What Do Editors Do?

As a student of writing, you have very likely done a fair amount of editing. So you know that editing entails careful consideration of writing with the aim to make it as professional as possible before publication. By "publication," I mean putting the writing before the public. "Publication" could involve reading the writing aloud to an audience, making print copies for distribution, or posting it online. The most conventional way of doing this is to print the writing and distribute the hard copy to prospective readers.

So, the editor is the one who makes sure the writing is ready for reading. A text before it is printed, or published, is called a manuscript. Editing a manuscript [ms. is the abbreviation for manuscript] involves some of the things you already know well: checking the spelling, punctuaton, and usage (of grammar). Publishers call this mechanical editing -- because it has to do with the "mechanics," the technicalities, of writing.

When the editor is reading the manuscript for structural and stylistic changes, she is doing substantive editing -- the kind of editing that can call for substantive changes. Usually "editor" refers to the person who does the substantive stuff. "Copy editor" or "proof reader" refers to the editor who does the mechanical stuff. Copy and proof are words for text that is being prepared for publication.

    Over the last 100-plus years, copy editors have developed a series of editing marks that all editors and publishers use. Click here for a complete list of the proof-reader's marks. The increasing use of the computer to edit manuscripts [mss. is the plural abbreviation for "manuscripts"] has made many of these proof-reading marks obsolete if the editior chooses to use "track changes" or some other software to mark edits.

Every publishing house edits in accordance with a particular style sheet or handbook. You are most likely familiar with the MLA (Modern Languages Association) style book that applies to most academic publications in the humanities. There'a also the APA (American Psychological Association) style for articles and books in the social sciences. There's also the Chicago Manual of Style, a style guide for non-specialized publications. The aim in following a particular style guide is to keep the publications consistent. You can read more about style below, in Copy Editing.

How Does One Become An Editor?

Traditionally, people who aspired to become book or magazine editors have had to start at the very bottom of the organization. Those at the very bottom are called editorial assistants. At the start, they may do nothing more than fetch mail and coffee. If and when they prove their worth, they may be promoted to assistant editor, a position that would allow them to read some manuscripts and write some opinions about the worthiness of a submission. An editorial assistant on a magazine may be given an article to write or rough out (a senior editor would finish it). The next promotions would be to associate editor, then editor, then senior editor, then editor-in-chief. Above all of these is the publisher, who owns the company. But usually the publisher doesn't make day-to-day decisions.

Here's a first-hand account of what it means to be an editorial assistant.

Are there other ways to become an editor? Yes, sometimes an accomplished writer will be hired as an editor on the basis of his or her success as a novelist or reviewer. Sometimes a person with lots of money will simply buy a publsihing company in order to make himself an editor. Or somebody will start her own publishing company. and be the editor-in-chief. Nowadays, this is pretty easy to do, as we'll see in later chapters.

To get a sense of the range of positions on an editorial staff, all you need do is puruse the masthead of a major magazine, like the Atlantic Monthly. The range of editors in a large magazine may run as follows, from top to bottom: Editor-in-Chief, Senior Editors, Deputy Editors, Managing Editors, Editors at Large, Staff Writers, Associate Editors, Copy Editors, Assistant Editors, Editorial Assistants, and then, at last, Editorial Interns. In a publishing house, there would be no staff writers or editors at large. Instead, there might be an acquisitions editor who oversees the publishing house's acquistion of new books (called "titles"). Here is an overview of positions in a publishing house, from bottom to top:

Editorial Intern: unpaid position, usually offered to an ambitious college student as part of his/her study. Some publishers hire "interns" at a minimum wage -- these are people eager to break into the publishing business and willing to take such a position in the hope of finding an opportunity. Interns do everything from fetch coffee to write memos.

Editorial assistant does everything from fetch coffee to write memos and maybe, on occasion, read manuscripts.

