Someone recently asked me the difference between a reader and an editor, and the question forced me to think through some distinctions that have become fuzzier as publishing has changed over the last few decades.
A reader is someone who reads through your manuscript and gives you feedback on content — where the story or argument works, where it doesn’t, what isn’t clear. A reader can also be an expert on the subject covered in the book (or article), who can help the author or the publisher find factual errors in content or refine the argument. The key word here is feedback — the reader does not fix your manuscript.
What many new authors think of as the role of the editor, in so far as it still exists today, is really divided into at least three parts (if not four or five). You might think the editor is the person who reviews and sends comments about a manuscript, but in fact these days an editor is more likely to be the person who manages a publication, deciding what pieces go in a collection, what book goes under which imprint, what articles to include in a magazine issue or a newspaper, etc.
An editor can also be the person who puts together a group of essays or stories and makes them into a cohesive collection, making sure the pieces work together, sometimes adding footnotes to clarify or put things in context. An editor can also prepare an edition of a book — a special version of the text with additional materials like a foreword or annotated bibliography.
Acquisitions editors review manuscripts and pursue books their press might want to publish.
A proofreader looks for misspellings, grammar errors, and typos, as well as formatting problems (for example: quoted material that is missing a quotation mark). In the past the proofer checked the proofs, making sure that the manuscript was ready for printing, but now proofreaders also offer a simple cleanup of a work or can be an extra pair of eyes after a copyeditor has gone through a manuscript.
A copyeditor prepares a manuscript so that it is consistent, following a style guide (like Chicago) and/or creating a project-specific style guide — and you can read BK’s post to see why I am not calling it a style sheet. He or she makes sure the writing is smooth (correct grammar, no dangling participles, etc.) and clear. Copyeditors also give suggestions for rewriting unclear or awkward sentences, as well as restructuring arguments or narratives to make them clearer or more readable or more compelling. For fiction, the copyeditor might also help to make sure that the narrative voice and the voices of the characters remain consistent.
Copyeditors can also take on the task of fact checking.
It seems these days that copyeditors are taking on more of what was traditionally considered the editor’s role — that is, helping to refine the language of a piece, as well as the argument or story.
There is also the work of the developmental editor. Although I am describing this role last, it actually comes first (maybe I needed a developmental editor for this post). This is the person you turn to to help you unwrap your ideas and analyses, the one who helps you organize (or reorganize) your manuscript, and points out the holes that need to be filled or stitched together.
And sometimes a developmental editor slips into the role of ghostwriter.
When you are looking for help with your manuscript, you need to know where you are in the writing process to decide if you need a developmental editor, a reader, a copyeditor, or a proofreader. And if you don’t know, then it’s probably time to find a someone who can look over what you’ve written and help you decide whom to turn to. And that someone would most probably be an editorial consultant.