What does a book editor do?

It’s funny – if you’re like me and you Google advice for everything from how to de-mat your cat to how to fold origami snails (they’re just so flippin’ cute), you’ll definitely Google to important stuff too. And when it comes to editing your book, there’s lots of conflicting advice about what editors do. On one hand, there’s countless advice on editing your novel yourself, but then alongside it are articles singing the tune of why you need an editor.

I’ve spent years editing my own poetry and fiction, but I know having an editor by your side can be crucial. So what does an editor do, and why is it different to editing your book yourself?

What does a book editor do?
Definitely not an accurate depiction of my origami snails

Firstly, edit your book yourself

There’s no point hiring an editor until you’ve given your book a good old edit yourself beforehand. A first draft is made up of a lot of out-pouring of random ideas, dialogue, in fact anything that comes to mind. Not all of this will be right, though not all of it is wrong.

My point is, if you’re going to hire an editor you don’t want to pay them your hard-earned cash to make changes that you could have done yourself. What editors do is look at what you’ve given them and make it better. Your best bet is to take your poem, collection, short story, or novel and make it the best you possibly can – and THEN get an editor on board. Of course if you get stuck part-way through a re-drafting and it turns out to be a truly thick brick wall, maybe an editor will hold the ladder while you scramble over.

If you’re currently writing a novel and going looking to do some edits yourself, take a peek at my tips for tackling the mammoth topic – how to edit the second draft of your novel and how to edit the third draft of your novel.

Hiring an editor comes second

So, what does a book editor do? Editors exist to help you make your writing the best it can be.

You can hire an editor for different levels of scrutiny. You can request a light touch approach, looking at overall structure and themes. You’ll find developmental edits, structural edits, story edits, production edits, line edits, copyedits, and proofreading – so it can be a baffling search, especially if you’re editing your first book.

If you’re not sure what you need, an editor will assess the ‘level’ of editing that’s needed and suggest to you one of the main four levels of editing:

The Big-Picture Edit

This might also be referred to as the structural, developmental, or substantive edit. It means moving huge chunks of story around, finding gaps in the plot, cutting sections, and working out how it hangs together as an actual story.

The Paragraph-Level Edit

Also called stylistic or line editing, this kind of editing involves reworking sentences for flow, moving sentences around so that the meaning is clear, and really bringing out the author’s voice. Stylistic editing might also be looking at the vocabulary you’ve used, rhythm and pulse, and adding variation to sentence length.

The Sentence-Level Edit

This is the copyediting stage, addressing spelling, grammar, continuity, and consistency issues. It might be something you’ve become blind to, or how your protagonist has blue eyes on minute and green the next. Even when you’ve planned everything out, the more you edit the easier it is to get these little things mixed up. If you change your protagonists age in chapter 1, are you sure you haven’t mentioned it anywhere else too?

The Word-Level Edit

Also called proofreading, this kind of editing addresses spelling errors, typos, repeated words (often happens at the end of a line), punctuation and formatting issues. Often you hear people say the publisher will sort that out, but the truth is, if an agent or publisher finds lots of these errors on their first read, chances are they’ll use it as a reason to delete your submission. Remember, these people are looking for reasons to say “no” to a manuscript, so don’t give them any!

If you’ve edited your novel yourself, you might still request any of these levels of editing, there’s no right or wrong.

And finally, Self-edit to make your book *zing*

This is when you’ve taken what you wanted from your professional editor and made the changes you want to make. At this point it’s easiest if you take a big backwards lunge away from your manuscript and take a break. Make a cup of tea, find a new boxset to binge on Netflix. You need time to digest the process you’ve been through so you can once again (deep breath) edit your book again with fresh eyes and a clean brain. On this read through, you might find little errors that have popped up form copying and pasting, or you might want to give dialogue one last twist. Basically, this is your chance to really make your manuscript yours, and make it sound just right.

One thing I’d say is that you shouldn’t necessarily do EVERYTHING you’re told to by an editor. If there’s a massive plot hole then it’s fair to say this would definitely need addressing. But when it comes to stylistic editing, weigh up the pros and cons and do what feels right. Editors know what they’re doing, they’re experts. Listen to them and learn, but stay true to your goals too.

My Editors

what does a book editor do
Me and the ace Char, going over Bone Ovation edits

I’ve worked with quite a few editors in the past, but two stick in my mind the most. Char March was the wonderful editor that I worked with on Bone Ovation. We met in person, and went through each poem individually to go through her feedback. It was a fascinating process, and really taught me the value of having someone who believes in you but also is really forthright about what you need to do to be better. Even though I’ve not worked with an editor yet for my second collection, I’m sure I’ll be carrying forward her ideas to my next book too.

And for my novel, I worked with Russell Jones, an Edinburgh-based editor with reams of poetry and fiction experience. He was brilliant, and not only told me what to improve but also what he loved about the novel, which was a spot-on balance for me. I’d worked with Russell before when he’d been editing anthologies and magazines I’d been in, so I knew he was made of good stuff. If you feel like you ‘click’ with an editor, grasp the relationship, because you never know when they’ll come in handy later.

So, there you go! No longer will you ponder what does an editor do, or why you need an editor. Though it’s important to tune your editing skills yourself, we learn from people as well as Google. If you need a helping hand with editing your second draft or editing your third draft, take a look at my guide on how to be a writer, packed full with free writing resources.

Good luck, writers!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. mickeymas says:

    Very helpful, thanks, you da best!


  2. Great pointers on editing and always look at it from a journalism perspective in terms of typos, sentence or grammar. There is more to editing a full-fledged novel and thanks for sharing, Caroline.


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