Reader: somebody who reads the "slush pile" (unsolicited) manuscripts sent to the publisher, sends out form rejections, and writes summaries of promising manuscripts to be sent to an editorial assistant or an assistant editor. A reader may be an editorial assistant or even a free-lancer.

Assistant editor: more responsibility, may propose books to the ditor; may work some with writers, maybe only as a copy editor; most likely will do a lot of paper work.

Copy editor: proof-reads manuscripts and makes corrections; may also fact check. Many publishers farm out this work to individual contractors. It's a way to keep down costs.

Editor: solicits manuscripts from writers, reads manuscripts, pitches promising manuscripts to the editorial board for possible approval, then works with writer to complete publication of book.

Managing Editor: directs traffic flow of manuscripts and may oversee production; also reads and selects manuscripts. This position is more usually found at magazines rather than book publishers, who might have an acquisitions editor instead.

Senior editor: more responsibility than an "editor"; might have his/her own imprint (branch of the publishing house).

Publisher: the person who owns the publishing house; she may or may not be involved in the day-to-day business.

Non-editorial positions include marketing, sales, public relations, and distribution.

The Rise of the Silent Reader and the Need for Editing

In the beginning, there were no editors. In fact, there was no universal understanding of grammer or spelling. What is more, there wasn't even a concept of sentences. Early texts (that is, before the age of printing -- any time before about 1500 A.D.) existed in an oral culture. This meant that writing was intended as a transcript of speech. That's why ALL writing was meant to be read aloud: in an oral culture, writing was always in the service of speech. There was no punctuation of any kind in writing -- the sentences simply ran on, from one to the other -- because the transcribers (scribes) assumed that the lector (the reader) would know how to interpret the text as speech. When you look at a text from anicent times, you see that there is neither separation among the sentences nor the words! Now, take a look at a page of text from the end of the pre-modern (oral) age.

Readers were accustomed to reading aloud from such texts -- they had been trained. Most readers for the public were clergy. Throughout the Middle Ages until well into the Rennaisance, Latin was the language of the learned and the religious. Everything from scientific lectures to sermons was written and delivered in Latin. This meant that very few people had access to official knowledge. This lack of access kept people dependent upon authorites to tell them what to think and how to think.

Texts in the vernacular (English for you and me) were few, and so reading for the majority of people was a rarefied activity and reserved for special occasions. It was almost always a communal act. Consequently, the concept of a one person reading alone was unusual. What is more, the notion of an individual doing anything for his/her own good, all by himself, would have seemed odd and even controversial. To give you some context: the pre-modern era in Europe and Britain focused on a set of beliefs very different from ours today. There were no concepts of individual enterprise or independent thinking or one person making more of himself and rising about his station. On the contrary, it was understood that each person was born to a certain place and occupation for life. If you were born the son of a farmer, you would become a farmer and then (eventually) die a farmer.

You gave your allegiance to your overlord (the guy who owned your house and land) and his lord (the guy who protected your community) and then to the king and his church. You couldn't afford to think for yourself. And, besides, you didn't have time to think for yourself. Life was short (you might live to be 40) and dangerous. Not only did no one have time for their private selves, but they had no room for such indulgence. Most people lived in cramped quarters. Even a fairly prosperous family would sleep in the same room. There was no concept of "privacy" as we know it. But reading silently was the first step towards the idea of being alone. And the idea of being alone was a first step towards thinking for oneself. Ultimately, this act -- of reading and thinking independently -- would lead to radical thoughts and even revolutions that would topple kings, divide religions, and found new nations.

