What ‘editing’ means to publishers – and it’s not what you think

‘Editing’ is an oft-misused term. In the next few posts I’ll be outlining what it is in terms of editorial systems for publishing – which isn’t what authors mean by ‘editing’.

To do that, I’m drawing from the thirty-plus years I’ve spent in the business, not just as a writer but also working professionally in publishing over that span in various ways: tasks where among other things I’ve had to edit stuff, define ‘house style’ and grammar standards, hire editors and proof-readers, and evaluate the quality of their work.

Wright_Books2I don’t often blog about this. It’s not where I expected I would find myself, given my first love of physics, music and the sciences in general. But such are the turns of life: I learned the business through some very hard yards, and today there is little about writing or publishing that surprises me. In this agile new age I can also say that while the print paradigm has gone, traditional standards of quality assurance – including ways of getting to that point – have not.

One of the key realities of that world is that professionally editing a book for publication demands more than one sort of editorial skill, all of them separate from writing and all of them just as difficult to get good at. It’s why most publishers run ‘virtual’ operations, hiring specialists as needed.

First – the definitions. When authors talk about editing their own material after they’ve drafted it, they actually mean they’re still writing. From the publishing perspective, the creative changes an author makes to their drafts before submission are all part of the writing process.

Only when that’s over does a publisher begin ‘editing’. This is an important distinction. Publishing is a commercial enterprise; and ‘editing’, in this context, is a structured process that falls into several categories and is geared towards quality assurance at all levels. It also demands a very different skill set from writing.

Perhaps paradoxically, some of the best editors are those who understand writing, but who don’t have ambitions as writers. This is because the mind-set has to differ. Writers typically are creative, lateral, dream-filled and think in concepts, which are all vital to writing. Editors are usually organised, literal and linear, all of which are crucial to editing.

Some people are able to do both with equal facility – and that’s great. But it doesn’t avert the learning curves.

One of the key skills of editing is to let the author’s voice flow – to accept that there are many valid ways of expressing things and that once the basic concepts and rules of expression are known by an author, they become guidelines. If that wasn’t possible, then unique voices such as Hemingway, Kerouac and others (yes, I’m thinking of you, Franz Kafka) wouldn’t emerge.

I’ve found, over the years, that one of the biggest pitfalls in the business comes when an author gets an editing gig and proceeds to butcher another author’s work. The cause is that they haven’t learned how to step back and let the author’s voice flow. It’s a common problem that I’ve seen many times, most egregiously over one project in 2002 (yes, it was so legendary that I still invoke it 13 years later, but we won’t go there…). It happened again in 2014, costing me so much in time as to destroy the returns on a book I’d written.

There is a lot more to the business than this. One point is that proof-editing (which is what I’ve been talking about so far) is only one of several different editing types applied by publishers. These different forms often demand different sorts of editors – people with different strengths and talents.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


5 thoughts on “What ‘editing’ means to publishers – and it’s not what you think

  1. As always, an informative and practical post on writing. I am so glad you are exploring editing as it is so much more than most people know. Understanding the facets of editing can only enhance the writer’s overall understanding of the writing process. Well done, Matthew, and looking forward to more.


    1. I have a short series coming up on this. As you say, editing is such an important skill for writers to have. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been exposed to both sides of the craft, and I’m happy to share the lessons that – quite often – I learned the hard way.

  2. I think this is why workshops can be a blessing and a curse when writers critique each other’s work but get carried away trying to rewrite it in thier own voice. I know I’ve done this before. *said with much embarrassment*

    1. Being able to get that ‘independence’ of voice is a learned skill of its own – often crowded out during the learning curve for writers because there is so much else to learn first, I suspect.

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