and Olivia Wood. The last editor, Olivia, is a freelancer who has worked with some of the major science fiction publishers, but also worked with me when I was self-publishing.

The editing process is the elephant in the room of literature. Most unpublished writers don’t know quite what it is; published writers tend to downplay it (perhaps under pressure of marketing more than anything else).

George Sandison of Unsung Stories has taken the excellent step of listing the illustrator and editor alongside my name on the Amazon listing of Déjà Vu and thereby emphasising the teamwork that goes into publication. (Typically, he’s not included himself as an editor, which belies the impact he had on shaping the book.)

I thought it would be interesting to interview Olivia Wood about her role as a editor, and she was kind enough to agree.

Olivia Wood in cartoon mode.
Olivia Wood in cartoon mode.
  • Could you briefly describe the types of editing that you do?

For novels, I do structural editing, line-editing and proofreading. These perhaps require some explanation.

Structural editing, if done, comes before line-editing. This is carried out in-house by publishers, so is something I generally only do with people self-publishing. It involves a look at story arcs, how the plot hangs together, the viability of proposed characters and settings, sequencing, internal coherence, tone and more. It may well involve sending the manuscript back to the author with suggestions for pretty thorough rewrites. Though this can be very disheartening for a first novel, every author requires this to some extent (some avoid using an editor for this by using beta readers) and is no more than a painful stage in the process of making a book as good as it can be. At the structural level I won’t look at specific lines or phrases, and don’t do any re-wording myself, but do send extensive editorial notes. If I can, I pick up stylistic tics here – although these are more usually caught in the line-edit stage. (Every writer has them. Every.)


Given how important language precision is to editing, it’s strange that definitions of what each editorial stage includes vary widely. I do a line-edit with a copy-edit, and don’t separate them. For some, a copy-edit is just formatting, spelling and punctuation. I do this while I line-edit, as a matter of course. Some editors, when line-editing, only do basic style and grammar checks – which is useful, but won’t cover everything a book will need. (If looking for a line-editor, as well as checking rates, always find out what is actually included, as the work load varies massively. I can easily spend over 50 hours on an average length novel. Someone only checking grammar should be spending less than half this time.)

When I do a line-edit, I’ll work through a book line-by-line, looking at style, clarity, consistency of tone/voice, continuity (and grammar and punctuation). I’ll consider characters, make sure that behaviour and speech is consistent/believable throughout. I check that there are no non-deliberate loose ends. How much re-writing/re-wording I do depends very much on the preferences of the author (or publisher): some authors like a suggestion as to a fix when I spot an issue; others just like issues to be flagged up so they can resolve them.

I particularly enjoy looking at fight scenes, as I have a little first-hand knowledge of strangles and chokes … so do get some pleasure wondering what the author will think when I give very technical feedback.

Proofreading is the final stage before publication. Not much can be fixed at this point. It’s checking typos, picking up any flawed grammar/punctuation remaining from the earlier editing stages. Sometimes I suggest minor word/phrase changes at this point, but there should be very few, as by this stage modifications can interfere with the layout.

Oh wait. You said briefly?

  • What are the things that writers need most help with? (Or is it not possible to group writers like that?)

Most writers are a strange mix of massive and fragile egos. (This is in no way an insult.) It takes tremendous guts to show your creative work to someone and ask them to find everything that is ‘wrong’ with it (where ‘wrong’ is just a matter of what should be changed to make a thing better, rather than actually ‘bad’; and is, anyway, the personal opinion of that one person). It takes even more to send work out – whether publishing directly, or to agents. That said, most get pretty sore when things they love are deleted or changed or criticised. Many have spent years on a story, even a section of a story, and to be told something in which they have invested so much doesn’t work, hurts.

Issues in writing that need tackling vary from writer to writer. But I think the thing that all would benefit from is this: finding ways to consider edits as dispassionately as possible. Perhaps getting help from writers’ groups; or trusted friends. But not from people who’ll comfort via platitudes.

Generally speaking, the more an editor has done to a story, the more enthused by it they are. Lots of corrections doesn’t mean ‘it’s crap’, but ‘this is worth making perfect’.