By about 1000 AD, we see records of monks talking of this new technique of silent reading. They started reading silently in their scriptoriums -- their writing factories -- so that the numerous scribes would not distract one another with reading aloud as each wrote out his texts. By 1200 or so, reading silently had become an accepted practice among the non-clergy. Although some observers looked upon it with suspicion -- how could you tell if somebody was paying proper attention to the (almost always religious) text if you couldn't hear him mumbling the words? -- nobody suspected that reading silently would lead to profound developments. Foremost among these developments was that readers could take in the text on their own terms, reading more slowly or more quickly to absorb the meaning. Also, the reader, now alone with his thoughts (yes, it was almost always a "he"), could not be bullied or bossed by a priest or an instructor. Since most reading was religious, authorities could hardly complain about somebody, say, reading the Bible silently to himself. But such practice went a long way towards helping many people decide that they didn't need the Church or a priest to tell them what the word of God meant -- they could see for themselves what it might mean.

The growth of reading and reading silently, in tandem with the proliferation of texts, and, finally, more texts in the vernacular, gave rise to editing. If there was no longer an expert in charge of reading a text to an assembled group, then each reader needed some guidance in reading when alone. Editing provided that guidance: where to begin and end each sentence, and how to parse the correct emphasis and inflection.

A Brief History of Punctuation & Usage

When printing took book duplication out of the hands of scribes and into the hands of technicians (the printers), it was immediately clear that somebody had to make sense of the writing. So, the printers themselves started making decisions about what was and wasn't correct or useful in grammar, spelling and punctuation. There were no authorities or experts to call upon. There weren't even any dictionaries. Therefore, the printers, of necessity, became editors and arbiters of language usage.

Up until this time, most marks of puncutation had been elocutionary, meant to guide one in reading the text aloud. Mostly this had to do with where the speaker should pause in his/her delivery. Punctuation had no connection to meaning. Early (pre-1500 AD) punctuation was called "pointing" because it was all about "points" ("puntus" in Latin). These points in the text were aids to readers to control their breathing, especially when singing the words in church. There were many kinds of points -- elevatus, flexus, interrogativus, suspensiva -- but they weren't used consistently and they were only vaguely related to the puncutation we know today. Still, they were a start.

The goal of the printers (who were, of necessity, the first publishers) was to arrive at a universal standard so that their books could be read and understood widely. Standardization of English started in the 1500s and was mostly complete by 1800. It took that long. Many, if not most, of the puncutation and spelling that we consider modern was regularized in the eighteenth century (1700s): the question mark, the quotation mark, and the dash, to name a few. One curious instance of standardization involved the "long s." Curious because it looked like an "f" and it confused people for the longest time and yet printers kept using it. The long "s" doesn't disappear completely until the second decade of the 1800s. Standardization included all kinds of issues like this. Through most of the 1800s, for example, we see varying Uses of Capital letters within Sentences. This practice disappeared by 1900.

Wide usage of the vernacular in printing encouraged wide discussion and debate about how language should look on the page. In the first century and a half after Gutenburg, approx. 1500-1650, the number of English words doubled. At about the same time, learned men starting publishing English dictionaries, starting with A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Wordes by Robert Cawdrey, a schoolmaster, in 1604, offering lists of words to aid in spelling -- another attempt at standardizing usage.

The three most important early developments in punctuation were 1) a space between every pair of words, 2) the indentation of the first line of a new paragraph and 3) the invention of the capital letter (also called the uppercase) at the beginning of a sentence and proper name or title. The usage of punctuation, like the usage of speech, came to separate the supposed more refined classes from the less refined. The word ain't, for instance, was excluded from many dictionaries, despite its popularity, because it was considered vulgar. Critics of "slang" contended that inclusion of such words would drag down the English language. You won't find ain't in Webster's first dictionary, for example, even though it was in use for at least one hundreds years by that time (1844).

Remember: God did not invent punctuation, spelling, or grammar. These technicalities are simply a means by which writers, editors, and publishers create a standard so that everybody is communicating in the same way. The aim is to avoid confusion. But there has always been plenty of confusion on the issues of punctuation, spelling, and grammar because, at bottom, the rules are arbitrary. That's right. There is no One Way and there has never been just One Way to spell, punctuate or use English or any other language.

