One of the most popular questions I get from new or aspiring editors is: what do editors do? I understand why people would wonder that because most people new to writing and editing aren’t quite sure what the role of an editor is.
When I started working as a freelance editor, I already had some experience working with editors — bothas a fiction writer and later with a near-academic book review website. Still, I didn’t feel anywhere near qualified. Was I supposed to proofread for errors? Rewrite entire paragraphs? Know all the grammar rules?
In this article, I’ll teach you what an editor does and share seven types of editors you should know (and what they do). Although this post will focus mostly on editing digital content, I’ll also touch briefly on book editing as all editing is intertwined.
What does an editor do?
Editors help writers refine their writing and make their message clearer, easier to understand, and more accurate. Regardless of which type of editor it is, the goal is simple: to be the reader’s advocate.
As the editor, your role encompasses the following tasks (in varying proportions):
- Helping the writer define and accomplish the objective of their piece
- Making sure the text is organized and flows in a logical order
- Ensuring that sentences are easy to read and understand
- Checking for grammar and spelling errors
- Fact-checking links, cited data, and any information that isn’t common knowledge
- Enforcing standard/your clients’ editorial style guide as closely as possible
It can be a big learning curve, and most editors tend to be more skilled in certain aspects of editing than others. I enjoy fixing smaller details more than the big picture issues, even though I still catch both kinds of discrepancies .
To help you understand more about how editing works, we’ll look closely at the different types of edits, and later we’ll consider the different kinds of editing roles possible.
The 5 Different Types of Edits You Should Know
Because there are so many layers to editing, it is common in publishing for books to go through different stages of edits. However, if you edit online content, you’ll likely be doing all these kinds of editing in one piece.
For each of these five types of edits, I’ve shared a general meaning that applies whether you’re editing books or online content.
This is the big picture edit where the editor reviews the overall piece, checking whether it fulfills its principal objective. For books, the developmental editor would tell the writer whether the story is “feasible.” They’ll offer feedback to help the author clarify their characters’ intentions, personalities, and the overall narrative arc.
Say you’ve turned in a piece about how to become a freelance writer, for example. If in your article, you’ve spent most of the word count describing what freelance writers do or how much they earn, a developmental edit would likely flag that. The editor will also likely ask that you elaborate more on the “how” section and shrink the other sections to focus on the article’s main thesis.
The line edit is the sentence-level edit that scrutinizes text for clarity. During the line edit, editors remove overly long sentences, redundant sentences, clunky phrases, and everything else that makes your text hard to read. They may move sentences around, delete unnecessary phrases, rephrase sentences, or flag examples that don’t work.
The copyedit is the “strict” edit focused on enforcing the style guide, fact-checking, confirming statistics, and verifying external link content. The copyeditor also ensures grammatical correctness and accurate spellings.
It’s common to confuse line and copy editing, but here’s how both editors would approach this paragraph, for example (copyedits in pink, line edits in green):
As you can see, the line edit is more stylistic, while the copyedit is based on facts. If you’re editing for the web, you’ll likely be doing both line and copy edits for clients — even developmental edits. But for book editing, different editors tend to perform these different edits.
Most publications today do not have dedicated fact-checkers anymore. You’ll mostly find them working with scientific publications or in-depth journalistic investigations. As a result, the role of fact-checking has become part of copyediting.
The proofreader is the final step in the editing process (and typically in digital media performed by the editor). It involves reading through the piece and correcting minor errors like typos, spacing issues, spelling mistakes, and punctuation inconsistencies.
Quick Tip: Edit types are NOT necessarily editing roles — especially if you’re writing online content. Most editors for lifestyle brands or B2B companies perform all kinds of edits on their articles. Knowing which kinds of edits are possible and required will help you understand the scope of the editor’s role.
Now, let’s see which roles editors can hold and what each role entails.
7 Common Kinds of Digital Editor Roles
Editors work in a variety of roles. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 34% of editors work for newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers, while 10% are self-employed.
If you follow enough online media companies, magazines, and newspapers, you’ve likely heard of these editor roles before. If you’ve ever wondered what they mean, here are seven common kinds of editors and what they typically do. Every organization is different and may have hybrid roles with one person fulfilling more than one editorial role.
The editor-in-chief is the main editor of any publication, newspaper, or digital media house. They make executive decisions and oversee the overall quality of all published pieces. The editor in chief is also the chief editor leading all other editorial staff.
The managing editor role is more operations-heavy than the EICs. They report to the EIC and manage the day-to-day running of the publication’s or website’s content. The managing editor typically assigns articles, hires and oversees other writers and editors, brainstorms topics, and sometimes even analyzes content performance working closely with the SEO team.
A technical editor edits technical writing and could be any editor with a technical background or relevant experience.
Freelance editors (like me!) work as independent contractors for multiple businesses or individuals to help refine their content. In rare cases, they may be hired to work as contract managing editors and assign content. Mostly, though, they stick to editing content.
Besides these types of editors, you’ll find associate (assistant) editors in publishing houses and editors-at-large in journalistic publications. More recently, SEO editor roles have become common in marketing agencies as a combination of SEO strategist and content editing responsibilities.
The Editor’s Most Important Job
Whether you view your editor as the grammar police or your saving grace, great editors have one essential job: being the reader’s advocate. If you’re a writer, a good editor can help you improve your writing and impress prospective clients.
Now that you know what editors do, perhaps you’re ready to learn how to become an editor yourself? You can sign up for my newsletter for more editing tips. And if you’re looking for an editor to help you write better, get in touch with me!
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