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The Globe and Mail

What real editors really do (and why writers should avoid freelancers)

My colleague John Barber wrote an interesting article for last weekend's paper about a phenomenon many have noticed among the many changes in the turbulent publishing industry: There are fewer editors on staff at publishing houses, and publishers are less willing to work on troubled manuscripts as a result. They want manuscripts to be "cleaner," closer to finished. This has led to the new growth industry: freelance editing, hired and paid for by aspiring writers.

I too have noticed that I am receiving far more questions from creative-writing students and first-time novelists about the use of these freelance editors. How do I choose one? How much should I pay?

This makes one wonder: Is "professional" editing something like a medical diagnosis? Will there be a consensus among experts about what any given manuscript requires? And in an age of instant books, easy self-publishing and editorless publishers, are we going to start thinking about doing without editors altogether?

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The fact that most people aren't sure what editors do was demonstrated in the immediate online response to Barber's article, which focused on a couple of puny typographical errors as if this is the kind of thing editors are paid to care about. It isn't. Copy editors do that.

An editor chooses manuscripts for publication that are brought to her attention by an agent who represents authors. This editor must then run the idea of the book past the marketing department who will tell her if they think they can sell it to Indigo or not. They will approve it as long as it's not something completely insane like a book of short stories. The number of typographical errors in the manuscript at this point doesn't affect anyone's decision.

Then the editor gives the author notes on how the manuscript could be improved. These notes will not be spelling or punctuation corrections. They will be ideas about the structure and characterization in a novel. In a book of non-fiction they will be criticism and debate of the ideas being advanced. This is called substantive editing.

After the book is rewritten - possibly more than once - to the satisfaction of the editor, then it is given to a second editor, often a freelancer, who goes through all the persnickety punctuation stuff. This is called copy-editing.

So what do substantive editors mean when they say that a book is "ready" for publication, like doctors announcing that a tumour is gone? What might they mean when they say it has been "cleaned up" or any of the other metaphors they might use, metaphors that might give you the impression that there is some universally accepted check-list for their profession? They won't tell you, because there isn't one.

What they should be saying is "when I like it." And this why I would never counsel any author to hire a freelance editor before a publisher has looked at it. There are no standards to follow here: Editors have quirky and personal tastes. They might want a book to be shorter, or they might want it to be longer. They might want more description or less description. So publishers might scorn your private editor's choices. (Remember too that there is no professional certification for freelance editors: You become one by losing a job at a magazine and then posting an ad on the Internet.)

Okay, then the bigger question: So why do we need substantive editors at all? Why not just use copy editors to catch the grammatical errors and chuck it out there for $10.95 on Kobo?

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Well, there was a time when a particular editor's artistic vision and personal whimsy defined a publishing house's program. That editor would be trusted to make decisions that were intellectually consistent and not necessarily the most lucrative in the short term. (When Ellen Seligman of McClelland and Stewart acquired the densely artsy experimental first novel Fugitive Pieces by a poet called Anne Michaels, I highly doubt she picked it because she thought it would be a massive commercial hit.)

This is what we lose when editorial decisions are made by calculating and predicting sales figures - a trend far more insidious than any lack of grammatical expertise.

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