Editors Defined

Since I've received a lot of questions lately about editing and what editors do, now seems like a good time to repost this handy guide.


Publishing is an old industry that's assembled its own internal lexicon. As you'll find with any trade, publishing jargon can be difficult for laymen--and even authors--to decipher.

A widely misunderstood term is the deceptively simple title of editor. When most people; again even some authors, hear the word "editor", they immediately think of someone going through a manuscript and marking errors. That association isn't necessarily false, but but it's not true of all publishing professionals with "editor" in their job titles, and editors who work on manuscripts come in several types.

Here are the most common kinds of editors you'll find working at publishing houses.
  • Acquisitions Editor: As the name implies, this editor's job is to acquire manuscripts for the house to publish. When an author submits a book for publication, it's the acquisitions editor who either makes the decision to buy the rights, or who champions the book with the house's decision makers. An acquisition editor's job isn't to prepare a book for publication, but to pick winners from the flood of submissions. Nowadays, the editors themselves rarely sift through the slush pile. That task is largely left to editorial interns who pass likely candidates to their supervising editors. Literary awards' Best Editor categories are referring to acquisitions editors.
  • Project Editor: A project editor coordinates with all of the personnel working on a particular book project, including the author, art department, printers, and other editors to turn a manuscript into a salable book. A book's project editor may or may not be the acquisitions editor who acquired it.
  • Development Editor: This is the first person in the publishing process who performs work that is popularly associated with the term "editor". A development editor works with the author to develop the book's content. This includes helping to bring story elements like plot, character, and theme up to professional standards. Development editors tend to focus on the "big picture".
  • Line Editor: Now we're getting into the more archetypal levels of editing. Line editors deal directly with the manuscript, but they don't primarily check for typos and punctuation errors. Instead, line editors focus on paragraph and sentence-level style and language use. The line editor makes sure that the writing in a manuscript is clear, conveys mood effectively, and has a consistent tone. Line editing affects a book's readability more than any other editorial stage.
  • Copy Editor: A copy editor's job most closely fits what most people think of when they hear the word "editor". This is highly technical editing where the manuscript is gone over with a fine tooth comb to spot grammatical, syntax, spelling, and punctuation errors and inconsistencies. Copy editing is essential to making sure that a book is up to industry standards.
Keep in mind that the above definitions apply to editors that work for publishers. Freelance editors usually offer development, line, or copy editing; and often combinations thereof.

For indie authors, here are some important questions to ask yourself before hiring an editor:
  • What is my goal in publishing my book: for fun, personal validation, or to gain a readership and earn money?
  • Is my book's plot coherent? Do the characters have definite and sufficient motivations? Do the events of the story comport with my desired themes?
  • Are the ideas in my book presented clearly? Is my style pleasing to read and easy to understand? Is my book tonally consistent? Does my writing effectively set the desired mood?
  • Do I need help polishing my book's grammar and punctuation to meet professional standards?
Answering these questions will help you determine what levels of editing your book needs. But you're not done yet. Before engaging the services of an editor, make sure that you have:
  1. Conducted multiple editing passes on the manuscript yourself. Make your story as polished as you can get it!
  2. Received honest feedback from several objective beta readers--or even better, alpha and beta readers. These should ideally be people who a) are neither your friends nor relatives, b) you haven't met in person, c) are deep and avid readers in your genre. The goal is to get feedback that's as objective as possible.
  3. Revised again based on reader feedback. The editor's desk should be the penultimate stop before publication.
When all is said and done, the final authority over your book is you. Hence the term "author". Then perform one of the hardest duties of an author: put your pride in your back pocket and consider all editorial suggestions with an open mind.

Remember that your editor is there to help you produce the best book possible. If your answer to the first question above is "reach readers and GET PAID!" the best book is one that pleases your readers; not your artistic sensibilities.

It can be massively ego-puncturing to get back a manuscript that you were sure was a masterpiece covered in red. Suck it up. A thick skin is essential to success in this business. Better to have your book dissected by the editor whose honest opinion you're paying for than eviscerated by the readers you're hoping will pay you.

Speaking of which, my schedule is currently open for editing clients. If you'd like your book, novella, or short story edited by a Dragon Award-winning author, see my submission guidelines.


  1. And if the answer to the first question is 'Follow my muse and write the story I want to write without regard to fame and fortune', you still want to get your story or book as well-polished as possible!

    Either way, the editor is there to help you achieve your goal. Though if you're writing for your muse, for fun, or personal validation, you also need to put your pride in the back pocket as well for how the audience reacts.

    1. Well said. The proper end of all fiction writing is to produce enjoyment in the reader.

    2. Some award winning authors didn't get the memo.

    3. Look at the status of their awards.

  2. DJ and Brian

    Thanks for the post and comments.

    TL;Dr Take oridevin your accomplishment but don't be too proud to get editorial hel.p

  3. Every author requires a second pair of eyes. You are not infallible, and you will miss mistakes in your writing that will damage your story. This is why an editor is critical to any writer serious about putting out a product.

    The lack of editing, for instance, is why the final three Harry Potter books are considered far worse than the other four, and why nobody has enjoyed a Stephen King novel since the early '80s.

    If you want to be a writer, you need to have an editor. You cannot skip this crucial step of writing.

    This is the one point that needs to be hammered in to every writer, just like getting a good cover artist. It's a non-negotiable.

    1. Another reason to avoid Oldpub: Their editors either care more about the Narrative than your story, or they just stop editing you if you get big enough.

    2. Too big to edit has marred way too many series.

    3. The Wheel of Time would have been a trilogy if Tom Doherty had put his foot down.

    4. And the same happened to Tom Clancy and JAVIN Rowling.


    5. Probably Frederick Forsythe as well. David Weber might be getting there.

      I know that both Forsythe and Clancy ended up recycling their older works almost verbatim. Weber hasn't gotten there yet, but is recycling theme and premise.

    6. Clancy was ghostwritten even before his death because he lost control of his literary estate in a divorce.

    7. It’s amazing that Clancy can write so many books even though he’s been dead for so long. I aspire to that productivity

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