Beneath all the ambiguity about editors lies a person. This person has a certain amount of and type of experience that allows him/her to make the comments they make. In a very abstract way, the editor is like a creative writing workshop member. This person must read your work and comment on it, using logic and/or their expertise. The most basic aspect of this reading involves looking for and marking simple grammar problems, which most non-writers think is what editing is all about.
But the editor is not one of your community workshop members. Workshop comments and critiques are far different than editorial comments. When you submit your work to a workshop or a critique, you only supply some of your work, a piece of your novel or a short story. You supply the entire work, the novel, to the editor so they can appraise it.
Where does this expertise come from?
Here are the qualifications for a job posting for an editor on Monster.com:
· Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, English, Technical Writing or equivalent required
· Minimum 1 year of experience in Business Editing/Writing or Journalism in related field
· Must be proficient in the use of AP Stylebook guidelines
· Must be self-motivated, and have a passion for journalistic and investigative endeavors, fact finding, and creating well-written, accurate and detailed reports
· Must have an interest in today’s Business Climate, both regionally and globally
· Extensive knowledge of and experience using MS Excel, Word, Power Point, Outlook, and Access
· Experience in accounting or financial services a plus
This is obviously for a job a special form of editing, but those first few requirements are nearly identical on all postings for editors; also, it would not surprise me if there were not other special qualifications for an editor seeking employment in one of the Big 5 publishing houses.
An editor for a book publisher will likely be an English or Journalism major, one of those kids who took the time to write for their high school or college newspapers and then moved on to edit their university paper or get an internship working along the staff of the literary journal sponsored by their university--if their institution has one. Some universities have their MFA students run their literary journals, including that editing position.
What this experience is meant to give is perspective and an appreciation for reading and working under the oppressive nature of "the deadline." Reading the unpublished work of others gives the editor perspective--it becomes very clear that the work of some authors is weaker than others in various areas; it also exposes which types of stories appear frequently; and it creates reading endurance, a way to consume vast amounts of work. This experience is invaluable when having to read manuscripts that are at times hundreds of pages long.
But here, some of you might say that, hey, you've been doing that all along while reading your favorite novels! You're halfway there. I'm sorry to say that it isn't the same. What the editor reads is a possible version of a novel; what the reader gets is the finished novel.
How does an English degree help? Remember all those novels they made you read in your high school English classes? In college we had to read a ton more and then analyze them; sometimes you enjoy them, sometimes not. The undergrad and graduate English student writes extensively about these novels so that their literary tastes are diverse, their knowledge vast.
The editor of today also has to work with other editors to decide what to acquire. So, all those team building activities in their college years helped. All of this is done while simultaneously consuming other types of novels, genre works--the kinds of things we read for pleasure.
The ideal editor is a database of all this reading, of published and unpublished work. When they turn their eyes onto your pages, there is an extensive history behind them. Maybe your work will remind them of Hemingway or Faulkner or if you write genre of O. Card or maybe George R. R. Martin or Raymond Chandler.
And so, there is your editor.