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Working as an editor

Alethea Spiridon
Editors’ Association of Canada
(The Editors’ Association of Canada began using the name Editors Canada on July 1, 2015.)


Types of editing

Although editors work in a variety of industries and take on countless different tasks, the fundamentals of editing are always the same. Editors carry out four tasks, in the following order: substantive/structural editing, stylistic editing, copy editing and proofreading.

The first step in editing a document is to look at the text from a big-picture point of view. A substantive/structural edit considers how all the parts of a document work together, and a good editor can help you figure out how best to make those parts work together. Substantive/structural editing is much like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, except that these pieces can mesh a number of ways to arrive at a cohesive, properly organized document.

The next step, stylistic editing, is a line-by-line edit of each sentence of the text to ensure that sentences read well. This is where any jargon, clichés, and repetitive words and phrases are removed. It's important for editors at this stage to understand who the intended audience is and to bear it in mind as they edit. The language and overall tone should meet the needs of the intended audience. Stylistic editing will smooth out any rough language and passages.

Upon completion of stylistic editing, the editor then moves on to copy editing. In this stage, all matters of grammar, spelling, consistency, syntax and other mechanics of style are sharpened and cleaned up. A style sheet is usually prepared by the editor as a guide to house style and conventions.

Finally, proofreading can help ensure a clean and error-free document. This step should catch any lingering typos or errors. It is best done by a new set of eyes that can read the document over with a fresh perspective. Unfortunately, this step is often overlooked because it is seen as unnecessary and delays publication. Even the sharpest copy editors sometimes miss things. Production schedules should allow time for proofreading to reduce the likelihood of an embarrassing error.

Often clients are unclear about what sort of editing they actually want or need, and this can cause confusion. The Editors' Association of Canada (EAC) has developed a comprehensive list of definitions of editorial skills and posted them on its website. It is important that a contract editor get clear directives about the work being requested. EAC recommends that a contract or letter of agreement be signed by both parties, and provides a standard freelance editorial contract on its website.

Challenges and rewards

Whether freelancing or working in-house, for the government or for an emerging author, an editor is responsible for improving on the written text in a way that respects the author's voice and serves the needs of the intended audience. Providing feedback in a constructive and positive manner will ensure a good working relationship with any writer.

For a good editor, the most satisfying and rewarding aspect of work is taking a piece of writing and making it cleaner, tighter and better structured. When a client recognizes that accomplishment, it is very gratifying.

Editors are often not acknowledged publicly. Their rewards come from knowing they gave a writer's written voice clarity and strength by carefully trimming the language to reveal the gem inside and (sometimes) receiving an earnest thank you for a job well done.