Editors Make a Difference: Responding to Editing in the News

In February 2011, both Canada’s Globe and Mail and the United Kingdom’s Guardian published extensive articles on what book editors do. Fortunately, the Guardian delved into how good editing can benefit a writer, his or her book, and the readers; one Globe article tried to distinguish among types of editing—something that is both appreciated and unusual. The Globe even mentioned the phrase “substantive editing”—a rare reference to my specialty.

In the Guardian,The lost art of editing” by Alex Clark (February 11, 2011) raised questions of what editors (and publishers) do, what they did, and what they should do—and told tales of successes and failures, praise and criticism. In the Globe, John Barber wrote “Where have all the book editors gone?” (February 4, 2011) about changes in Canadian publishing. Russell Smith’s “What real editors really do (and why writers should avoid freelancers)” followed on February 9, 2011. Unfortunately, all three articles had a narrow perspective (literary fiction) and Smith did not fully fact-check his work.

I’m going to respond to a few things, plus comment about writers considering hiring an editor.

  1. Russell Smith asserts “Remember too that there is no professional certification for freelance editors: You become one by losing a job at a magazine and then posting an ad on the Internet.”
  2. Publishing = literary fiction publishing?
  3. Editors make a difference.

#1 Wrong. I am a freelance editor and a certified structural and stylistic editor, certified by the Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC). This is a certification of excellence, not competence. Structural and stylistic editing is often called substantive editing, although the term developmental editing is often used as well. (There are shades of meaning that I won’t get into here, but EAC provides a useful description of editorial skills.) EAC certification relates to specific types of editing: structural editing, stylistic editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Someone who is certified as a CPE (Certified Professional Editor) is certified in all the above types. (There is no certification for acquisitions editing, which involves acquiring or signing contracts for projects on behalf of a publishing company.) The EAC certification process is open to editors who work on staff and those who work freelance. However, certification is recommended only for editors who have many years of hands-on experience, it involves examinations, and they are both time-consuming and expensive; in other words, these certificates are not flimsy pieces of paper doled out to those who merely take a course or two. The certification process is fairly new, so there are a good number of editors who have experience and expertise yet have not undergone the certification process, but you can bet someone who is certified is good at what he or she does.

As for how someone becomes a freelance editor, maybe losing a job at a magazine and posting an advertisement was the route for some freelance editors—as with some freelance writers—but not for me and for many other freelance editors. My experience is an example: in 1992, I was an inhouse editor wanting more variety in projects and more challenges than my inhouse job could offer, so I quit the staff job. And for the growing numbers of recently inhouse editors who have lost their jobs due only to changes in the publishing industry (all which Clark, Barber, and Smith mention), freelancing is a way that they can continue to apply their considerable experience and talents to the complex business of publishing.

(Among the responses to the Smith column, the full version of the letter to the Globe’s editor from the Editors’ Association of Canada is especially noteworthy. )

#2 Publishing includes publishing of literary fiction, certainly, but literary fiction is but one small area. Editors, both freelance and on-staff, work on a huge variety of publications in traditional paper and electronic formats: literary fiction, literary non-fiction, biography, genre fiction, self-help books, cookbooks, trade magazines, professional magazines, newspapers, newsletters, web sites, advertising, blogs, textbooks, manuals, brochures, proposals, graphic novels, posters, and more. Smith later wrote to an EAC colleague of mine that he was writing of the niche he knows: literary fiction. If that’s his niche, fair enough, but he generalized without acknowledging the limited scope. Smith’s warnings come out of his limited experience and do not necessarily apply beyond.

#3 In the Guardian and the Globe both, Clark, Barber, and Smith make it absolutely clear that good editing matters to writers and readers. I couldn’t agree more. Clark quotes Blake Morrison: “When a book appears, the author must take the credit. But if editing disappears, as it seems to be doing, there’ll be no books worth taking the credit for.” This is true for literary fiction and all the other types of publications mentioned above. Editing matters. At best, the editor

For a writer and editor paired, the above can mean the editor noting a theme that could be developed more, suggesting cuts to tighten the book’s opening, proposing an additional chapter to bridge a gap between what the readers know and need to know, asking if a minor character helps or hinders the writer, querying an author for references, noting an unexplained gap in the chronology of events, raising a question of bias by omission or commission, noting a poem’s imagery and querying when it doesn’t seem to work, editing line by line for style, editing for the target audience’s reading level, and choosing photos or commissioning art TO correcting for verb-noun agreement on page 19, correcting a typo on page 167, and seeing that the chapter headings all appear in the same type face.

For the substantive and structural editor looking at a manuscript early on, the editor’s work might involve saying to the writer:

In sum, editing matters. Experience matters. Writing, editing, and taking something to publication (or not) is a complex business. For writers who are considering hiring a freelance editor, this is a big step. Take it seriously. Do your homework. (The next blog entry gives advice.)

© Laura Edlund 2010