The battles waged over the issues of spelling, punctuation, and grammar have been analogous to religious wars between the Catholics and the Protestants. Ironically, both sides believed in a Christian God but were willing to kill each other over the question of how to worship that god. That said, we must grant that there is a standard for English usage, spelling, and punctuation. Even if we choose to work against that standard (and we must ask ourselves, why would we do that?), we have to know the standard nonetheless. Editors maintain the standard. There may be some variation from publishing house to publishing house, but those variations are minor: they all uphold the standard. The alternative is the chaos we saw in the early modern age.

The Process of Editing


FINAL SUBMISSION: After the publisher accepts the book for publication and the writer agrees to the terms of the publishing contract, the writer then submits the final copy of her ms. (manuscript). If the publishing house is a large one, then there will be a particular editor assigned to this book. If the publishing house is a small one, then it will have only one or two editors in charge of all manuscripts.

The editor may have already suggested changes and have seen the ms. in several drafts before the final copy is handed over. Nowadays, however, it is uncommon for editors to do such vetting. In most cases, if the manuscript is not in publishable shape at the outset, the publishing house will not expend its time and energy trying to improve it. In other words, nowadays there is minimal substantive editing of accepted manuscripts.


PROOF PRINTING: The editor has the manuscript "set" in type. In the old days, this meant that a compositer selected the type by hand -- letter by letter -- then set it into a wooden rack, page by page. Nowadays, it means formatting the manuscript in a word-processing program like In-Design. This formatting is not final and the shape of the book (what exactly appears on each page) may not be fixed yet. The print-out may be loose leaves, not a bound book.

Several copies of the manuscript are printed as "proofs." The original manuscript is now called "dead copy" or "dead manuscript" because it is no longer of use. One copy of the proofs is sent to the author for "proof-reading." Another is sent to the publisher's copy editor. The editor herself will examine a copy too. The more eyes, the better at this point.


COPY EDITING: The copy editor does mechanical editing. Here is the copy editor's proof-reading process as described by the Chicago Manual of Style:

The most effective, the ideal, way to catch "typos" ... is for two people to read together, as printers' proofreaders used to do. One follows the proofs while the other, the copyholder, reads aloud from the manuscroipt. The copyholder should speak clearly and at a steady pace. In addition to reading the text the copyholder signals the beginning of paragraphs (par, pronounced pair), all punctuation marks (names are usually abbreviated ...), italics in the text, capitals or lowercase ....

Copy editors have numerous techniques and strategies like this for doing their job. Many, if not most, believe it's best to copy-edit hard copy, not text on a screen. Reading sentences aloud backwards is another strategy for catching errors.

Copy editing is a matter of a) correcting errors in speling and punctuation, b) finding ommissions (letters, words), c) correcting miswordings for clarity/sense, and d) even finding errors in continuity (e.g., the author claims to have 2 aunts in one chapter, then claims 3 aunts in another chapter).

Traditionally, proof-reading marks appeared in two places: in each corrected line and then the same corrections in the margin next to the corrected line. This made it easy for the typesetter to read through the corrections and make changes. Nowadays, proof-reading marks are similarly found in these two places, except they are made with such utilities as "track changes." Since these corrections are made on the computer, some traditional proof-readeing marks cannot be, or don't have to be, replicated.


CORRECTED PROOFS: Once corrected, a second set of proofs is printed. These are usually called galleys, referring to the old process of type-setting each page in a wooden frame, called a "galley." Bound galleys look pretty much like the finished book, except they will say somewhere on the cover, "uncorrected proof -- not for sale." Bound galleys are sent out as advanced copies -- also known as ARCs, "advanced reading copies" -- to book reviewers and others who might help promote the book (You may find bound galleys or ARCs for sale online, dumped by indifferent reviewers or other media folk who get too many free galleys from too many publishers.) Bound galleys, in other words, may be used as promotional items and will have, on the cover, all the pertinent publishing information:

This second set of proofs is compared to the first set for final corrections. The difference between the first set and second is that the second is the final layout, also called "page proofs," meaning that the pages of the proof are exactly as the final, published page will look. At this point, the first set of proofs used to be called "foul galleys" or "foul proofs." The editorial team-- editor, copy editor, proof readers, and author -- review the corrected proofs.


