What Does an Editor (Really) do?

When you hear the word “editor,” what does it make you think of?

A bespectacled introvert who hides in their office pouring over books all day?

A logic-oriented person who pines for hours over the tiniest of structural details?

Or how about someone like Max Perkins, the thoughtful, scrupulous mind behind the success of such publications as Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Jones’ From Here to Eternity?

Some time ago, while working as an editor over at Elephant Journal, I realized just how much all of us were doing in a given day, beyond just the process of receiving and publishing blog articles. And on listening to this enlightening Slate podcast, What does a Book Editor Do, my suspicions were confirmed: even as an editor fairly new to the field and working in an online setting publishing short articles, our jobs were much bigger than what most would imagine.

Just as book editor Jordan Pavlin explains in the podcast, in a typical day, week or month, she would typically be fulfilling a huge range of roles.

On any given day, editors may also be:

Coaches, counsellors, mentors, PR managers, salespeople, social media strategists, composers, deconstructionists, compassionate critics, curators, reporters, coordinators, producers, fact-checkers, story scouts…

…the list goes on.

The best editors do so much more than just “fix” spelling and grammar; we are confidants, directors, creatives, strategists, sounding boards, and a whole host of other roles.

Editors are not (just) grammar police. Most editors are decent writers, but in fact each act requires a different set of skills — for instance, a technical editor may not be a great creative writer, and a creative writer may not make a good technical proofreader.

Traditionally when we think about different types of editors, we may recall that there are different types of “book” editors: acquisitions editors, developmental editors, copy editors and proofreaders, to name a few.

But it gets deeper than this, especially in the digital sphere where roles are increasingly blurred and where editing is fused with various genres of writing, marketing and visuals.

Here are some of the attributes that (I believe) can make a good editor extraordinary:

Basic technical and digital marketing skills.

A keen comprehension of storytelling techniques.

The capacity to discern subtext in both voice and message.

An ability to “read” a piece from more than one point of view.

The ability to look at a piece subjectively and/or objectively, and discern which one is needed depending on the client’s actual need and/or the point of the editorial process they are at in a project.

The capacity to both hone in on the details, and “zoom out” to look at the big picture.

A willingness to deeply listen and suggest, but still know where to stand firm in their knowledge and expertise.

A great editor has to be able to read between the lines, not only of a person’s creation, but of the meaning and intention behind their words.

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