The role of an editor depends entirely on the document being edited.  A cover letter usually requires no more than a quick copy edit (reading for general spelling, grammar, and structure errors).  An employee manual could require weeks of careful combing and debating over word usage (some of that legalese you find in employee manuals is there by requirement of law and can’t be removed).

Novels, as I’ve had the pleasure to learn, are an entity of their own.

Katherine Gilraine is the author of “The Index” series (The first book can be found here; her twitter is here).  We happened to run into each other on the internet a while back, and I helped her proof the first book in the series. This was a true proofreading; I was checking for basic errors that had been overlooked in previous read-throughs and dropping her little notes as I found them.  Katherine offered me book two, we agreed on a fee, and I went to work.  Shortly after, Katherine followed, taking my edits and adjusting it as I had specified (and sometimes, how I hadn’t).

I don’t think there is any author/editor relationship that works entirely the same, but here’s what we did:

I chose to edit three chapters a week.  One on Mondays and two over the weekends. I  sent Katherine the chapters as I finished them, my notes littering the pages of the Adobe Acrobat Pro file in a fun splash of red, blue, and yellow.  Katherine e-mailed, IMed, texted, or called me if she needed clarifications or wanted to run a revision by me.  We spent two days arguing over the use of Oxford commas (also known as the serial comma), and when my schoolwork suddenly leaped to the point of nearly-unmanageable, she was nice enough to wait for me to catch up (by luck, her muse bounced back into action at the same time, so she was not without distractions).

Every editing experience is different.  I’ve had experience editing creative work before, but this was my first full-length novel.  The rules, however, are generally the same for all creative work, and I see them as follows:

Know your author
— Being friends with Katherine, I knew I could get snarky in some of my comments.  This is not true for all authors.  If you’re on purely professional terms with your author, keep it that way.  Humor only translates on the page if the other person knows you’re joking.

Only snark with good reason — If you can get snarky with your author, don’t be snarky just for the sake of it.  The job of an editor is to provide constructive feedback, not wisecracks.  Wisecracks are the bonus after you’ve made your point.  Every snarky comment should be attached to a good point.

Defend your choices — If you suggest a change and your author tells you no, defend yourself.  Pull out the style guide and show some examples of why the change is necessary.  Whenever possible while editing, give some possibilities for making changes.  Don’t just say a sentence is awkward; give an example of how to make it less awkward.  If you can’t figure out a way to rephrase a sentence or phrase, it’s still okay to say it needs work, but be honest about not knowing exactly how to change it.

And, possibly, most important:  Be prepared to suck it up and let the author overrule you.  There are certain usage rules in the English language that can be adjusted as an author sees fit.  Katherine and I, as I mentioned earlier, spent two days arguing over the Oxford comma.  I love it, and the Chicago Manual of Style (the bible of the publishing community) says to embrace it.  Given the chance, I think Katherine would set it on fire.  Then burn the ashes.  I spent an entire chapter placing it in every instance of a series in a sentence.  Katherine told me no.  She preferred the flow without it, and she wanted it gone.  We ended up striking a deal; I would do my best to only mark it when I felt the series of items or ideas absolutely required it (when three or more obviously separate things or ideas needed to be marked), and I would leave alone the rest of them.  Katherine agreed to try it out, and it worked, but if she’d turned me down, I’d have sucked it up and kept editing.  My job is to tell her where to fix things, and her job is to know her style well enough to tell me no.

This whole entry is an editor’s job in a nutshell as I see it:  I offer a service that will improve your writing.  I am willing to negotiate both my fee and the general usage rules of the English language (because some of those rules are different depending on your style guide), and I will trust that you, the author, know enough about your own style to stop me if I do something that you think makes your work sound funny.  If I snark, I do it with constructive reasons (and only if I know you), and if I defend the style choice I suggest, I will do it with a stack of style guides next to me.

At the end of the day, at the end of the edit, it’s still your work and your call.  I’m paid to make you sound better as you, not make you sound like someone else.

There are a variety of simple reasons any person could use an editor.  I could probably link you to twenty articles from talented, knowledgeable people who could explain (using science) about how your brain fills in missing words because you know what’s supposed to be on the page.  Your brain filling in gaps is the same reason reading a document backwards doesn’t always allow you to catch mistakes, and it’s the same reason that causes you to turn in an assignment with bad subject-verb agreement. Your brain knows it should be there, so your brain puts it there.

But forget the links, and forget the science (for now). You know why you need an editor? Because I need an editor. And I work as an editor.

I once spelled “grammar” with an “e.” Seriously. In fact, I did it more than once.

I have been trained–really and truly trained–not to do these things. And I do them anyway. Because my brain is your brain, and an “e,” when you expect an “a” will fool your brain.