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The Different Functions of an Editor

consortiumpic.croppedHi! It’s your editor again. Remember me? I’m the one that makes sure your book is actually ready to be read by your adoring fans.

If you’re confused about what an editor actually does, that might be because we do so many different things.

Technically, everything we do is editing, but there’s a lot that goes in that. I mean, the role itself varies in different arenas. I often feel the need to say, “I’m a book editor” because otherwise I’m afraid people will think I edit for a newspaper or magazine. So what do your book editors really do? The names for the different functions sometimes vary depending on who you’re working for, but the general terms are as follows:

Copy Editor

Copyediting is all about the rules.  Primarily, the rules of grammar and formatting.  This is the job for someone who can’t stand to see even the tiniest comma used improperly in a sentence. You have to know where those suckers go and not let a single one of them step out of line.  Just like language is always changing, so is the grammar that shapes it. We have dictionaries to give us rules for language, and style books to give us rules for grammar. Most publishing companies use the Chicago Manual of Style.

Copyeditors also have to know the difference between all those homonyms and know if this idiom is, in fact, an idiom. Attention to detail is a must when checking for an extra space between a tab and the beginning of the sentence and ensuring that parenthetical statement has a closing parentheses.

Lastly, copyeditors check for consistency in formatting. If they don’t, it could cause major problems down the line for the layout person.

So do copyeditors just sit and read all day?  Yes, they do. To you it may seem tedious, but to the copyeditor there is always the reward at the end of the day knowing that he has fought for the side of the English language and won. If Strunk and White were still alive, they would applaud us.

Editor (or Conceptual Editor)

Conceptual editing includes working on big picture issues like narrative voice, plot holes, character development, and story flow. It’s more difficult than copyediting becuase the rules aren’t as defined. Rather than just pointing to a section of CMOS, editors have to convince their authors that what they are saying is right.

Editors usually point to other works and to big name editors like Sol Stein and William Zissner as the basis of their opinions. Editors need to always be on the lookout for what works and what doesn’t. What makes this plot implausible? How can the reader become more sympathetic toward your MC?

Conceptual editing takes a lot of dialogue between the author and the editor. Both parties have to be willing to listen to each other and sometimes compromise for the sake of the story. The important thing to remember is that your editor really does want what is best for your MS. Your editor is working based on the experience of thousands of editors before him.It may seem like slashing your MS to bits, but the editor knows that an MS that goes through adversity is more beautiful on the other side.

On Tuesdays here at Unstressed Syllbables, Thomas Beard is going to be talking about the Rewriting aspects of your novel. Most of that is going to be learning how to conceptually edit yourself so that you will be all ship-shape and ready to go when you send your manuscript in to your freelance editor.


Line Editor

Often the role of line editor is lumped together with editor, but we differentiate at the Consortium. That’s because while the editor focuses on the general story and overarching ideas, the line editor focuses on how each individual sentence (or paragraph) reads. If the author has a recurring problem, like misplacing modifiers, then line editing can turn into dealing with larger issues, which is why it’s usually put together with conceptual editing. When I line edit, I look for things like confusing word choice, ambiguous statements, overly lengthy monologues, etc. No matter how good a writer you are, you’re always going to have a few confusing issues like that line editors help clarify.

Thomas will also be talking a lot about line editing when he delves into his Editorial Reviews each month. You may have seen him edit in detail a small bit of work a couple of weeks ago. He’ll be do that more for you, so that you can get a handle on what makes each sentence flow well.


The proof reader is looking for any last minute errors in grammar, spacing, and punctuation. This comes after the MS has been sent to layout, because sometimes the conversion process creates errors as well. It’s at once both a very light and very thorough job. It has to be light, focusing on the minor issues, because the book is essentially done. It has to be thorough, because each error that your readers find lowers their opinion of you, even if just microscopically. Readers are your harshest critics, and even a misplaced comma means a lot to them, especially if you’re self-published.


As I tried to convey last week, editing is a big deal. I highly recommend you find someone else, someone professional  to edit your work for you before you either submit it to a publisher or publish it yourself. Next week my friend Laurie Laliberte will give you some advice on how to go about hiring a professional editor.

But even before you hire that editor, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on your manuscript to make it neat and tidy. That’s what I’m here for. I’ll be here every Friday to give you tips on the copyediting portion of your manuscript. Don’t know how to use a comma? I can tell you. When do you use those pesky hyphens? I’ve got some tricks to help you remember.

Jessie Sanders is the managing editor at Consortium Books, editor of the bestselling Dragonprince trilogy, and author of the young adult fantasy novel, Into the Flames. Every Friday she shares an article about editing and how to improve one’s grammar.

Find out more about Jessie Sanders at her author website, and check out her novel, Into the Flames, in stores now!

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