Four Things Writers Need to Know about Book Editors

Four Things Writers Need to Know about Book Editors. checklist showing some attriubutes of a good editor
Four things writers need to know about book editors

The relationship between a writer and their editor is crucial to the success of every book. Ideally, writers and editors should work collaboratively, sharing the same ideas and goals. But of course, partnerships are only successful if both partners understand each other’s roles.

The professional book editor’s role is to understand what it takes to be a writer, and how writers work. The editor’s reputation depends on it after all! Writers who have never worked with an editor often don’t understand what editors do, and what they can expect.

Four things writers need to know about book editors

Following are four of the most common misconceptions that writers have about working with an editor.

‘Good writers don’t need book editors’

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Mark Twain: a formidable writer with a formidable moustache

Even Mark Twain, who had an ambiguous relationship with proofreaders and book editors, realised that his work was not perfect and that he needed the input of a professional book editor. The best, most well-known authors always have their work professionally edited. Their publishers insist.

What Stephen King says…

Here’s what Stephen King had to say in his book, On Writing (2000): “… I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (‘kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings’)… I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’” (By the way, a ‘mot’ is a pithy or witty remark.)

Revise, revise, revise

Books take a long time to write, and the longer authors work on them, the more deeply invested they become in their manuscripts. This is especially true of first works. It is easy to think that by the time the manuscript is finished, it’s perfect and ready for publication. This is never the case; manuscripts can always be improved. It is a serious mistake to submit a draft manuscript to a publisher without having had it professionally edited. If the publisher rejects the manuscript, it’s almost impossible to resubmit it to that publisher.

Take a step back…

A trap for new writers is that they become so close to their stories they do not have the distance to see the work as a whole. Creating a complex narrative and then spending hours revising means that a writer will be intimately familiar with all elements of their work (concepts, arguments, plots, themes, and characters) but might not realise their ideas are not translating seamlessly into words. Book editors have the perspective to help writers ensure that the words they write are what they mean and want to convey to the reader. It is the book editor’s role to tie the story ideas together with the words so that the whole book ‘works’.

‘My friends and family have read my manuscript, and they all say it’s great!’

Asking your partner/parent/neighbour/English teacher to read your manuscript can be beneficial. Their feedback may provide you with a fresh perspective on your story, or help develop your confidence in your story, even if your writing still needs work. They may offer useful suggestions. But there is a reason why these people offer their services free, and professional editors charge for their services. Qualifications and expertise aside, the focus of anyone you have a close relationship with will be on you, while the focus of a professional editor will be on the manuscript. Friends and family are great for support (sometimes not, I’ve heard!), but they won’t be able to critically deconstruct your book like a professional book editor can. Authors need this objective feedback to improve their work.

‘All editors are the same’

There are as many different types of editors as there are different people. It is also true that the term ‘editor’ can be used loosely; pretty much anyone can call themselves an editor, regardless of whether they have any qualifications or even experience.

The formal accreditation available to editors since 2008 through IPEd – Accredited Editor (AE), has greatly improved the editing profession. It is beneficial to authors – who now have a benchmark to guide them, and for the editors involved – whose professional credibility is justifiably enhanced.

Questions to ask editors

Editors all have different styles, practices, work ethics, strengths, and weaknesses. To ensure a quality experience with an editor, it is important to find one who is best suited to working with you and your manuscript. Here are some general questions you can ask an editor before deciding to work with them:

• What qualifications do you have? Are you an Accredited Editor?

• Do you have an English degree?

• How many years’ experience do you have as a professional book editor?

• How long will the edit take?

• Can you give me a quotation? (Beware of an editor who is not prepared to give you a quotation.)

• Do you offer a sample edit? If so, is there a charge for this?

Look at the editor’s website and read what writers who have worked with them say.

Different types of editing

Just as there are different kinds of editors, there are different types of editing. Copy editing corrects basic errors such as typographical, spelling and punctuation. It aims to improve the style, flow and clarity of the book without making big changes.

With structural editing, the editor works closely with the author to make significant changes and improve the overall manuscript. Changes may include moving passages of text around for better flow, introducing dialogue where narrative is too dense, and improving the flow, readability and appeal of the manuscript.

Proofreading is the final step after the edit is complete. The editor proofreads the manuscript line by line and checks spelling, grammar and punctuation to pick up any remaining errors – or errors the writer may have introduced during their review of the edited manuscript.

Sample edit or manuscript appraisal

The editor is best qualified to decide what type of edit your book needs. This is why a sample edit is a good idea before proceeding. Any editor worth their salt will give you their professional opinion about the type of edit best suited to your writing.

Consider asking for a manuscript appraisal if you don’t have a clear idea of what your story needs.

Building a relationship with a book editor will result in a coherent manuscript with one voice – yours. If the editor you are working with offers several different kinds of editing services, it can be a good idea to work with them for all your editing needs.

‘My manuscript is covered in red – my story must be terrible!’

Four Things Writers Need to Know about Book Editors. screenshot of marked up manuscript

Having your book edited for the first time can be daunting. When your draft is returned covered in corrections, it is easy to become discouraged. But it is very important to remember that your editor is not your high school English teacher. Red lines don’t mean you have done something wrong. Comments in the margins don’t mean that the book is bad. One of the most common concerns writers have is that their editor will change everything about their story that makes it unique and ‘theirs’. This truly is the opposite of how a good book editor works.

The editor’s role

Editors correct errors and help develop the story. They do not change the author’s voice or make changes that the author does not feel comfortable about. The editor and the writer have a respectful, collaborative relationship. It is not an editor’s role to change the basic ideas of a story, or to rewrite it in their style. Nevertheless, a good editor will recommend a rewrite, by the writer, if it is necessary. Look for an editor who is a professional in all ways.

Not every change is a problem

Not every change that your editor makes is about ‘fixing a problem’. Many changes are simple corrections that improve clarity. The editor is making sure your style is consistent throughout the book. Many editing comments are simply queries.

Your editor is your first reader

An author needs to consider that their editor is their first reader. If the editor cannot follow something you have written, your readers will not be able to follow it either. Editors who are good at their jobs don’t make changes without a valid reason. If they are unsure about something, they will query you first rather than make an unnecessary change. Remember at the beginning of this post about the ideas in the writer’s head not always matching the words? An editor’s queries will help draw your attention to the parts of your manuscript where what you are trying to say isn’t clear enough for the reader to fully understand.


I hope that by clarifying these common misconceptions about the role of book editors you better understand your editor and can build a great professional relationship.

If you’re looking for an editor now or for the future, send us an enquiry. You might like to ask for a sample edit.

This post is a collaboration between and Rhiannon Raphael,  a student from Bond University who undertook an internship with in 2014.

Logo for Institute of Professional Editors

I invite you to download my self-published eBook “Ten Ways to Super-Charge Your Writing Skills! with bonus chapter on Self-Publishing”

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