What Is an Editor?

Instead of pre-publication filtering (editors) we now have post-publication filtering (some done by machines, some by humans). The High Priests who decided what could be published in the first place are now reduced to checking the spelling and grammar.

For someone with a finely nuanced understanding of science journalism and writing, Bora Z of A Blog Around the Clock demonstrates a remarkably narrow view of what an editor does. True, it may not all be his fault. The notion that editors are little more than gatekeepers with red and blue pencils is widespread.

The Image
The Image
Photo by Brenda Anderson

Of course, this point of view is most prevalent among people who have never worked with an editor. To find it in someone who has worked with academic editors and editors of the anthology he stewards is a bit surprising. I don’t know whether he’s never worked with a good editor (doubtful but sadly possible), hasn’t paid enough attention to the details of that interaction, or is glossing over the knowledge to make a point. Or, knowing Bora, maybe he’s just being provocative and waiting for someone to call him on it.

I’m calling him on it now, not just because I am an editor, but because I’ve had the privilege to work with some good ones.

The Basics

So, what does an editor do? Well, gatekeeping has certainly been part of the historical function of editors. There’s a lot of crap out there, enough that it’s been worth paying people to keep us from touching it by accident. Bora is right, however, that this is an activity that can be largely crowdsourced, at least to the point where it is unlikely to continue to be a paying job for all but a very few people. Enough of us love to point and say, “Ooh, look what I found,” to keep people who want just the good stuff occupied for years.

It is also true that editors attend to spelling and grammar. This tends to be the purview of a special kind of editor, though–a copyeditor. “Spelling and grammar” also doesn’t come close to scratching the surface of what a copyeditor does.

My next step is to begin my first editing pass, which is a painstakingly slow phase. During this pass, I will create a design memo, a manuscript table of contents, and a style sheet (a list of all names, terms, spellings, hyphenations, capitalizations, grammar styles, etc.); keymark items for design; verify all facts; flag for myself any items that I feel the author may have been inconsistent on; look up all spellings and word usage I’m even remotely unsure of; verify all foreign-language use to the extent that I can; apply consistent style guidelines (such as the use of a serial comma, if that has been requested); and query the author on any awkward or unclear phrasing, change of terms, inaccurate facts, inconsistencies, or numerous other things I may find.

This is the best, most comprehensive description of fiction copyediting I’ve seen. Seeing just an excerpt is totally insufficient. I strongly suggest you read all of Deanna Houk’s post. As you read it, consider the resources and work required to apply that same attention to detail to things like scientific reporting or stories about real places the copyeditor has never been.

The Writing

So much for “spelling and grammar.” What else does an editor do?

Editing requires the strange ability to stand in the place of the audience and the author simultaneously. As an editor reads a piece, whether it be a story or a journal article, they have to understand what the author intended to say without losing track of not just what one individual reader will take away, but how the piece will come across to readers with varying experiences and levels of understanding. The outsider’s perspective shows them the weaknesses in the piece, while the insider’s perspective allows them to make suggestions for improvement that are consistent with the author’s intent.

Writers are closer to their material than anyone else can be. They had better be, or there’s no point in them writing it. This means that they know intimately how topic X and topic Y, or action B and action C, are connected. That’s great for the writing, but it creates a problem when writers are trying to evaluate what they’ve written.

The phrase most commonly heard at my critique group, aside from, “Thank you,” and, “Nooo! I don’t want to go to bed!!!” (our host has small, very social children), is, “Didn’t I put that in there?” A writer can set a piece aside for a period of time to gain some perspective on it, but barring some strange amnesiac condition that still allows them to write, they’ll never have the perspective of a person who didn’t go through the process of writing it, even years later. And on the internet, who has years?

The average audience member, on the other hand, not only doesn’t know what the author was intending but doesn’t care. They’re just not that invested in the work. How much effort are they going to be willing to put in to help an author clarify their meaning when they can just move on and read something else? If they can be bothered to comment about a problem, they’ll generally pick the low-hanging fruit–grammar and spelling.

When an audience member does care, there’s no guarantee that their interest is in making an author’s intended meaning generally clear. Global warming deniers are almost certainly going to read the coverage of the new climate paper, but do they want it understood? No chance. They’re all too likely to look for real or perceived ambiguities that they can exploit to undermine the impact of the study. The same thing happens to fiction writers who cover difficult topics. They will run into readers who will interpret things in a way that furthers their own agendas. Ask anyone who’s ever written a rape scene then been confronted with inexplicable reviews.

