The Craft of Writing: The Editor Defined


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 make money,” 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.
I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. My own award-winning Soul Cycle was expertly edited by the lovely and talented L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright.
Brian Niemeier is now accepting requests to edit authors’ book and short story manuscripts. Contact him about editing services here.
Originally published here.

Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a best selling science fiction author and a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel., and its sequel, The Secret Kings, became a 2017 Dragon Award finalist for Best Science Fiction Novel. He's currently crowdfunding his latest work Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40 Second Coming on Indiegogo. Read more of his work at or pick up his books via Amazon.