By Doug Wagner
“Doug missed fourteen errors. Is that normal?”
“That’s awesome. Your proofer only had to catch fourteen things? Sounds like Doug did most of her work for her.”
That exchange was between a Windword client and Toni Robino, my partner at Windword, who was managing the project. It reflects a common misperception about the role of an editor, a misperception that might be summed up this way: An editor fixes everything, right?
Almost. Editors fix what you hire them to fix.
If you hire a developmental editor, for example, he or she will either fix or help you to develop the structure of your project, depending on how far along you are. The editor will look at whether writing an anecdote or a scene would be more effective than capturing an event in summary form. For novels and memoirs, character and plot development will be closely scrutinized. In other words, the editor will focus on the structure on which the rest of the project will be built.
If you hire a line editor, he or she will look at the words you’ve chosen to use and how they fit together. Do they add up to a picture that’s as vivid as it should be? Does the author’s voice sound authoritative, like the voice of someone readers can trust to tell the story the best way possible? Is the dialogue true to life? Is your language conspicuous when it should be invisible? Does it slow the pace when readers should be turning the pages so eagerly that they’re barely aware that they’re reading? A line editor will consider not just every line but every word. Every word counts.
If you hire a copy editor, he or she will make sure that your manuscript is clear, that everything is connected logically and makes sense and that you make your points effectively. That goes for your wording as well as the general presentation of your ideas. Is it easy to follow, and does the narrative flow? Or do you tend to wander down tangents that lose the reader’s interest? A copy editor keeps the reins tight and forces you to stay on your path.
If you hire a proofreader, he or she will look for the typos and the spelling errors that inevitably fell between the cracks while the editor was focusing on the bigger picture. And they are inevitable. It’s as inevitable as missing some of the trees if you’re focusing on the forest. If you get an edit back and the editor hasn’t missed a single error, chances are there’s trouble in the forest, so beware. Think about it—when editors pay so much attention to commas and apostrophes, can they really see the problems underlying the text at the same time? If they’re trying to gauge the flow of a manuscript—to experience the narrative the same way a reader will—and they get tripped up on every typo and subtle spelling error, you can bet they’ve lost track of the flow. I acknowledge that I haven’t looked into the science behind it, but I’m fairly certain that looking for typos and analyzing concepts call on different parts of the brain, and mental multitasking isn’t necessarily a strength in either an editor or a proofreader.
None of this is to minimize the importance of proofreading. It’s as important as the developmental editing that lays the groundwork—it just comes later in the process and shouldn’t be rushed. When editors have finished the heavier lifting, that’s the time to hire a fresh set of eagle eyes to go after the typos and spelling errors and double-check the grammar and word usage.
A manuscript comes together in layers. If you want the best possible result, you’d do well to regard each layer as a separate investment in the quality of your project.