What Does an Editor Do?: How Does Publishing Work?, Part Three

Every book passes through many hands before arriving at your local bookstore or library. We’ve developed a six-part series, How Does Publishing Work?, to shed light on a book’s journey to publication. From developing stories and characters, to editing and illustration, through to the publishing and marketing stage, this series takes a look at all the different people and processes involved in bringing your favourite stories to life.

In part two of our How Does Publishing Work? Series, we explained how to finalize your manuscript, find the right publishers to submit to, and prepare your submission. In part three, we dive a little deeper into the publisher’s office to find out what happens after your manuscript has been accepted. If you’re an aspiring author, the next stage in your publishing journey will be to work with an editor—but what does an editor do?

What Does an Editor Do?

The essence of an editor’s job is to help the author polish the manuscript and its concept to meet the needs of the reader. There are several stages of editing, with each stage focused on different aspects of the manuscript. Some editors specialize in a specific form of editing, whereas others wear multiple hats and work on various elements of a manuscript. In general, most manuscripts will go through each of these editing stages, and each stage might require several rounds of editing:

  • Substantive Edit 

A substantive edit is usually the first stage of editing a book. During a substantive edit, an editor looks at the overall structure, plot, and character development, as well as other big-picture pieces of a story or nonfiction text. 

Substantive editing may also be called structural editing because the goal is to strengthen and develop the author’s ideas and the book’s structure. During this stage, the author may have to do a considerable amount of rewriting and restructuring.

  • Stylistic Edit 

A stylistic edit looks at a manuscript line by line to improve readability for the intended audience. An editor will ask questions or suggest changes to help clarify meaning, ensure coherence and flow, and refine the language in a manuscript. 

  • Copy Edit 

During a copy edit, an editor looks at the manuscript line by line to catch any grammatical, spelling, or consistency errors. The editor will also apply the rules of a style guide to the manuscript to help readers find information they need. For example, if a manuscript includes citations, an editor might use the Chicago Manual of Style as a guide to ensure the information is presented clearly.

The stylistic edit and copy edit ensure the author’s ideas are as clear as possible and create a smooth reading experience.

  • Proofread

The last stage of editing is proofreading. Once a book has been laid out by a designer, an editor will proofread the manuscript to catch any remaining errors or typos before the book goes to print.

While these are the most common forms of editing you’re likely to encounter while developing a manuscript, many other kinds of editing jobs are out there! For example, technical editors edit instructional texts to be useful to an average reader, visual editors check for consistency in elements of graphic novel artwork (e.g., consistent details for a character’s clothing), and sensitivity editors review texts to remove biased language and make the piece more inclusive. For more information about what editors do, visit the Editors Canada website

The Importance of Editing

Writers of all experience levels benefit from the editing process. Editors provide fresh perspectives. The writing process is demanding, and when you’ve spent months or years developing your story, it can be difficult to separate the story on the page and the version you have in your mind. An editor’s job is to bridge the gap between these two versions by looking at your work through the eyes of a reader. 

It’s normal for manuscripts to pass through many rounds of editing, even within each of the above stages. If you’re a first-time author, don’t be discouraged if the process takes a long time! The best way to get your book published quickly is to complete revisions and respond to your editor’s suggestions as soon as you can.

Trusting Your Editor

We recognize that, for many new authors, the idea of another person critiquing and suggesting changes to their deeply personal stories can feel a little uncomfortable. At Portage & Main Press and HighWater Press, we’re deeply committed to helping writers tell the story they want to tell. The goal of our editorial team is to help you strengthen your work and connect with readers, never to change or devalue your experience. It’s a relationship rooted in mutual trust and respect.

Your first draft is never your best or final version, and a great editor will help your work reach its potential.
––Brandon Mitchell, author

Working with an Editor

The editing process looks a little different depending on the kind of manuscript you’re working on. We reached out to writer, illustrator, and comic creator Brandon Mitchell, as well as Jennifer Lawson, the creator and series editor of the Hands-On collection for educators, to learn more about the role of editing in their work.