The Reality
The Reality
Photo by Sean M. Murphy

No, the author needs someone on their side with the proper distance from the writing to see it clearly. However, this isn’t enough, or any friend would be able to fill the role. An editor needs to go beyond wanting an author to succeed. They have to be able to set aside their own goals for a piece in favor of the author’s, let the author’s style overwhelm their own while they work. And they have to do this while still keeping the needs of the audience(s) in mind.

Do all editors achieve this ideal? Of course not. But the fact that some don’t, or that some don’t even try, is beside the point. This is the role of an editor. When it’s filled, it makes a difference and not just to the audience.

Sure, a writer with a good editor looks better than one without. Audiences can focus on content instead of surface distractions. There’s even more than that, though.

The Rest

An editor who truly is on the writer’s side and acts as an effective proxy for the audience creates a safe place in which a writer can learn and take risks. When an author is writing for immediate, unedited publication, it is much easier to rely on subjects and styles that are comfortable and have received a good response in the past. Knowing that someone else will see the work before the slavering crowds get a hold of it makes it easier for authors to try something new. It can be remarkably comforting to know one person is willing to tell you your work is crap–but only when it really is.

Handholding may be the part of an editor’s job that gets the least attention, but it’s still important. Editors are there even when the audience fluctuates. When writers get obsessive over the skills they’re trying to master, and they do, editors are there to remind them of all the things they’ve already got down pat. Editors are there to brainstorm when a writer feels blocked or stale. And editors are there to kick writers in the butt when they try to coast.

Editors can even be there to tell people that they are writers. Before we started Quiche Moraine, I would notice writers online. These were people who consistently had interesting things to say in comments or on social networking sites, and I thought they should be blogging. I rarely said so, though, because building a blog to the point where people pay enough attention to make the feedback rewarding takes a nontrivial commitment. Besides, why would they pay attention to me?

It’s different when I can offer them a chance to blog here. Their commitment is much less, for one thing, but more than that, being a gatekeeper offers me the chance to open gates. When I tell someone they can write, they listen. When I tell someone they should write for Quiche Moraine…well, I’ve been told, “Not right now,” and I’ve had people say, “Yes,” who haven’t followed through yet, but no one has said, “No.”

Someday my inbox will instantly fill with posts from all these people who have found that magic convergence of topic that motivates them, time to write and belief that people want to hear what they have to say. I will cower in the corner, drink heavily as I contemplate the work ahead of me, then rejoice, because I will be able to claim responsibility for a small part of that belief.

In the meantime, the writers I do work with are taking themselves and their writing more seriously, while still having fun. This is why I do this.

The Changes

What will change as content creation moves further online? Not a whole lot, really.

The biggest difference I see is that relationships between editors and authors will flatten out more. I can tell Mike that I want to see a post on the work he does toward increasing inclusiveness in local politics. I can try to persuade Greg that his job is to tell me stories all the time. If you look at the content here, you’ll see that neither of these happens. I give suggestions, not assignments. I get them too, since I’m also a writer.

Neither Greg nor Mike is very experienced as an editor (although Greg is starting to fully understand that his academic experience is applicable), but that doesn’t stop either of them from giving me valuable feedback. Just as critique groups sprang up everywhere as soon as fiction writers got online, I think we’re going to see more bloggers getting together and at least exchanging their weightier pieces for critique before posting them. Not the day-to-day stuff necessarily, but the posts in which they really want the content to come through.

It may seem confusing that I talk about critique as editing, but one of the other changes I think we’ll see is that editing will stop being an all-or-nothing proposition online. We’ll see group blogs where everything has to pass muster with the group but is otherwise as the author wrote it, and we’ll see the small networks of independent blogs I just spoke about. We’ll see some authors give up a degree of control in exchange for not having to worry about polishing or promoting their work and others who want every change tracked for their approval.

All of them will find editors to suit their desires, except the writers with whom no editor wants to work. The hard part will be figuring out what the editors get out of it. It’s not a job that pays well anyway, except for the high-prestige gatekeeping jobs, so that won’t be as much of a barrier to editor involvement as figuring out how to get editors the appropriate credit. Good editors are mostly invisible. It’s only when we screw up that readers notice we’re here. But a writer who has no income to share with an editor is going to have to share something.

So when Bora decides, some day in the future, that he wants his spelling and grammar checked because it’s working for all the cool kids, he’ll be able to get it. In return, however, he’s going to have to learn how to tell people just how valuable that editing is.