The editor isn’t always right about how something needs to be changed but will almost always be right that the thing needs changing in some way.

So – what do writers most need help with? Understanding that the editorial process is a painful but beneficial one and not let it dishearten them.

Though perhaps that’s my answer because I’m fairly blunt when I give feedback. But I think/suspect/hope that the authors I work with can detect my enthusiasm.

  • What’s the most difficult thing about the editing process? Does it have more to do with the work itself or your relationship with the writer?

Part is summed up in the answer to the above. I would rather be clear than tactful, but aim for both. It is harder to polish the work of a really sensitive author, but at the same time I completely understand why edits hurt. On the whole though, I have a good relationship with authors I work with, and I think we work well together. Stares at Ian daring him say otherwise.

There is always a question of time management – both in doing the work and dealing with the expectations of the author. Editing involves a lot of the same thought process as writing, and shares many of the problems – word blindness, knowing there’s a niggling issue but not being able to put a finger on it immediately, reading something so often that you develop false memory about what is actually there (making it a nightmare to check continuity). I make a point of taking breaks between go throughs of a work. And take a vast number of notes. But it does mean it’s a slow process, and it’s only when I’ve returned work to an author who has never been edited before that they realise why it takes a while. (A few seem to think it should take not much longer to edit than to read. Generally, it’s about ten times that. Minimum!)

  • What is the goal of editing? Is it clarity, quality, simplicity? All of the above?

I think clarity could be stretched to cover all the above. Different types of work require different kinds of editing – it’ll vary dramatically between fiction and non-fiction, as well as between genres, audiences and so on. But fundamentally, writing is about conveying an idea to the reader. And the best writing, however complex, is always clear. A romance, a thesis, a journal article – all require clarity to be readable, and from that follows quality, enjoyment. You can’t control how readers will react to your idea, but good editing ensures they have the chance to understand it, and thus (perhaps) appreciate it.

  • Do you read the work once the writer has (or has not!) incorporated your suggestions?

Sometimes. I generally recommend authors use someone else for a proofread so that they come to it with fresh eyes. As a result I don’t tend to see it again at that point. However there are times when I arrange to discuss or check changes. I never mind if an author hasn’t accepted my suggestions – often they’re only there as a shorthand to what I think the problem is, and aren’t necessarily ‘the solution’. I would be a little surprised if something was sent back to me with no changes considered – but I’ve never experienced that.

I’d love to have the time to read all the finished products just for pleasure – but I don’t.

  • Do you find yourself holding back on comments if they’ll lead to large-scale changes in the work? (That is, do you try to limit your input to suggestions that play a minimally creative role in the final version?)

This depends on the discussion I’ve had with the author/publisher before I start. If someone makes clear to me that there is no chance for major re-writes, then I’ll offer editorial feedback that best supports the work as it is. If, however, someone isn’t working to a tight timeline, or has, perhaps, indicated an issue with a particular area, I’ll quite happily offer my suggestions. If, on starting a project, I realise that it’s not ready for a line-edit, I’ll go back to the author/publisher and ask how they want me to approach it. I’m not going to hold back suggestions I think might be useful – unless I know that there’s no way they can be implemented.

At the same time, I work this way only once I’m clear the author realises my work is always a collaboration with them – I’m not intending to overrule their ideas, and the majority of my edits are only ever suggestions. I’m more likely to be forward with ideas if I know the author is happy to reject them.

  • It seems that editing and writing are somewhat overlapping skills, given that (unless a writer only pens one draft), the writer needs to self-edit to an extent. Do you feel that what you’re doing with a writer, in some part, an element of the writing process too?

Only pens one draft? What madness is this?!

Yes – editing is part of the writing process. Anything which causes the author to come back to the work to change it, to improve it – editing comments, feedback from beta readers – it’s all part of the writing process. What I do is look at the work with enough distance to enable the author to write the thing they wanted to write, not let them stop with the rough first draft.

As a tangent from your question – is an editor a writer? Not necessarily. But they do need to be able to mimic one, and to mimic various styles, so as to be able to offer suggestions in the author’s writing style.

If you have an editing problem, and if you can find her, maybe you can hire: Olivia Wood’s Textmender Team.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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