by Renni Browne
In one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons a cat is maniacally clawing an upholstered chair, obviously not for the first time. In the caption its owner explains to her guests: “We believe that in a former life she was an editor.” Over the forty-five years I’ve been an editor, I’ve met plenty of people who think my job is to tear writers’ manuscripts to shreds. Other people think I correct spelling and punctuation and grammar, catch typos, and make sure that if the heroine began an evening wearing a blue sweater it hasn’t turned green by the time she comes home.
It’s not surprising that confusion about what editors do abounds, because we do a lot of different things and we never do them the same way—every manuscript is different, every writer is different, every story or nonfiction subject is different. What stays the same is the purpose of the editing: to help the author make the work as good as it can possibly be. So good that literary agents want to represent it, publishers want to publish it, and readers in significant quantities want to read it.
Adding to the confusion, there are also different kinds of work done on manuscripts—all loosely referred to as editing. If you get notes on your characters with ideas to make them more captivating or convincing, that’s editing. If you get ideas for strengthening your plot or filling plot holes or fixing plot credibility problems, that’s editing. If you get architectural suggestions—your book really starts with Chapter Two, or most of the flashbacks need to come out—that’s editing. If your writing style is polished, made smoother, given more snap and bite, that’s editing. And yes, if your grammar, typos, and inconsistencies are fixed, that too is editing.