What’s the point of editors?


If you hear the word ‘editor’, what are the words that immediately come into your mind?

When I tried out this word-association game on some friends (some of whom were ELT writers and others not), the result was interesting. One common – and perhaps predictable – theme was the editor’s obsession with precision: ‘pedantic’, ‘fussy’, ‘nit-picking’ were all popular choices among both the writers and especially the non-writers. Another group of words reflected the editor’s need to enforce deadlines, leading to choices such as ‘demanding’, ‘nagging’ and even ‘slave-driving’. These words were the most popular choice among the writers, which is probably not a big surprise.

However, and more encouragingly for me, there were also some positive responses, especially among the writers. Words such as ‘supportive’, ‘encouraging’ and ‘constructive’ did occasionally pop up among the more negative responses.

What conclusions did I draw from this?

First, it was interesting that the ‘public’ perception of what an editor does tends to focus on copy-editing. Partly, I have to admit that this reflects reality. Many editors I know who do very little proofreading as part of their job these days nevertheless can’t resist looking for grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes in menus, instructions, notices: in fact, in any kind of written text that comes their way. And the satisfaction that they get from spotting an error is equivalent to that of a dentist discovering a tooth that needs filling or a traffic warden handing out a parking ticket.

But, in fact, this copy-editing role is only a part of what ELT editors do. They also help authors to shape their content and make it suitable for learners. Editors offer authors support and encouragement when the process of writing becomes tiring or discouraging. And, yes, they sometimes have to nag them when work isn’t delivered on time.

Editors learn quite early on in their training about the need to separate copy and content editing. In general, if you try to do both at the same time, the two editing processes will interfere with each other, often with the result that neither kind of editing is done properly.

My own perspective comes from having some experience ‘on both sides of the fence’. I was an ELT editor for many years, and a few years ago I started writing ELT materials. Having become totally used to the role of editor, I suddenly found myself in the familiar-yet-unfamiliar situation of being edited.

Since undergoing this sudden switch in roles, what conclusions have I come to?
First, I am convinced that I could not have edited myself. Authors are sometimes tempted to believe this, especially at moments when they run into problems or disagree with their editor, but it is rarely – if ever – true. Secondly, I was lucky enough to have some extremely good editors, which got me thinking about what made them so good. In the end, being a really good editor depends on a combination of skills, experience and personal qualities. The first of these can be taught, the second acquired, and I suppose the third is something you are born with. In this respect, I believe it’s actually very similar to teaching.

Most ELT writers will have had a mixture of good and bad experiences with editors over the course of their career, and the mixture of responses in my not-very-scientific survey reflects this. And even when a writer and an editor are generally getting on well with each other, there is always a certain amount of ‘creative tension’ in the relationship.

But even when there are difficult moments, I believe it’s still important to value the role of the trained editor. There has been a lot of comment in newspapers and online about how many mainstream (non-educational) books published recently – both fiction and non-fiction – suffer from a lack of good editing. It’s certainly something I’ve been aware of myself when reading newly-published books. For example, in a novel, the colour of a character’s hair can change from page to page, or they start out drinking tea during a conversation and end up drinking coffee. Also, there is often a real lack of content editing, so that books end up seeming too long, too disorganised, or both.

In general, we are in a much better position in ELT, and we need to ensure that this remains the case. This is especially important as we move into an era of electronic publishing which, in turn, opens up the possibility of self-publishing. For me, this is an exciting prospect, but only if there is a way for trained editors to be kept as part of the publishing process.

Of course, the author/editor relationship is a two-way street. In a recent training course for senior ELT editors, I tried out my word-association game again, this time replacing ‘editor’ with ‘author’. The results were extremely interesting, but they will need to keep for another blog post!


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