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.

Aliya Whiteley's new book

An Interview with Aliya Whiteley, Author of ‘The Beauty’

Unsung Stories, a new imprint headed by the up-and-coming George Sandison, is pub­lish­ing not only the quint­es­sen­tial Déjà Vu but also a novella by Aliya Whiteley called The Beauty. Both are due to land around the end of this month, and to cel­eb­rate The Beauty, I asked Aliya for an interview.

Before we begin, let me say that The Beauty is a great novella. It has sharp char­ac­ter­isa­tion, story, pace and has all the genre-bending prop­er­ties of a lit­er­ary work. It’s the kind of book that should win prizes.

Aliya Whiteley
Aliya Whiteley
  • Can you tell us a little about where the idea for the book came from?

I think the novella star­ted with Nathan’s voice. I wrote the open­ing sec­tion without any plan­ning or fore­thought, and within a day the entire thing had formed in my head, which is very unusual for me. Usually it evolves as I write.

  • How hard was it to write the book?

It was an abso­lute gift to write. It really flowed. Usually I try to con­trol my more lyr­ical tend­en­cies, and I’d just fin­ished writ­ing a very demand­ing novel where the lead char­ac­ter is sup­pressed in many ways. So to just let go and put that explo­sion of lan­guage on the page was won­der­ful. And I loved Nathan, and his involve­ment with the earth, the sea­sons. It’s the way he sees lan­guage as a part of that nat­ural reality.

  • The book is a novella, which is a form of fic­tion even rarer than the novel! Did you set out to write a novella? Were you temp­ted to extend it some­how, to make it more marketable?

I knew it needed to be short. I was expect­ing about 30,000 words. And then I thought, well maybe I could stretch it out to make it com­mer­cial, or I could write what hap­pens after what I saw as the end point. But the moment I star­ted to try I knew it wouldn’t work; I had said everything I wanted to say. I would love to be a com­mer­cial writer, but I think my nat­ural tend­en­cies are on the sub­vers­ive side, and so I’ve decided to go with that, and to be happy with the books I write.

  • There’s a lot of mater­ial in the story that might be described as ‘hor­rific’ in the lit­er­ary clas­si­fic­a­tion sense. And yet there’s also a strong sense of sci­ence fic­tion. Do you see the book as fall­ing into a par­tic­u­lar genre?

As soon as I worked out it was post-apocalyptic I was so excited, because I’ve always wanted to write some­thing in that cat­egory. Is that tra­di­tion­ally sci­ence fic­tion? The Beauty def­in­itely has hor­rific moments, and fant­ast­ical ele­ments. Let’s call post-apocalyptic a genre, and settle for that.

  • I got the sense that The Beauty was stand­ing on the shoulders of some giants of the literature–in a good way! Are there any par­tic­u­lar clas­sic stor­ies that you had in mind when you were writ­ing it? I was reminded of Riddley Walker and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Riddley Walker and Body Snatchers, abso­lutely. Octavian Butler’s tri­logy, Lilith’s Brood, was a really big inspir­a­tion. Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague. Having loved that kind of fic­tion for years, it all went in and stirred around in the ima­gin­a­tion, so The Beauty def­in­itely builds on it all. I think it goes off in unex­pec­ted dir­ec­tions as a reac­tion to those great books, though, so maybe you get more out of it as a reader if you enjoy the genre to start with.

  • The idea of ‘story’ is very import­ant in the novel. What to you think about the role of story in cre­at­ing mean­ings, and propagat­ing ideas?

The oral tra­di­tion of story telling, and the way stor­ies change and grow, is a huge part of the book. The power of stor­ies to shape real­ity, too. I think it’s a theme that stretches back to my first novella, Mean Mode Median, for me. But since writers are all about shap­ing real­ity with story I don’t think it’s too sur­pris­ing! I like how there’s a very dark side to those com­fort­ing stor­ies Nathan tells in The Beauty. They have a strength in them that he doesn’t really under­stand. Our world is shaped by stor­ies: as books, as adverts, as the anec­dotes we tell, but maybe we’ve become less adept at reach­ing to the mean­ing of these stor­ies. We let them all wash over us in slick, shiny forms and don’t look at what’s underneath.

  • Another idea import­ant to the novel is reversal; from dead to alive, male to female, ugli­ness to beauty. Do you think that, in some sense, these oppos­ites are closer than they might oth­er­wise appear?

It’s cer­tainly all about those oppos­ites, and how the dis­tance between them depends entirely on where you’re stand­ing. Perspective is everything, isn’t it? In life, in story, in mean­ing. And in whether you’re a vic­tim or a hero, a saviour or a des­troyer. I like the fact that you have to choose the place from which you view the terrible/beautiful events as a reader in The Beauty. I’m really proud of that aspect.

If I wrote The Beauty, I’d be proud of the whole thing. You can pre-order a copy from the Unsung Stories store.

Aliya Whiteley's new book
Aliya Whiteley’s new book

This Writing Life