What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate …

Tell people you’re an editor, and you get all sorts of reactions. (You there in the back, stop that sniggering!) Some people think it means that what I do for work is like correcting term papers—but that’s not it at all. Some folks get all self-conscious and think I’ll be correcting their grammar on Facebook or in e-mail. (It never even occurs to me, honestly. Besides—and this is the real reason—there’s not enough time left in my precious life to spend it doing something that feels like work during my leisure time.)

It’s easy to see where the confusion comes from; there are different kinds of editors. And we all call ourselves editors—many without any caveat.

For example, I keep an eye out for websites about writing, and stumbled upon one that read, “I’m an experienced, versatile copywriter and editor working with …” (emphasis mine)—but as I read on, I began to see that this copywriter (her main service) can also improve (i.e., edit) copy her clients have written themselves. While this is definitely an editorial function, it’s not what I mean when I say I’m an editor.

And there are acquisitions editors (like A&R folks at record companies, acquisitions editors are seeking manuscripts to, well, acquire). Newspaper editors (you know, like George Taylor of the Daily Planet). Textbook editors. Managing editors (this is more about project management). Executive editors (sometimes a ceremonial title). Copyeditors (also often called line editors), as mentioned in the example above.

Actually, I sometimes do take on copyediting work. It’s why I’m so fond of the Chicago Manual of Style. But it’s not really the editing I want to do, unless it’s coupled with the editing I prefer.

So this is what I do: it’s called developmental editing, or substantive editing (or sometimes a macro edit; it seems all the publishers have their own verbiage). And this is what it is: when the author finishes the novel his agent sold to a publisher and turns it in (preferably on or before the date in his contract), the developmental stage begins. The manuscript is sent to me, and I begin a reading process during which I take notes on the characters, create a timeline, track all the action in the plot, and so on. Honestly, I don’t really know how to describe the process, because it’s somewhat alchemic in nature. It’s … you know, voodoo. :)

Basically, though, I’m a paid critic. I was (and am!) the bossy older sister, so this role suits me just fine. I point out plot holes (and I even suggest ways to fix them), and weaknesses in the characterization, and places where the pacing drags. I have heard what I do called “book doctoring,” and that’s not far off, although it feels a little, um, patronizing. No matter what you call it, I must tell you that I love this work. It engages my mind and my creative sensibilities.

And now you know what I do. :)

Tweet: This is what I do. It’s called developmental editing.

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  1. Beth says:

    I love love LOVE this post, Jamie. Love!

  2. londie says:

    LIKE as they say.. it’s funny when Hollie went to college her major was Physical Therapy, well since the program was so impacted and my sister-in-law is a speech therapist, Hollie switched to a Communicative Disorders Major… well Dennis was a proud pop when she graduated and was telling everyone she was going to be a physical therapist… she said no Dad, my major was Communicative Disorders
    his loud reply.. WELL WE HAVE ONE..now that’s a faliure to communicate

  3. You are the kind of editor I might be looking for in the future :)