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33 Responses to “What Is an Editor?”

  1. April 24th, 2009 at 9:51 am

    Coturnix says:

    Yup, that was shorthand for what you said. I used 20 words, you used 2000, but we mean the same. I am glad I provoked you into writing this, though, as someone needed to spell it out.

  2. April 24th, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Hah, you’re just happy you can link to something next time and save even more words. 🙂

  3. April 24th, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Greg Laden says:

    I’m so going to twitter this.

  4. April 24th, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Coturnix says:

    Exactly – the economy of new journalism: “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” (Jeff Jarvis in today’s post). I write from the angle of what I know and link to people who have different angles coming from their own areas of expertise and experience.

  5. April 24th, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Clearly, in the new media the structure has been enhanced. But the well written, properly documented, internally well structured story is still a valuable asset. I think traditional print media have fallen behind by making the assumption that the well written well structured mid length story needs to be printed (but then may be copies onto the web).

    This is why Quiche Moraine is interesting: We are actually trying to focus (mostly) on the medium length, well structured, well written, edited story but in the new media and using the new media’s tools.

  6. April 24th, 2009 at 11:56 am

    ayasawada says:

    Brilliant. This is possibly the most comprehensive description of what an editor does I’ve ever come across.

  7. April 24th, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Bora, as long as I’ve made it easier for you to give editing the proper respect, I’ll count the 2,000 words of provocation as having been worth it. Any individual editor, of course, has to earn it.

    Greg, I think the print media pushes those stories to print editions because that’s still where they have some idea how to make money. It’s what the Strib is doing with their Sunday content now (just in time for Earth Day, by the way). I can’t think of a quicker way to get people to say, “Do you really think you’re all that?” but oh, well.

    ayasawada, thanks. And this is just the high-level version! You don’t get to see all the bits I scrapped that were detours into detail, like talking about production decisions or the different kinds of distractions the audience can get hung up on.

  8. April 24th, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Dan J says:

    On a few occasions (twenty years ago) one of my roommates had me “go over” a paper that he had written for class. I corrected a bit of spelling and grammar, standardized use of some words or phrases, moved some sentences around, etc. I guess the fact that he asked me to do this on more than one occasion meant that I wasn’t doing a bad job.

    I do much of the same type of editing when I’m working with HTML, PHP, and CSS, though with a different type of audience in mind. I always steal only the best code, then adapt it to my needs. I’ve always been better as an editor than as a writer, but a part of that is due to my never taking enough time to actually try to write. One of these days I’ll get around to that.

    Thanks, Stephanie, for a most excellent post. I’ll have to entice one of my coworkers into stopping by to read this one.

  9. April 24th, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Judy says:

    I once left a comment on a forum for an online course that I copied the lessons, pasted them into a document file, and then fixed all the spelling errors before I read them, and I got an e-mail from the instructor asking if I wanted to help with proofreading the lessons before they’re published. So now I get to see all the lessons before anyone else, and make a little money, too — almost enough to cover the cost of the course. Which I think is kind of cool.
    Thanks for this post. I linked from Greg Laden’s blog. I’ll have to visit here more often.

  10. April 24th, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Brilliant. This is possibly the most comprehensive description of what an editor does I’ve ever come across.

    Kinda makes you wonder, though … if this was written by the editor, then who edited it.

    Also, isn’t it funny that we are ever forced to say a phrase like “edited it” … there should be a substitute term for that.

  11. April 24th, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    You and Mike edited it, of course. Editing is not a one-way relationship around here.

  12. April 24th, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Oh yea, I remember now….

  13. April 24th, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    Georganna Hancock says:

    So what I’ve been doing all this time!

    The Editor @ A Writer’s Edge

  14. April 24th, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    Sean Murphy says:

    Lovely piece, Steph, and a nod on the picture. Much appreciated.

  15. April 24th, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Kelly McCullough says:

    Nicely done. Linking.

  16. April 25th, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    cromercrox says:

    Greg pointed out this post to me (thanks Greg), and my reaction is that there are editors, and there are editors, and the kind of editor described by Stephanie Zvan is not the kind of editor lambasted by my friend Dr B. Z. of Chapel Hill – the editor as gatekeeper. I am an editor of Nature: I do very little checking of spelling and grammar (that’s what copy-editors do). I do very little developmental editing (re-working a piece so that it flows better and keeps to the brief). My main job is to decide which papers Nature sends for review and which it rejects. That job depends on knowledge of the field, the personalities with in it and the latest developments, but most of all on what I’d call gut instinct, what the Late John Maddox called working by the seat of one’s pants. Now, a lot of people ‘out there’ resent this. Why should a lot of people who are neither more nor less qualified than the scientists doing the work judge whether such-and-such a manuscript gets published or not? My answer involves the perspective that looking at a lot of manuscripts gives you, but also things like the identity and status of the journal. I might say more about this in another place, when I’ve had a good sleep and a chance to mull things over.

