What exactly does an editor do?

That depends. There are several kinds of editor:

At its most basic, the work of a copy editor (that’s me) is to examine existing written language and then improve it. Among other things, this means correcting misspellings or imperfect grammar, making the punctuation consistent, eliminating or reworking repeated words and statements, and querying the author over any sentence that a reader may find confusing.

A line editor (also me) considers all of the above, plus how effective the phrasing is, the clarity and directness of the statements, whether the information is presented in the right order, and how well the book speaks to its intended readers. The finished edit may contain rewritten sentences or switched-around sections of text.

A content or substantive editor (possibly me, if it's a familiar subject) makes certain that the facts presented are correct and suggests additions or explanations when information seems to be missing or deletions when it would improve the overall flow.

I am not an acquisitions editor, who solicits and chooses items to be published, or a production editor, who oversees projects from manuscript through editing and design to finished book. Both of these positions are mainly in-house at publishing companies. Nor am I a technical editor, who has a background in science, mathematics, or engineering and who is also capable of editing formulas and technical diagrams.

If that's editing, then what's proofreading?

Proofreading can be one of two things. It sometimes means comparing a new document word by word against one or more other documents that were used to compile it. The more common definition is reading a document in search of spelling and formatting errors, without making any other changes.

How do you go about editing, say, a book manuscript?

When I receive a book from a publisher, the chapters have usually been combined into a single Microsoft Word file and given the proper page size and margins. If I get it from the author, these and other initial tasks are up to me. Otherwise, my first act is to compare the chapter titles to the table of contents to make sure they are identical. After that I read the entire manuscript slowly onscreen, looking for errors or inconsistencies in grammar, spelling, style, syntax (sentence structure), punctuation, complexity, chapter structure, and, in some cases, content. I keep Word’s track changes feature on as I work so that the author will be able to see exactly what I’ve suggested doing. If I have questions for the author, I add them in the margin. Sometimes the publisher has me apply styles to section headings, block quotations, and other features; this links them together and lets the publisher change their appearance with only a few mouse clicks.

When I have finished, I read the book again, at a more normal speed, to be sure I haven’t missed anything. If there are notes or a reference list, I make certain that the entries adhere to the samples in the client’s style manual. Then I send the marked-up document, a second “clean” copy with all changes accepted, and my style sheet for the author’s review.

Style manual? What’s that?

It’s a list of rules that the editor uses as guidelines. A business might have a house style of a page or two that includes the type size and section title format it wants in all its printed materials, as well as spellings to use for terms in its industry. (Think “health care” vs “healthcare.”) Agencies such as NASA and the IRS use the federal government style outlined in the GPO [Government Printing Office] Style Manual. Journalists use the Associated Press Stylebook, which goes into great detail about terms that should and should not be used. People in the social sciences might use the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, while those in disciplines such as history and literature tend to prefer the Modern Language Association’s MLA Handbook. Dozens of very different style guides are available for the hard sciences, medicine, and mathematics. But to editors of fiction and general nonfiction, the go-to guide is almost always the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Is a style manual the same thing as the style sheet you mentioned?

No. A style sheet is a document that editors create for every new project. It includes an alphabetical list of proper names and uncommon terms from the text. This part is for the editor’s own use: consulting it each time a name or odd word comes up means that spellings don't vary from one chapter to the next. The style sheet also includes a list of punctuation, grammar, and style rules the editor has followed consistently and examples of typical book and article citations. These help the author and the publisher to understand the suggested changes and why they were made.

And what about indexing? How do you do that?

At the indexing stage, the manuscript has been set in type and saved as a PDF and looks like a real book. Usually I begin by tracking down proper names using Search. (This doesn’t catch all of them, however: a book about John F. Kennedy might refer to Robert Kennedy on one page and “the attorney general” or “his brother” on another.) After a few days of this I have absorbed enough of the text to know the book’s main themes. At this point I start at the first page of the preface and work my way through a sentence at a time, adding topic and theme entries and tracking instances from page to page. After that, I think about what future readers might want to find and add cross-references such as “Federal Bureau of Investigation. See FBI” and “emeralds. See under mining.” Then I check the alphabetical order of the entries and subentries and send the draft to the author for review.

Do you ever edit using pen and paper?

That’s the way I first learned this skill, and for short material such as blog posts and business letters, it still makes sense. However, for longer projects, onscreen editing is the faster and more efficient option—and the one my clients prefer, given that I bill by the hour.

How long does editing take?

This is another "that depends," the factors being the shape the text is in at the start, the complexity of the material, and how many projects I'm working on at the time. To edit a simple business letter or blog post may take me just fifteen minutes. It's hard to estimate a time for websites because there may be dozens of pages on which all the links have to be checked and the headings compared. Full books may involve as short a time as three weeks and as long as six. For text that's already in reasonable shape, I'm generally able to get through six to eight 250-word pages in an hour.

What questions do you have about editing, indexing, writing, and research? Please drop me a line and you may see the response here!

Frequently Asked Questions

Katherine Harper, Ph.D.