REPRODUCTION PROOFS: these are the final proofs and examined only by the editors. The author is done by this point. Traditionally, very few corrections could be made on the reproduction proofs because these were printed on specially coated paper and intended to be photographed for plate-making. We will talk about making photographic plates when we look at printing.

Nowadays, since everything is done on computer, it is easier to make corrections right up to the point of printing. Still, as you'll learn when you do production, one change on one page in your layhout can necessitate many layout changes elsewhere in the manuscript. Which is to say that editors do NOT want to place themselves in the position of having to make last-minute changes, which could delay getting the camera-ready copy to the printer. Unlike the publisher, the printer has strict deadlines because the printer works for many publishers. Submitting your job late to the printer might mean weeks of delay in getting your final product to the public.

The Author's Obligations

Now more than ever, authors are expected to act as their own editors. This means that writers must not only offer up a clean, error-free manuscript but also, as mentioned earlier, a mansucript that needs little substantive editing for continuity and development in plot and theme. Further, the author must act as part of the editorial team in helping to copy-edit the book. Whether this is good or bad remains debatible. But it is certainly different from the way editing/publishing used to be. The reason for the change (i.e., the increased responsibilities placed on the author) have to do with cutbacks in the publishing houses themselves. Editors simply don't have the time to do the kind of work they used to do. You can read about some of these changes in Auletta's "The Impossible Business," in chapter three.

As result of the constraints felt in the publishing houses, writers' agents have had to take up the slack. Most writers who publish in the big houses have agents and these agents, in order to get the best placements for their authors' books, have to act as editors, often vetting manuscripts and asking for several revisions before they will submit these manuscripts to the publishers.

One of the writer's editorial responsibilities, after landing a publishing contract, is to get "blurbs" from other writers who have agreed to read the ARC and say something nice about the book. Blurbs are meant to help sell the book and usually appear on the book's back cover. Often, these blurbs sound gratuitous: "It's a great read. Buy this book!" There's an art to writing blurbs and some who agree to blurb don't take it seriously. Asking for blurbs can be complicated. Famous writers are beseiged by requests for blurbs and often have to decline to blurb. An author who has few connections to big names might struggle to find enough writers to blurb the book. Some writers who agree to blurb a book might return a luke-warm blurb because clearly they didn't like the book.

Another of the writer's duties is to write a paragraph of acknowledgments to thank all of those who helped him/her finish or improve the book: friends who read it, teachers who inspired it, etc. This is a courtesy that shows the writer's humility and gratitude and does due diligence to give credit where credit is due.

Questions for the Reading Below (designed to help you with the reading quiz):

1) How is an editor different from a publisher?

2) What is the easiest way to become an editor?

3) In the early days of literacy, how did readers experience reading?

4) How and why did punctuation come about?

5) What is the difference between a “novel” and “book”?

6) What is the main point of the article, “When is a Paragraph?”


1) When is a paragraph?
Who invented the paragraph? Are there rules for making a paragraph a paragraph?

2) Life As An Editorial Assistant
Don't let this unhappy description discourage you!

3) A Brief History of Punctuation
Who invented punctuation? It's not who you think.

4) Writing acknowledgments
A brief history of the book acknowledgment.

5) Getting blurbs
Why are blurbs important? Why are some writers refusing to do them any more?

6) Jobs in Publishing: A Reality Check
Is this take on publishing too negative?

7) What to Call the Things You Read
Know your terms!

8) Slush Pile (cartoon about "readers" & editorial assistants
A funny take on how the "slush pile" works.

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