  17. April 25th, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    cromercrox: You should write a guest post for Quiche Moraine! (I know the editor, I can get you in.)

  18. April 26th, 2009 at 3:19 am

    BioinfoTools says:


    I like your piece, thanks for putting it up.

    It reminded me of when I trialed as an editor for a university press several years ago. While I was accepted for that position at the same time I was offered a research position, which I took and so I didn’t become an editor. Yet… The position was for a small university press, one that more-or-less had to wear all editorial roles, save making the critical decision of taking on the material or not, which fell to the senior editor. While researching the role before approaching the publishers, I came to a similar viewpoint as to the one your article puts forward, so it strikes a chord. Looking back, I feel sure that having a strong focus on aiding the author in achieving their goals was a key element to my trial being successful.

    I would welcome any thoughts on freelance (biological science) editorial work. My day-to-day work is a science consultant (an independent scientist “for hire”, if you like).


    I guess larger publishing houses have editors on their editors! More seriously, you have all the specialist roles. In my reply to Stephanie, above, I was thinking of the situation for a small university press, where one editor cover several bases, as it were.

    Would I be right to call you a submission editor? While you give titles for the other editorial roles you mention, you don’t give yourself at title! 😉

    I’m another would be interested to hear what to have to say on editorial roles.

  19. April 26th, 2009 at 3:31 am

    cromercrox says:

    Happy to oblige.

  20. April 26th, 2009 at 8:22 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Our editors will be contacting you …. 🙂

  21. April 26th, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Barbara Price says:

    Wow–great job describing what editors do! (Thanks, BoraZ, for sending me the link.) Next time someone asks me what I do, then nods knowingly and says, “I love to look for typos too,” I’ll have to refer them here….

  22. April 26th, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    The presence of an editor to review what I have submitted here has led to an improvement in my own writing and my choice of topics. Now, if I could get that carried over to my own blog…..

  23. April 26th, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Barbara, please let me know how that works for you. I have the suspicion that getting people, particularly non-writers, to understand editing is hopeless, but I wish you the best of luck.

    cromercrox: I would very much like to see your perspective. It’s been referred to in many of these discussions (not yours specifically, but that of the gatekeeper), but I haven’t seen many people standing up to lay out the value and explain what can’t be replaced.

  24. April 26th, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    oscar zoalaster says:

    The most valuable thing that an editor can do is to make sure that the written copy actually does say what the author intends for it to say. There are far too many writers who feel that the reader is going to understand the intended meaning, no matter how much their sentences do not mean what the author thinks they mean. Because those writers are so arrogantly certain that the obligation to understand belongs to the reader they often assume that their work is being misread when the reader is accurately understanding what was actually written….

  25. April 26th, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Oscar, may I refer you to my comments on writing rape scenes.

  26. April 26th, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    BioinfoTools says:

    As you can tell, my reply to cromercrox was off-the-cuff with no self-editing. Embarrassingly bad form on my part. It was written in the wee hours of the morning after a long day (my reply to Stephanie was written earlier). I won’t bore you with personal events, but I seemed to have capped a mediocre week and a lousy weekend by serving this on myself. Maybe I will go outside, dig myself an hole, jump into it and take up a vow of silence. (I’m thinking of the holy hole man in Life of Brian for some reason.) Or more ordinarily convince myself not to write in the wee hours and to get more sleep. I would still welcome comments if people would be kind enough to overlook this.

  27. April 27th, 2009 at 7:12 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    No worries. Comments are never really edited, simply because they require real-time response. Although in this discussion, I suspect there will be a certain amount of going away, thinking about things, and blogging elsewhere. I’ll try to make sure links to other bits get in the comments here.

  28. April 27th, 2009 at 7:46 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Yes, Oscar, I think that the editor helps to hold up a mirror to the content. I once wrote what I thought was a brilliant summation of the issues in Creationism/Evolution education debate. I asked a woman I was dating at time, a woman with experience in editing, to take her red pen to it and help me out.

    It was a painful realization that I was making too many assumptions for the audience, that they would have a certain level of knowledge. I think she used two red pens, because the first ran out of ink.

