The Essential Editor

Recently, a friend of mine asked me, “Why do we need editors? Won’t Word take care of all errors in a document and produce the perfect paper for us?”

Well, yes! Microsoft Word is an amazing tool—one that everyone including editors love. But do spelling suggestions and recommendations to correct syntax errors suffice? Will a book or a paper be ready for publishing just because it is devoid of minor mistakes? No!

Think about a first-time author who has written a set of short stories; a businessperson who’s English is poor but has his autobiography penned; a homemaker who just started writing her own blog posts; a teacher who is
creating question banks for his students. Perhaps these are far-fetched examples.

Imagine writing a paragraph about yourself—a seemingly easy task, often ill accomplished. Don’t you have at least one other person, usually someone good with the language, review it for quality? I am sure we all do it. You can think of an editor as someone who serves the same purpose, albeit with a touch of professionalism.

So what exactly do editors do for a book?

There are different kinds of editors and each provides support to authors at various stages of publishing a book. However, one must acknowledge that language is growing, ever changing and so is the role of an editor. What may have been unacceptable fifty years ago has become common usage today. I believe it is important to know the basics, but it is equally important to change with the times.

Developmental editing

Earlier, an editor would sit with an author, help him or her develop ideas and plan the structure and outline of the book. Here, the editor was involved even before writing began. Therefore, this editor was commonly known as a
developmental editor—possibly because he or she helped in developing the book itself. In modern times, developmental editing begins after the manuscript is complete. The editor does a ‘heavy’ editing on the book
suggesting structural and contextual changes to the author. Developmental editing is frequently called substantive editing or structural editing. The terms are used interchangeably often causing confusion.

Copy editing

The aim of copy editing is to ensure that whatever appears in public is accurate, easy to follow, and fit for purpose. Also, free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition. This process picks up embarrassing mistakes, ambiguities, and anomalies; it alerts the author to possible legal problems. Working through the material, a copy editor not only corrects errors in punctuation, spellings, grammar, style, and usage but also checks very long sentences, overuse of italics, bold, capitals, exclamation marks, and the passive voice. Copy editors correct or query doubtful facts, weak arguments, plot holes, and gaps in numbering. Many say that copy editing is the same as line editing or stylistic editing. While I do not back the claim, I am not against it either. Several online sites try differentiating the roles of a copy editor, line editor, and stylistic editor. The problem is that there are substantial overlaps among these with the differentiator being tasks borrowed from heavier or lighter forms of editing.


Proofreaders take care of the final stageA proofreader checks if the work done by all previous editors is satisfactory. Proofreading is more of a final quality check intended to tidy up the document and make it print-ready. Proofreaders check page numbers, headings, layout, and flag glaring cosmetic errors. Nowadays, the role of a proofreader has also changed. People often combine copy editing and proofreading as one service.

Clearly, overlaps and ambiguities are several. Since there are numerous levels or kinds of editing, it is increasingly becoming difficult to have a common lingo. Of course, publishing houses have their own levels of editors starting from acquisitions editors and project editors to sub editors. Individual editors, depending on their skill set, perform various editorial tasks. Each organization or editor may have to develop a house style to keep things consistent for themselves and their customers while keeping the gold standard in mind. We can expect several more terms or levels to emerge in future coupled with changes in the English language. Keeping up is more compulsion than choice.

Personally, I think it is enough to have one term signifying one level of editing. Reduce overlaps and ambiguities—best not confuse our authors or ourselves.

Is keeping it simple that difficult?

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