doomsday_vaultLet’s face it–you are your own worst editor.  You can carefully craft the most amazing novel your brain can produce.  You can spend months or years on it, polishing every page, every sentence, every word.  And then another person will read it and say, “Did you notice that in chapter four you start almost every paragraph with ‘he’ ”?

After working so long with a story, even the best author loses sight of some of the details.  This is where an editor steps in.

Before we go any further, I need to define the term.  Here, an editor is a professional hired by a book publisher to walk a book through the publishing process.  I’m also going to focus on what an editor does for the writer.  An editor’s job actually covers quite a lot more than the tiny portion I list below.  We’ll start our particular list with the moment the author turns in a completed manuscript.

Once the writer hands a complete novel manuscript to the editor, she works it over with a red pen.  She’ll pick out problems with the story, character, or anything else.  For example, Anne Sowards, who edited The Doomsday Vault, made the following comments in her editorial letter to me:

— Maybe we could speed up this section where Gavin struggles to survive in London before he’s kidnapped.  Right now it’s feeling a little slow.

Should Alice be a little more surprised / shocked when she discovers Gavin? It seems like she should wonder more about why he was kidnapped and trapped in her aunt’s home.  This is an unusual situation, to say the least, and she seems to take it a little too much in stride.

The phrase “as if the meat would come off her skeleton” is kind of an unappealing image. Maybe rephrase?

Some editors are pickier than others.  An author of my acquaintance once got an editorial letter consisting of 30 single-spaced pages.  On the other hand, I once got an editorial letter consisting of three words: It was fine. These are extremely unusual, though!  My usual editorial letters run two to three pages.

Editors actually don’t copyedit.  That’s done on another pass-through by someone else.

Your editor will (or should) push your book to the publisher and to the marketing department, doing her best to ensure your book gets a cool cover, a decent blurb, good placement in the catalogs, and so on.  Sometimes they’re successful and sometimes not.  Office politics and the opinions of higher-ups all have an impact here.

If something funky is going on with your book, your editor also plays liaison between you and the publisher.  For example, if you discover that your book is being pirated on a web site somewhere, you’d want to alert your editor immediately, and your editor will get hold of the publisher’s legal department.

Your editor will push your book to booksellers and distributors at marketing meetings, conventions, and elsewhere.  However, an editor’s time is limited, and some books get more face time than others.  That’s just the way it is.

Editors are also part of the money chain.  When a check is late, the writer calls the agent to complain.  The agent calls the editor.  The editor calls accounting.  Accounting pretends to know nothing about the problem, and the editor ends up tracking down the money with the agent breathing down her neck.  One of my editors spent several hours tracking down an accountant who had lost all the paperwork associated with a large check overdue to me.  The editor, bless her, then took up most of an afternoon personally walking a new set of paperwork through the entire accounting department so I could get paid.

Your editor will discuss future projects with you.  She wants to know what else you have up your creative sleeve, and the earlier, the better.  If you have a project she’s pretty sure isn’t marketable, she’d rather tell you up front so you don’t waste time on it.  On the other hand, if you have something really cool, she’d like to know so she can anticipate it.

What an Editor Does Not Do
Certain jobs don’t fall under an editor’s bailiwick.  For all that she’s friendly and loves your book, she still works for the publisher, and when it comes to business, her first priority is for the publisher.  She definitely wants your book to succeed for a number of reasons, but ultimately the editor is the publisher’s face.  This is why you want an agent who can talk business–you won’t have to mix art and money, and can keep things friendly with your editor.

Your editor doesn’t solve problems that show up in your writing; she only points them out.  Some editors may offer suggestions if the author gets really stuck, but ultimately editors edit while authors auth.  Most authors would be insulted or upset if the editor made unauthorized changes anyway.

And did you see the movie Julie and Julia?  I burst out laughing at the scene in the editor’s office, the one in which the publisher hands Julia Child’s manuscript to an unsuspecting editor.  The editor’s desk was perfectly clean and tidy.  No paper in sight.  What a fiction!  Even in the electronic age, no editor I’ve met manages to keep a perfectly tidy office.

Steven Harper usually lives at and