  29. April 29th, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Erin says:

    I would say that there’s certainly an aspect to ‘gatekeeping’ editing that can’t be crowdsourced, and that’s when there’s a specific editorial line or goal. At ScienceBlogs, for example, we don’t necessarily look for the most popular blogs or the ones that are getting the most buzz- we look for the ones that WE think should be getting the most buzz, or that we’d like to create buzz around, particularly ones that are in line with the overall mission and ideals of our company. We have different paramaters of who is ‘let through the gate’ than the general tide might suggest.

    At ScienceBlogs, and I imagine many other websites with similar structure, we editors are in the unique position of simultaneously having to manage our contributors, even though we exert remarkably little actual editorial control past the point of recruitment. Assisting them with technology, keeping them aware of things that affect the network and their blogs, responding to all kinds of special questions, requests, concerns, etc. Balancing the demands of our bloggers, readers, and business is one of the most challenging things, I think, of the job, and not something that can be done (well) without individual and focused consideration.

    Great post- lots of food for thought!

  30. April 29th, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Thanks, Erin! Lots of good information from you too. I really appreciate the additional perspective.

  31. April 29th, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    Name Withheld Just In Case says:

    I would prefer to leave the public face of Scienceblogs.com to Erin and others (not other bloggers, but rather, Sb/Seed officials) but I’ll just say one small thing: For me to have Erin’s job I’d have to be a different person than I am. I am in awe of her skill and ability.

  32. May 8th, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Henry Gee’s post on being a gatekeeper at Nature.


    Don’t miss the comments. As usual, once an editor says they’re willing to talk about process, lots of good questions get asked and answered.

  33. May 16th, 2009 at 2:12 am

    copy editor says:

    Stephanie, I would like to echo that this is a wonderful piece about editing, which is the work I’ve been doing for the past decade. I have so many feelings about what you’ve said, and as I read your words, those feelings mostly manifested themselves in my cheering “Right on!” at my computer screen. I don’t even know where to begin. I’m so taken aback by your spot-on assessment of an editor’s and a copy editor’s job, and so completely disappointed that it’s difficult for me to find the words to explain to others why I think my job is important.

    I listened to the Atheists Talk broadcast with Bora Z, and I remember him talking about the things you mentioned in this piece. I remember him saying he thinks that the Web allows for a more democratic filtering of the information people put out there instead of an editor doing the filtering before it reaches the masses. I’d argue with the notion of the Web as democratic, but that’s another comment entirely and one that would firstly explain that editors and copy editors aren’t dictators. We’re collaborators, and we’re skilled professionals. Secondly, that there is nothing inherently democratic about inaccurate information. Thirdly, oh, I said I wasn’t going to go on about that. Sorry.

    I’ve been watching as my profession is going through a major transition. I once counted myself among the many in my profession who pooh-poohed the Web and social media as a serious source of accurate information, mostly because I saw all of it, and rightly so, as a threat to what I do. However, I no longer hold in contempt the technologies that help us communicate in ways unimaginable before, and I no longer necessarily see once-trusted sources of information as trustworthy anymore.

    I do feel there is a lot that many publications are doing wrong in how they use this new media, such as the fact that publications have let new media and corporate media conglomeration define their publications (even their business models) instead of experienced journalists and editors defining the best way to work new media into an existing structure that was set up to achieve journalistic integrity, and at the same time remain profitable. (And I could go on forever about this, too, but I won’t.) But all in all, social media and the blogosphere are useful things to me and a great many others. After all, through them I found Quiche Moraine and ScienceBlogs, and that’s a good thing.

    Like you, I imagine that bloggers and other online publications will move toward more critique of the information they publish, but I don’t think that will be for a while. But I know from experience and observation that many publications trying to break into the online world from print, and even publications that have always been online, just do not value copy editors, in particular. We’re seen as bottlenecks. It’s difficult going to work each day knowing this, and knowing my days, and the days of what I do professionally, are numbered.

    When the pink slip comes my way, and it certainly will, I’ll be OK. I plan to change careers. But not all my fellow copy editors are so inclined or interested. We do important work. We don’t just sit around with red pens and look down our noses at others’ writing. We contribute a lot toward making someone’s writing clearer, more consistent, more accessible, honest (we catch errors of fact often), and, dare I say it, more successfully received. We do it all, and we never, ever get the byline. No matter what writers may think, copy editors do appreciate them and their ability to just get the words out.

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