Green Gables Editing owner Isla, sat happily working gat computer on wooden dinning table with windows in background in a calm, light environment

What does an editor do?

​What do editors do?

It’s a fair question to ask, especially now we have things like acquisition editors, stream editors, life editors and even clothing editors…

And there are very big differences between the work a, say, newspaper editor does compared with a book’s copy editor.

I have spent more than 20 years as a sub editor*, fact checking copy in newspapers and magazines, cutting copy to fit the pages, ironing out poorly constructed sentences❡, and writing headlines and picture captions.

Now I do developmental editing and copy editing for books (primarily memoirs and narrative non-fiction), and those two tasks are wildly different, too!

So, what do book editors do?

Say you’ve finished your manuscript, and you’re happy with what you’ve done. But it will always need another pair of eyes before you launch it on the choppy publishing seas, seeking an agent or publisher. When you’ve worked on something for a while, you lose the ability to focus on its detail, or remain critical.

But you’ve heard of proofreaders, copyeditors, line editors and developmental editors. What do they all do?!

Developmental editor

The developmental editor looks at the big picture, the story arc. They are not interested in the grammar nitty gritty – they are looking at character development, the strength of the story, whether it progresses, if the themes it contains match the genre the author is aiming for, consistency of viewpoint…

The developmental editor will offer a manuscript critique (aka an appraisal or assessment), which consists of an editorial report.

This does what it says on the tin☥ and can be a report of from two to 20 pages long, looking at character, point of view, theme, plot, pace, narrative style, etc, in greater detail. It summarises how the manuscript can be improved, with suggestions of how to strengthen weaker parts.

A developmental edit can also include an in-file edit, with tracked changes in the margins, and comments drawing attention to the specific bits that need looking at.

Your developmental editor will be able to explain what work they intend to carry out, and how much it will cost.

If you have a story but are not confident in your writing, or how to plot your tale, get a developmental editor on board. They will tease your ideas out and give them a coherent shape.

Line editor

Your story is finished. You like how it is paced. Is your book ready to set sail on those stormy publishing seas? Nope.

We’re still not quite at the punctuation nitty gritty stage here, but a line editor does look at the sentence structure and writing style to make sure you’re using the best terms and language to convey your story in any one scene.

Are you using the correct point of view to impart a particular mood? Is the narrative distance drawing the reader in or leaving them untouched by your hero’s predicament? Are you repeating yourself? Does your punctuation match a paragraph’s tone?

If you’ve crafted the perfect story and just want to make sure it makes sense, hire a line editor. They’ll pick up the irrelevant paragraph, the scene which doesn’t add to the tension, and the splicing commas that slow the reader down.

​The line editor fine tunes your writing to make your story sing.

Copy editor

This is where we get down to the nuts and bolts of your book’s structure. The copy editor looks closely at grammar, spelling, syntax, punctuation, etc. They make sure everything makes sense, that paragraphs are formatted correctly, that there are no single quotes where there should be doubles, that style is consistent… But there is a sort of lurching into line editor territory here, and a copy editor will point out where something doesn’t make sense or is ambiguous.


That’s it. Story finished. Edits incorporated. Paragraphs flowing beautifully one to another. Ready to set sail now?
Not quite!
You need that final proofread (a term derived from ‘galley proofs’, the first test printed pages of a book). The proofreader checks for typos, formatting errors, makes sure page numbers haven’t dropped off… It’s basically a final quality check.
So, once your book is a perfectly formed wee kernel of work, have it proofread.

You won’t necessarily need – or be able to afford! – all these services. You decide what you are after and hire accordingly.
Just be clear what you want from your editor and make sure they explain what they’ll be providing – and charging for.

* I was once a deputy chief sub editor, which a friend outside the industry laughed at, calling me the deputy manager deputy manager. He had a point.

❡ Of which there have been mercifully few, thanks to my talented former colleagues and co-workers

☥ Hopefully it will iron out hideous clichés like that one 😁

Share the Post:

Previous Posts

By using this website, you agree to our use of cookies. Read more about cookies in our Privacy Policy