Brandon Mitchell

From Listuguj, Quebec, Brandon Mitchell is the founder of Birch Bark Comics and creator of the Sacred Circles comic series, which draws on his Mi’kmaq heritage. He is the author of “Migwite’tmeg: We Remember It“ in This Place: 150 Years Retold and five books for the Healthy Aboriginal Network  as well as a co-author and illustrator for Jean-Paul’s Daring Adventure: Stories from Old Mobile.

PMP/HWP: How would you describe the role of the editors that you’ve worked with when developing your graphic novels?
BM: I’ve worked with many editors, and every experience has been different—but in a positive way! I see them as a guiding light or an extra set of eyes. Your first draft is never your best or final version, and a great editor will help your work reach its potential. I have found that editors are great at keeping me on point. They have helped me flesh out a concept or an idea that I may not have caught in my first (or even second) draft. It reminds me of being back in college; we were always encouraged to share our ideas and not to fear feedback. It can be scary to share an idea, but when you get a fresh perspective, it helps your idea grow. 

PMP/HWP: Can you give an example from a specific project in which the editor’s contribution helped to elevate the overall piece?

BM:Migwite’tmeg: We Remember It” [part of the graphic novel anthology This Place: 150 Years Retold] was like a giant puzzle to me. I had an outline, I had the beats, I knew what I wanted to say, but it was the structure and flow that got me. All the pieces were there, I just didn’t know how I was going to piece them together. I was so grateful for my editor, Laura [McKay-Keizer]. The story evolved into a stronger piece with each submission. She would catch things that I missed from my outline, caught when there was an idea or scene that needed more, and encouraged me to expand or shorten a sequence. One of the things that stood out near the end was making sure the events took place at the right time. A lot of overlapping events took place in a short amount of time, and I had to show that. After a little back and forth, we finally cracked the code. It was a great collaboration.

PMP/HWP: What’s something that you think aspiring writers may not know or expect about working with an editor that you wish you’d known in the early days of your career?

BM:  I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, I really enjoy collaborating on projects. Maybe because it was ingrained in me in college, but I truly believe you can’t catch everything yourself! That’s why it’s always good to get a fresh set of eyes on what you’re creating, whether it’s a story or an illustration. A great editor is a fresh set of eyes to help get the best out of your work; don’t be scared of feedback.  

Jennifer Lawson

Jennifer Lawson, PhD, is the creator and series editor on all of the books in the Hands-On collection. In addition to her writing, Jennifer teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba, and is a local School Board Trustee. She is a former classroom teacher, resource/special education teacher, consultant, and principal. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with her husband, Barry, and sons, Devon and Jeremy.

PMP/HWP: How would you describe the role of an editor when developing educational texts like the Hands-On series?

JL: The first role of an editor is to be a second set of eyes. With the Hands-On books, I have classroom teachers and consultants providing input, so the books go through many drafts before they even reach an editor. Yet, with each new draft, there are still things that I miss. We have a structure developed specifically for the series, so part of the editor’s role is to double-check that formatting to ensure that we are consistent. That second set of eyes always catches something!

PMP/HWP: Can you give an example from a specific project to help illustrate how the editing process works for these kinds of projects?

JL: Our most recent series is Hands-On Science for British Columba. This series took on a modified format that includes a multi-grade approach and infuses Indigenous knowledge and perspectives and land-based learning. To this end, I needed to reconfigure how information was presented within the lesson plans and modules in a way that was vastly different from any of our previous books. In turn, the editors studied the new structure to ensure that we maintained consistency throughout. Of note, one really significant benefit of working with the editorial team on this project was their knowledge of Indigenous perspectives. Many times, I turned to them for input and advice on content and writing as a result of their professional learning in this area.

PMP/HWP: What would you say are the most important qualities for an editor to have?

JL: There are many important qualities for an editor, but these are the ones I find most essential:

  • Attention to detail, in both content and writing.
  • Being committed to developing an understanding of the content that goes beyond copy editing. It is very helpful when editors are able to contribute ideas to enhance the lessons.
  • Time management and organizational skills.
  • Interpersonal skills—it is really important to develop a positive working relationship between editor and author!

In our next instalment, we’ll take a closer look at the art that draws us into our favourite books, from cover design to graphic-novel illustrations. Make sure to check back, or follow us on Twitter or Facebook to read part four of the How Does Publishing Work? series!