What Does an Editor Really Do Anyway?

by Erin Brown

Illustration Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2008

Illustration Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2008

When I tell someone I’m an editor, the first thing that person usually asks is, “Oh, so you work with commas and spelling and all that?  Do you still get work now that there’s spell check?”  Once I’ve whacked the poor soul upside the head, I calmly explain the difference between editors and copyeditors.  And because I am doing more yoga and less instinctual head smacking these days, I will now (serenely) explain to you what an editor actually does.

The most important thing that an editor does for you, a writer, is to buy your book!  After cultivating relationships with agents, editors have a plethora of quality submissions, and most spend every waking moment reading—usually until their eyes cross and they begin muttering incoherently (nope, those aren’t crazy drug addicts on the corner of Park and 53rd—they’re editors who have been reading 1,000 pages a day/7 days a week for the past twenty years).  Editors spend lunch hours, nights, and even (jump over the next line if you are one of those authors who requests that the editor return your manuscript copy) their bathroom breaks reading manuscript submissions. 

The editor is the one who will fall in love with your book and convince their boss that you’re the next best thing since literary sliced-bread before spending more money on your book than the poor editor gets paid in a year (or two or five or nine—do I really need to go on?).  Trust me; starving editors are just as common as starving authors.

The next thing that an editor does is to edit your book (for content, not missing semicolons).  Now I can already see some of you shaking your heads—“But I heard that no one edits anymore!”  This is simply not true.  Sure, there are a few bigwigs that are too busy sunning themselves at their Hampton estates to line edit their acquisitions, but they are few and far between—and one day they will get what’s coming to them, oh yes, they will (insert evil laugh here).  Of course, I don’t advocate this non-editing kind of editing—I’m just reporting the facts, Jack.  A majority of editors will edit your manuscript, sending it back once or multiple times for you to revise (a bit of historical trivia: the first draft of The Scarlet Letter had Hester Prynne wearing a giant “E” for “Easy” before the editor offered his notes).

But editing is just the tip of the editorial iceberg.  Your editor is also your advocate in the publishing house.  While you’re at home spending your advance on (stereotypes are alive and well) Jimmy Choo shoes (ladies) and guns and ATVs (men), meetings are taking place between marketing, publicity, and art.  In these meetings, major decisions are made in regards to your precious baby, and your editor is the only person who is there to represent your point of view.  Although he or she must ultimately answer to the house, your editor wants you to be happy.  Therefore, communication is key (make sure that your editor knows that you prefer not—or that it’s your dream in life—to dress like a chicken to sell books at the local 4-H fair).  This is also why you should never, ever piss off your editor.  Your dark literary novel might suddenly end up with a pink chick lit cover with sci-fi graphics “by mistake.”  So remember, ask not what an editor can do for you, but how many boxes of chocolates and gold watches you can send to your editor (yes, I strongly condone bribery).

It’s also an editor’s job to sell your book “in-house”—standing outside offices with pom-poms (“2-4-6-8, yes, this book is frickin’ great!”) and finding creative ways to present the book with enthusiasm at “launch” meetings in front of two hundred gaping coworkers so that your novel will stand out in a crowd of hundreds of titles per season.  Your editor/new best friend will also stick with you to become a huge part of your literary support system.  They are the ones who give up their nights, weekends, and holidays to show up at all of your local signings and parties.  Your editor will be at these publicity events to hold your hand (and eat lovely canapés), pump up your ego ("Of course you’re more talented than Hemingway—everyone knows that!"), and in some cases, secretly recruit “extras” so that more people are in the crowd besides your Grandma Helga.  Not because editors have to do this, but because they want to—because editors love what they do. 

I’ve never met an editor who sees their job as something they do to earn a meager paycheck.  There aren’t many editors who are simply biding their time in publishing until they can break into the NFL or make it on Broadway.  These are men and women who eat, drink, and sleep publishing.  These are men and women who read the trades, constantly seek out new talent, live for making dreams come true, and who simply must read—whether it’s the latest bestseller or the back of a shampoo bottle.  An editor is someone who, for all their love of books, never has time to read for pleasure (when you ask an editor if they’ve read such-and-such a book, often they will stare at you with tears in their eyes, trying to remember the last time they had time to sit down a read a book...just for fun.). 

Overall, an editor is your boss, your advocate, your partner, your fountain of knowledge, and if you’re very lucky, your biggest supporter and friend.  That’s why finding an editor is much more than who will offer the biggest advance.  It’s about seeking out someone who will stick by you for years to come and who will be there to help you and your writing grow. . .and do it all with a smile.

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com

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