Wearing My Editor Hat

As some of you know, I am a free-lance editor. I’ve been doing a big editing job for the Sarasota County Department of Health, an affiliate of the Florida Department of Health, so I have my “editor’s hat” on. For that reason I thought this would be a good time to blog about editing—what editors do and what they do not do.


All authors need their work edited. It doesn’t matter how well the author knows grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc., typos and misspellings will creep in. And when an author goes over his or her own work, it’s easy to miss such things as a missing period or quotation mark, a misspelled word not caught by the spell checker because the error creates a different but correctly spelled word, like defective instead of detective. When the author reviews her own work, because she’s so familiar with it, her eyes can easily glide over such errors without noticing them. That has happened to me many times. I recall having edited a story several times without noticing that I had a character wearing a shirt of course material. I certainly know the difference between course and coarse, but no matter how many times I’d reviewed that page, it took someone else reading it to point out the error to me.

Here’s what an editor does not do. A good editor will never impose his or her style on the writing he’s editing. I’ve had authors express concern that an editor will change the style of their writing. That is not an editor’s job, and a good editor will not do that. Nor will an editor rewrite a manuscript for the author. If the author feels inadequate to write the story he wants to tell and wants someone to rewrite and rework his attempt, he needs to hire a ghost writer or perhaps find a collaborator. An editor works on a manuscript that has been completed.

An editor may do no more than check the spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. Or an editor may do content editing as well, pointing out where characterization is not consistent, where there are plot holes or the plot is not believable, where the setting isn’t clear or is insufficiently developed, or where perhaps more or clearer character description is needed. In such cases, what the editor generally does isn’t fix the problem herself but point it out to the author so that the author can fix it himself. The editor may suggest possible fixes, but the author may prefer another way of correcting the problem, more in line with the author’s vision of the book.

When I’m editing, I indicate any place where the grammar or punctuation is incorrect, but since I use Word’s tracking function, the author always has the choice of accepting or rejecting the correction. This is important, because an author who knows the rules will break them deliberately on occasion. An editor is not a mind reader. I can’t know, though I may guess, when an author has broken a rule deliberately. So even if I think that may be the case, I make the correction and leave it to the author to reject the change if that is his preference.

For example, the rule for punctuating a compound sentence—one consisting of two independent clauses—is that those clauses are to be separated by a semicolon or by a comma preceding a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor). Semicolons should be used sparingly. It’s often better to separate the compound sentence into two simple sentences. A common error is to use the conjunction but omit the comma that should precede it. A comma indicates a pause, allowing the reader to take a breath when reading aloud or just to slow down a bit when reading silently. But the author may not want the reader to pause. The sentence may be part of a tense, fast-moving action scene in which the author wants the reader to get a sense of breathlessness. So the author leaves out the comma in order to produce that effect. That author would, of course, reject the correction.

Bad grammar can be used in dialog to show either that a character is poorly educated or simply has careless speech habits. I don’t correct grammar in dialog where it is obviously used intentionally. But consider this line of dialog, spoken by a backwoodsman. “I figger that bear ain’t gonna show it’s ugly face around here no more.” Clearly, figger and gonna are intentional misspellings to show the speakers manner of speaking. The use of ain’t and the double negative likewise indicate the man’s characteristic speech. The editor would not correct those errors. However, the spelling of its as it’s has to be the author’s mistake, since he’s recording the man’s spoken words, and there is no difference in the pronunciation of the two words. We can hope that it is merely a careless typo on the author’s part, since every writer should know the difference between the possessive its and the contraction it’s. In that type of sentence it’s easy to overlook the misspelling while concentrating on the dialect.

Occasions also arise when an author wants to convey that a speaker is foreign and is speaking heavily accented English. This is tricky, because if overdone it can get tiresome and annoy the reader. The fine line between enough and too much is easily crossed. An editor in a publishing house might insist that the author tone down the use of misspellings and tortured syntax, but as a freelance editor, I would put in a comment that I believe the foreign accent is distracting to the reader and needs to be toned down. I might well suggest changes, but it would be the author’s decision as to whether or not to make them.

In a similar vein, if the author wants the reader to be aware that although she is reading the dialog in English, the speakers are not speaking English, the author may sprinkle words and phrases from the language being spoken into the dialog. This, too, must be handled with care. It is awkward to use a word in another language and then immediately translate it into English. The author may find ways of using a foreign word in a context that makes its meaning obvious. Here again, as an editor I would state whether in my opinion it would be wise to restrict the use of foreign words. On some occasions my advice might be to use them more often as reminders to the reader that the conversation is not in English.

In content editing the editor may come across a narrative section that stops the action and has little or no bearing on the plot. Again, as a freelance editor, I would not take it upon myself to remove such a section, but would put in a comment strongly recommending its removal and giving my reasons.

So in conclusion, a good editor will recommend corrections, removals and additions, and sometimes the rearranging of words, sentences, or whole sections, but will leave it up to the author to accept or reject all changes. It is the author’s responsibility to consider carefully the editor’s suggestions and decide which to follow and which to ignore. If you have an editor whom you trust, that should not be difficult.

To view my editing business web site, go to www.arucadienterprises.com

About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
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