What does an editor do?

I often see people wondering why they need an editor. What will an editor do that a friend or colleague looking at your document won’t?

An editor will see your document or report as a product representing your business, rather than you personally. While a friend or colleague might be worried about upsetting you by pointing out what they didn’t understand, or they thought could be re-worded, an editor helps you polish your document to best engage your clients and deliver your message.

There are a number of levels of editing that you might want to think about, or that an editor might recommend for your document. These include:

  • Proofreading – this is when the document is 90% there, and just needs checking for spelling mistakes and typos, consistent use of spelling throughout the document, and apostrophes etc are used correctly
  • Copy editing – checking spelling, grammar and consistency, as well as rearranging sentences for better flow or understanding, checking that references are in the correct format, table and figure numbers flow correctly, and the language is appropriate for the intended audience of the document (eg, a document that is intended for a technical or expert audience will read very differently to one that you’d like the general public to read and understand)
  • Structural (or substantive) editing – all the checks of proofing and copy editing, as well as looking at the document structure to ensure that the sections follow the most logical progression for the ideas being discussed, and re-ordering where necessary.

Generally, most documents I work on require a copy edit. Some things I might look at include:

  • spelling – is it all correct and consistent? If you use UK spelling at the start, checking that it doesn’t switch to US spelling halfway through
  • the correct word is used (eg affect/effect, that/which, and so on)
  • grammar
  • punctuation, particularly how commas and apostrophes are used
  • checking that the sentences and concepts make sense; are there any ideas that don’t seem to be finished, or that might be confusing for the reader?
  • headings/sub-headings are concise and to the point, and reflect the information under them
  • acronyms have their meaning beside them the first time they’re used in each chapter
  • the correct types of dashes are used in the correct place
  • looking for filler words that could be taken out to make the language more direct and message clearer.

Often the changes an editor suggests might look extensive, but when you re-read the document they’re subtle and it’s difficult for even you to see that it’s not what you originally wrote. An editor’s job is to help your document – and therefore you – look as professional as possible; it always pays to factor in time for editing.


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