What Editors [Are Supposed to] Do

And what they’re not supposed to do.

As I travel across northern Arizona by helicopter, escorting two paying passengers among Arizona’s natural and semi-natural wonders, I find myself working remotely on a book project I started before I left and will finish when I return. I promised to keep the ball moving while away and that means reviewing edits of chapters I’ve completed.

It does not mean getting angry about editors overstepping their bounds and making manuscript changes they have no business making.

In an effort to educate writers and editors about the various editing jobs out there, I decided to put together this list of editor job types and duties. I’m hoping that my project editor and the miscellaneous editors she’s managing will read this and learn.

Rather than discuss all kinds of editors, I’ll concentrate on just two: technical editor and copy editor. These are the ones I work with directly most often — and the ones that give me the most headaches.

Technical Editor

A technical editor’s job is to ensure that a book’s content is accurate and instructions are easy to follow. Technical editors are widely used in the computer books I write, although for many of my titles, I’m responsible for my own technical accuracy. When a technical editor is put on a job, his duties include the following:

  • Reading the entire manuscript.
  • Reviewing all statements of fact to ensure they’re correct.
  • Trying all instructions to make sure they work.
  • Reviewing all screenshots to ensure that they’re correct.
  • Asking the author for clarification on something that’s not clear.
  • Informing the author of inaccuracies in text or screenshots.
  • Suggesting additional information that the author may have missed that’s within the scope of the book and may be useful to readers.

A technical editor should not — I repeat, not — do the following:

  • Make changes to information or instructions. That’s the author’s job on reviewing the technical edits. An exception would be to fix an obvious typo.
  • Add information or instructions. That’s the author’s job on reviewing the technical edits.
  • Ask the author questions about how the program works. The technical editor should know how the program works. If the author got something wrong, it’s the technical editor’s job to tell him — not to ask him if it’s right or wrong.

Under no circumstances should the technical editor make changes to the manuscript to introduce information or instructions that he has not verified. The author should never be required to perform technical editing chores on text introduced by the technical editor. It must be assumed by the author that the technical editor’s comments and suggestions are accurate and correct. Otherwise, why have a technical editor?

Copy Editor

A copy editor’s job is to review the manuscript and make sure the text is grammatically correct and conforms to the style guidelines established for the publication. The copy editor’s job is to improve the book, not change it. Specifically, his responsibilities include:

  • Reading the entire manuscript, or, for a revision, the portions that have changed since the previously published edition.
  • Identifying and fixing typos and spelling errors. If there are a lot of these, the author is simply not doing his job.
  • Identifying and fixing grammatical errors. One could argue that if there are a lot of these, the author probably shouldn’t be writing. I’ll agree with that. But every author is prone to making a few grammatical errors and should probably be forgiven. The copy editor needs to fix it.
  • Identifying and fixing style errors. I’m talking about usage like e-mail vs. email, Web site vs. website, and press the OK button vs. click OK. Style should be established in advance and adhered to by the author, so there shouldn’t be many of these problems, either.
  • Point out sentence constructions that aren’t clear. If a rewrite is necessary to clarify, the author should be allowed to do it. If it’s an easy fix like adding punctuation or a few words, the editor should be able to do it.

The copy editor should not do the following:

  • Change the author’s voice. It is the author’s book, not the copy editor’s. The only exception should be in the event that the author’s voice is so far off established standards that it needs changing. That’s a problem that needs to be resolved by the editor in charge of the project, though.
  • Change the author’s common usage to something the copy editor prefers. If the author likes to use a phase such as “If desired, you can…,” the copy editor should not change the phrase to “If you want to, you can….”
  • Create awkward sentence reconstructions to remove prepositions from the end of a sentence. While old-time grammar rules say you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, it’s commonly done in casual voice writing. An author should try to avoid this, but should not be required to make his sentences sound like those in a college text book to do so.

There are good copy editors, bad copy editors, and copy editors who should not be copy editors at all. I love having a good copy editor; I love feeling that a revised sentence remains in my own voice but is improved. I love to learn from that. A bad copy editor, on the other hand, won’t find the errors he’s supposed to find. It’s embarrassing when they’re found in the printed book. A copy editor who makes changes for the sake of changes — as if to justify his own importance to the project — should not be editing. He should be either writing his own books or doing something that has nothing to do with writing. These copy editors create bad feelings for experienced authors and make their work a real chore.

What Do You Think?

What are your thoughts on this? Are you a writer with some editor stories to share? Or an editor with some author stories to share? Please share your comments on this post. I’d like to get a discussion going about this. I think I’m on track with this assessment, but maybe you have other ideas?

In the meantime, I’ve got to make a phone call. One of my editors needs to be reminded of her responsibilities and their limitations.

3 thoughts on “What Editors [Are Supposed to] Do

  1. “If the author likes to use a phase such as €œIf desired, you can€¦,€ the copy editor should not change the phrase to €œIf you want to, you can€¦.€”

    Yes, he or she should, because as you yourself point out that “identifying and fixing grammatical errors” is part of his or her job. “If desired, you can…” actually means “if *you* are desired, you can…” (i.e., “if someone desires you, you can…”), which I am sure is not your intended meaning. ;)

    • Chephy: I don’t think the construction I used as an example is a grammatical error — or even easy to misunderstand. Most editors let it go, so it can’t be wrong. Are you an editor?

  2. This is a great and helpful post! As a prepress designer in a printing office, I’m occasionally called upon to copyedit some of our clients’ projects. This is a great starting point/agreement to offer our clients on what they can expect of us. Cheers!

What do you think?