Monday, July 6, 2009

Are Editors On a Power Trip?

Recently, a young man asked me, "If editors know something is wrong, why don't they just fix it? Are they on some sort of group power trip?"

I'll give you a minute to recover from the question.

My first thought was uncharitable. I assumed I was talking to a young man who had never actually written a book, or anything else he cared about. Luckily, my brain did engage before my mouth—a rare event, but it does happen. I carefully explained that most writers would not appreciate an editor who simply changed the author's manuscript/work of art/baby. I didn't want to scare the young man, so I refrained from references to specific emotional reactions or spilled blood.

After giving the question a bit more thought, I came up with a three other reasons for an editor to note issues, rather than fixing them.

First, the writing could be ambiguous. The editor may not know what the author is trying to say. If the author writes "The boy run through the woods," the editor knows this is incorrect because the noun is singular and the verb plural. Or is it? If the text is the narrative voice of an educated person, it is most likely wrong. But did the author want to say "The boys run through the woods," or "The boy runs through the woods"? If the quoted text is the narrative voice of an uneducated person or the dialogue of and uneducated person, it may not be wrong at all. The author may simply be showing the lack of education through incorrect use of language.

Second, by marking issues and letting the author make corrections, the editor is giving the author the opportunity to learn so the next manuscript may not need as much editing. This saves time for both the editor and the author.

Third, editors do not simply address simple issues like grammar and spelling. Good editors address pacing, characterization, exposition, and many other aspects of storytelling. These more complex issues require active participation from the writer.

Can you think of other reasons why editors provide mark-ups rather than corrected text?

Charlotte Phillips is the co-author of the Eva Baum Detective Series, 2009 President for The Final Twist Writers Group and contributor to multiple blogs. Learn more about Charlotte and her books at:

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  1. Your reasons are right on. It's not an editor's job to point out grammatical or spelling errors. A writer should know his/her craft well enough to spot that on their own.

  2. The editor's name won't be on the cover of the book.

    How's that?

  3. Wow you're definitely more diplomatic than I would have been!

  4. I think your observations are spot-on. The key word in the question is 'know' - if editors KNOW there is something wrong... Creative writing is subjective and open to interpretation, and nearly all of the time there's no real answer, no real right or wrong. Which is why an editor must communicate with the writer.

  5. You were right to talk to him about what an editor does. He clearly did not understand. An editor edits. If this young man was looking for someone to re-write his book, then he needs a different person or he needs to make that clear up front before he begins working with someone. Re-writing a book is a whole different ball of wax.

  6. My editor definitely wants to teach her writers while she's editing their books, so I think that's an important reason to make the author go through the suggested changes/corrections one by one. It's made me a better writer, and given me the ability to pass on what I've learned to other beginning writers.

  7. Critique groups help..........

  8. Thanks all for your comments. I do apologize for my absence - sort of. Mark and I took a few days off, our first in several years.

  9. The primary job of an editor isn't to fix errors in text. It's to help the author improve the book. Fixing errors in grammar and spelling can be part of that, but it's the lesser task.

    Also, not all editors can spell. The ability to find and midwife good books, and the ability to spell, are unrelated talents. The latter is essential for copyeditors and proofreaders, not editors.

    (I have to disagree with Jannette Johnson about spelling and grammar being the writer's responsibility. It's quite rare for someone to have a talent for language without also having passable grammar, but it doesn't guarantee they'll have infallible grammar. Spelling is (again) an unrelated ability. Some writers can; other writers can't. If the Editorial and Production departments do their job, you won't be able to tell the difference.)

    On mark-up:

    When you're looking at text on a sentence-by-sentence level, some errors are unquestionably errors, with a single possible correction. Others aren't that clear-cut. English has a lot of room for choice and opinion -- more so than many people imagine.

    When a proposed change affects larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters, inarguable errors grow scarce, and single inarguable fixes disappear altogether. At this level, editing is far more a collaboration than a fait accompli.

    So, why do we give authors marked-up rather than corrected text?

    1. So the authors can instantly see what's changed, instead of having to read the revised text against their original.

    2. So the authors can assess the queries and proposed changes, and decide how to handle them.

    3. So other people who work with the manuscript -- copyeditors, typesetters, proofreaders, etc. -- can see/reconstruct/diagnose the editorial process, and make appropriate decisions.


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