Publishing, Writing

What is an editor for?

Writer and editor Moira Forsyth joins Book and Brew to explain what an editor is for. There’s more to it than you might think.


Moira Forsyth
Moira Forsyth explains the role of an editor

Do you need an editor?

You’ve written your novel, several times over probably, and worked at it so hard surely no more can be done. Then the publisher gets hold of it and suddenly someone else is involved. This can feel like quite an intrusion.

You’ve written your novel, several times over probably, and worked at it so hard surely no more can be done. Then the publisher gets hold of it and suddenly someone else is involved. This can feel like quite an intrusion.

My first novel was taken on by an agent who suggested a couple of small improvements. I was so thrilled to have an agent at last I wasted no time ‘writing in’ the new sections. “It’s important we get it right before we go out to publishers,” he said. That was in 1998. Soon I was lucky enough to get a two-book deal and a generous advance, both much rarer these days.

The publisher (a large one) did no editing at all, which meant they were happy with the novel as it was. I might have thought I was pretty perfect if they hadn’t sent it to a copy editor as part of their usual production process. That was when I discovered all my mistakes.

In those days, you got a printout marked up in pen and had to go through it line by line, agreeing (or not) to each change. I was so impressed by the copy editor’s thoroughness I didn’t notice the one thing she had missed: I sent a train from Edinburgh to Aberdeen through Aviemore instead of Montrose and Arbroath. I’d moved to Inverness by the time I wrote this novel but I’d lived in Aberdeen for many years. I still can’t believe I got that wrong.

It shows you can never proof a text too much. What I learned from the copy editor was invaluable: how to set out my text, to be consistent and accurate, to delete unnecessary words and much more. My second novel had far fewer marks on it when I checked the copy edit.

How much editing does a book need?

That’s the challenge for both editor and author when they tackle a book together. The real work is done before the copy-editor or proofreader sees it. I’ve been on both sides of this, and in some ways, it’s easier being the editor. You become blind to your own work and unable to recognise bad habits you’ve developed along the way. It’s the editor’s job to notice these and help you deal with them. This might be something as simple as using too many unnecessary commas (guilty, here – I do a lot of comma-deleting in later drafts), or saying the same thing twice in slightly different ways, thus weakening the impact you want to make. It might be over-explaining, not trusting readers enough.

Dialogue is particularly difficult to get right. Even when you persuade an author it’s ok to use ‘said’, rather than always replacing it with a whole range of other words, there are other pitfalls. Many new authors put too much detail in, adding a whole lot of what you might call ‘stage business’ around dialogue. You know the kind of thing: no two characters can have a conversation without nodding, shaking their heads, picking up cups of coffee, sipping, putting them down again, raising their eyebrows, raising one eyebrow – the list is endless. Good dialogue does the work all by itself. Even ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ can disappear a lot of the time if you get it right.

In over twenty years of editing, I have found without exception that the more professional – indeed the better – the writer, the more willing they are to respond positively to editing. Sadly, most editing is cutting – getting rid of stuff – but along the way, there’s much to be considered.

  • A structural edit is the more creative and satisfying for both author and editor. It tackles problems in the plot or story, in characterisation or in the flow of the narrative. It might examine how flashbacks are dealt with or shifting points of view, or how chapters or sections are divided, and so on.
  • Then there’s the line edit, which deals with more mundane matters like mistakes in continuity: does a character change surname half way through? Has summer come only a week after spring or worse, winter? Does a holly bush have berries in September? It also attends to awkward sentence construction, punctuation, spelling, grammatical errors etc. All publishers have their own style guide, which will help them deal with inconsistencies and make sure the necessary standard of English is adhered to.

You might now be asking how on earth can someone get published when they’ve made so many mistakes? If the text isn’t good enough to begin with?

On the whole, publishers prefer to work with authors who have produced perfect books, but this is rare! However, what a good editor will see is how good a book can be – the integrity at the core, originality, the power of the characters, the pull of the story. Potential. If it doesn’t have that, no amount of editing can rescue it. The aim, then, is to make the book as good as possible.

As an author, I know how painful it’s to be confronted with your own mistakes. My response is usually a two-day huff, followed by the chastened realisation that my editor is right. Then I set to and get it fixed.

This doesn’t mean that an author should always do everything an editor suggests, but it’s best not to ignore the advice, and wise to consider it. Then decide. An editor will make suggestions but the author has the responsibility of accepting them or finding alternatives, or simply leaving things as they are.

Finally, the important thing to remember is that your editor is both advisor and champion. She is the one most likely to have been rooting for you in the acquisitions meeting – I really think we should take this book! – so it’s an important relationship. I value my working relationships with a range of wonderful authors, and as a writer, am immensely grateful when my editor helps me see my work afresh, and make it better.


Moira Forsyth’s fifth novel A Message from the Other Side will be published by Sandstone Press on 20 July 2017.

4 thoughts on “What is an editor for?

  1. […] loads of writing, publishing and editing tips on Book and Brew this month. Moira Forsyth told us what an editor is for, Julie Kirk shared her 5 tips for self-publishing and we explored the writing process with Papaya […]

  2. Very interesting .. I have self published on amazon in it’s raw form as I’m new to the whole concept but I’d really love some help and pointers . I’m in the far north of Inverness and there’s not much help around here ..
    my book is -TO MAKE A MONSTER
    by I C Hope .. could you point me in the right direction … thanks Iain

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