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Unraveling the Editorial Mysteries, Part 1: Titles Aren’t Tasks

by Erin Brenner

I recently read “Your Copy Sucks: You Don’t Even Know What ‘Edit’ Means” by T.J. Dietderich on PR Breakfast Club. It was great to see someone not only defend editing but try to explain the different jobs that can come under the editing banner. I fear, though, that the post didn’t go far enough to correct misconceptions about the editing process.

Titles vs. Tasks

Part of the problem is that an editor’s title may bear no relation to her role. As fellow editor Levi Bookin points out:

Doctors and nurses both work in the field of health. There are some functions that either might perform, such as injections, but each must have a certificate relating to the individual vocation.

Editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders all work in the field of preparing a manuscript for publication, but none has to provide a certificate relating to his occupation. Any may do all the work of any or all of the others.

The role does not have to match the title in publishing. What does senior editor mean, anyhow? It doesn’t even give a hint as to what kind of editing that person might do. It could just as easily be a video editor’s title as a text editor’s.

Another part of the problem could be the type of publisher we’re talking about. Publishing has never been limited to just books and periodicals. Advertising, research papers, company reports: they’re all published works, just not all public works. All need writers and all need some sort of editing process to prepare the document for readers. They just don’t necessarily have the same process, nor do they need to.

But these days, publishing isn’t even limited to print. If you have a blog and regularly post to it, you are a publisher (and a writer and an editor and …). The digital world offers us cheap, even free, tools to get our ideas out there for all to see. As a result, not every publisher understands traditional publishing processes and what all those roles involved.

And let’s not forget that digital publishing is challenging traditional publishers, who are responding by compressing processes and cutting corners.

A Rose Is a Rose

An editor’s title notwithstanding, what does an “editor” do?

Let’s start at the top. Dietderich talks about an “editor-editor” who assigns story ideas, decides what goes into the publication, and makes big changes to a piece—such as to the plot structure or the overall argument. This is a developmental editor. She be might called an executive editor, an editor in chief, a senior editor, an assigning editor, or even a plain old editor.

The developmental editor might give a writer an assignment, particularly if the publication is a periodical. She’s got an idea or an outline for an article and she assigns a writer to it. When the writer turns in his assignment, the developmental editor may want big changes, such as structure or argument, so the article better fits her original idea or the purpose for the assignment.

In book publishing, the publisher might assign a developmental editor to a project. Maybe this is the writer’s second or third book in a series and he’s having trouble deciding how the story should grow, what order the action should be in, or something similar. The developmental editor helps him work out those issues.

Perhaps the writer is someone with an incredible story to tell, but he’s not really a writer and needs someone to help him out. He may get a deal with a publisher who assigns him an editor. Or he may hire someone to help him with the writing process to get his story ready to shop around to publishers.

In parts two and three, I’ll continue to look at the different editing tasks in the publishing process.

This article originally appeared on The Writing Resource.