Job descriptions for editors vary greatly. Is this just a proofreader? Is it a coauthor or ghost writer? Is it the business manager for an organization? For the publishing work I am involved in I think of three main roles.
Editor as Proofreader
Proofreaders are people who care about whether to write “proof reader” or “proofreader.” They catch mistakes, lots of them. They notice inconsistent formatting. Writers can proofread their own work and learn to write more carefully, but for published writing where it matters, a separate proofreader is needed.
Beyond the word level, proofreaders may examine phrases or sentences for technical grammar or missing words. Again, an indispensable task. On the other hand the author may need to push back against prescriptive grammar and a conventionalizing, flattening hand.
Editor as Rhetorician and Stylist
These editors delete sentences, maybe paragraphs or chapters. They also tell the author where to add sentences or paragraphs.
This is what I think of as an editor proper. The editor carries the reader and the author in mind. Per context, they may rework a piece or simply give feedback to the writer.
Edit with love. A sympathetic understanding of the author’s heart and mind is the proper basis for editing. Bring out the author’s best voice; don’t get rid of the distinctive voice. Amplify their key ideas. You help the author communicate. So love for those on the receiving end is requisite. You work on flow and terminology, etc. to get and keep the readers attention.
Editor as Reviewer
The reviewer cares about substance. They may or may not be sympathetic to the author’s aim, but in either case they will look for weaknesses of reasoning, evidence, clarity, depth, accuracy etc. as needed for the genre. Reviewers don’t rewrite. They may ask an author to revise and resubmit based on their feedback.
What Kind of Editor Are You?
You might straddle the lines or fill another niche. On the other hand knowing which hat you are wearing when editing is helpful. It is easy for me, for example, to blur between reviewing and editing, which can be hazardous, when I am assigned to be simply an editor. One way to tell your natural editor type, is to observe what changes you would like to see in this piece. Are you correcting my grammar? Catching inconsistencies? Thinking about how to improve the flow and make it more catchy? Evaluating my sloppy thinking and looking for better categories to describe different types of editors?
Editors for Video and Visual Media
A coworker who edits video said he sees his work as a sort of visual proofreading, watching transitions, cutting out stumbles in a section of speech etc. To get a macro sense of a video for the purpose of rearranging it or cutting clips would require a different watching and a different mode of thought.
I’m curious too how these categories apply to static visual design. Designers tell me that they can’t do design and proofread text at the same time. I wonder if there might be a proofreader, rhetorician divide even in design review with some editors looking for basic consistency of design elements and others reviewing for style, and overall visual messaging. I would love comments from designers!
Whatever your line of work, I would love your feedback on these categories in the comments below!