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A Day in the Life of an Editor

By Katie Cline

One of Hollywood’s favorite careers to portray is that of the editor at a publishing company. Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, Buddy’s dad in Elf, Margaret Tate in The Proposal, and of course, Bridget Jones (although she technically worked in publicity, but I couldn’t help but include her.) The movies love to show editors behind a huge mahogany desk in a private corner office on the 50th floor with a red pen in their hand and reading glasses perched on their nose as they calmly and carefully pore over a single manuscript in total tranquility.

This post is written to completely upend that perception of an editor’s life.

First of all, nothing is ever done in red pen anymore –– and hasn’t since the 2000s. Everything is edited in Microsoft Word using the Track Changes function (which admittedly often shows changes in a red font). I don’t sit in a high-rise office in New York City with interns bringing me Starbucks and steaks (looking at you, Miranda Priestly), but rather in a cubicle surrounded by sticky-notes in Florida. And most importantly, my day is anything but tranquil.

At any one time, I might have anywhere from three to four authors’ manuscripts in various stages of editing. I don’t sit in a lush leather chair, slowly sipping Earl Grey as I think of the absolute best word to accompany “milieu”. Rather, I’m pounding back cups of Keurig coffee and trying to remember the word for that thing you drive in (… oh right ­­­­­–– car!). One manuscript might be fresh from the author after just signing the contract, and another might be in the very final stages before heading to design. People often fail to realize this –– I might be the author’s only editor, but they are not my only author.

I try hard to organize my time so that no one project falls by the wayside. To do this, I usually break my manuscripts into parts. I’ll edit one section and return that portion to the author to revise, then move on to the next. This way, my authors don’t feel forgotten and don’t have to sit waiting for a month while I attempt to edit their (and two other authors’) entire manuscript before sending it back for their changes to be made.

But what could possibly take so long? You’re only moving commas around! Ah, yes. This is one of the most common misconceptions about working as an editor. My job involves so much more than simply putting a semi-colon where there used to be an em-dash. That is only one of the many types of editing. I typically work from big picture down to small details. I take the manuscript through structural and developmental, line and copy editing, and proofreading.

When I get a manuscript from the author, my first job is to look over the entire book as a whole and see how it flows as a single unit. In a book titled “The Story of the Founding of Italy”, if the author only introduces the country after the fifth chapter, it’s probably fair to say that something is off about the organization. During structural and developmental editing, I’d look at how each part, section, and chapter work toward the cohesiveness of the book as a whole. It’s during this stage that I’d suggest the author reorganize, create a new outline of information, or rewrite (if it is truly a mess, though this rarely happens).

Next comes line editing and copyediting. This is probably the closest to the image that Hollywood has tried to portray to moviegoers. When line editing, I read the manuscript from beginning to end and work sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph to make the book read well. Sometimes a phrase can be accurate, but still sound clunky or unnatural, so I take the words and shape them into the best form they can take. For example, the phrase “Danielle likes candles. She likes the ones that smell like apples and cinnamon” can be better written as “Danielle likes all candles, but especially those that smell like apples and cinnamon.” It is a simple, subtle change and the meaning remains the same, but the edited phrase flows more naturally in the reader’s mind.

When copyediting, grammar and spelling are finally taken into account. Nothing disrupts the flow of reading quite lke a eally bad tpyo –– see what I did there? This is where you might say our job is just to move commas around … but they are very important commas!

Finally, the book arrives at the proofreading stage. Even after everything has been rearranged and all of the sentences have been honed, some very minor errors may still slip through. It can be very easy to look at the sentence “I break for birds” and fail to notice that “break” should be “brake” in that context, especially after your fifth time reading the manuscript! Therefore, in the proofreading stage, after some time to clear the mind and look at the book with fresh eyes, the editor slowly goes through each sentence of the book once more to make absolutely sure that the grammar, punctuation, and spelling are correct.

Larger publishing houses like Random House and Simon & Schuster have massive editorial departments with specific editors for each style of editing. But since Atlantic is an indie publisher, we’ve only got two editors on staff who must handle every book at every stage of editing. That’s why at any given point, I’m juggling four manuscripts, each at varied stages.

On top of all of this, I talk directly with authors via email and phone to understand their vision. I coordinate with the project manager who oversees the process to do things like write or edit book copy and ensure that the designer’s cover design matches the tone of the manuscript (to learn more about what project managers do and learn about what book copy is, check out our Day in the Life of  Project Manager and The Publishing Glossary posts).

My day-to-day life as an editor is super hectic and sometimes frustrating, but I’m blessed to come to work every day and do what I’m passionate about. An author does the all-important work of creating a raw, exquisite sculpture –– an editor just polishes the rough edges and makes it shine. Every chapter I rearrange, every phrase I manipulate, and every comma I shift takes a book one step closer to finding its way into the hands of a reader who will carry the book’s information with them forever.

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