What Does an Editor Actually Do?

by Jeanette the Writer
published in Writing

You know those graphics with the six squares labeled with titles like “what my family thinks I do” or “what I think I do” and then always ending with “what I really do”? Well, I’ve been seeing those floating around again (yay, for revolving trends), and I figured it might be time to clarify what an editor actually does.

After all, editing is expensive. It takes a long time. What is your editor doing during those weeks or months with your manuscript? What are they doing to earn that high fee? I promise you, editing isn’t sitting around reading books all day. It’s also not making our pens proverbially bleed onto the page as we gleefully correct errors. Editing is a complicated and often frustrating process. Here’s a little of what it looks like.

What Does Professional Editing Look Like?

Since I’m a copy editor, I’ll take you through what a copy edit looks like for me with the average manuscript.

Receive the Manuscript

The first step is receiving the manuscript. I will perform a basic cleanup on the text, formatting it properly (if it isn’t already) and performing basic functions such as replacing any double spaces between sentences with single spaces. All of this happens before the track changes go on because there’s no need for the author to see those changes (and they can be numerous).

Read Through the Manuscript

Next, I’ll read through the manuscript from beginning to end to get an idea of the contents and the author’s voice and intentions. If the edit is a tight turnaround, I may only read the first section of the book before diving into editing fully.

Track Changes Go On

Now, track changes go on, and the editing begins. Editors look for many things at this stage, and the order in which they search for each item could be different for each author and editor. For a copy edit, I’m looking at grammar such as unnecessary passive voice or consistent capitalization; I’m looking for flow such as too many repeated sentence starts; I’m looking for punctuation, including both the correctness and the impact of each mark.

Make Additional Passes

Depending on how “clean” the manuscript already is, I may complete anywhere from two to five passes on it, looking for different things each time. How many passes a manuscript gets also depends on the timeline or quote from the editor. The less time for the edit, the fewer passes I’m going to be able to fit in. Some editors will name a specific number of passes in their contracts.

Manuscript Goes Back to the Author

Once the manuscript is handed back to the author, they have a chance to read through it and make any final changes or change anything back they disagree with. You don’t need to and shouldn’t hit accept all. I usually lock the track changes on during this stage, so you can’t do that.

Final Pass & Cleanup

When you’re done making changes, then it comes back to me, and I do a final scan of the manuscript. In particular, I’m paying attention to any edits I see you’ve made to be sure any basic errors haven’t been introduced. I then “accept all” on the manuscript and send the tracked changes and clean copies to the author.

What Does it Take to Be an Editor?

In addition to how I edit, I’d like to cover what it takes to complete the above steps. Editors have different traits that make them adept at different types of editing. But most editors will have these basic skills.

Decision Making

Editing is a lot of decision-making. Yes, a lot of decisions are made for us by style guides and grammar rules. But there are a LOT of exceptions to English writing “rules,” and editors are tasked with finding the right answer to a question with no certain conclusion. Therefore, a lot of editing comes down to style. Editors are constantly trying to balance what is correct with what is the author’s voice.

Detail Retention

Did the apartment switch from the second to the third floor in two different chapters? Did you capitalize a made-up term somewhere but have it lowercase in other places? These sorts of details need to ring bells in an editor’s mind so they can create consistency in the work.


Editors need to understand their authors. They need to understand what the author’s intentions are behind the words and their meaning and how they are trying to get it across. We must put ourselves in the author’s shoes and think like them to do our best editing without removing what makes the writing special.

A Keen Eye

Great editors can spot even the smallest details, like a wrongly italicized comma. We need to be detail oriented to find what needs fixing. A lot of editing is looking at a word or construction and telling ourselves, “I better look this up.”


Editors need to be patient with authors, for sure, but also patient with the work. Editing shouldn’t be rushed. When I work on a manuscript, I work six or seven days a week, but I only edit up to four hours each day. This is about how long we can do Deep Work.


Editors need to have a thick skin. Sure, most people think it’s the authors who need to steel themselves up against our edits, but it’s really editors who need to be resilient to feedback on our edits. After all, we’ve invested into your manuscript, it can be devastating to hear an author changed back most of the edits. But it happens. Editors need to be resilient to it.

Some editors refer to themselves as gardeners, helping manuscripts grow into full books. Other editors see themselves as miners, digging the true message from your words. Overall, editing is a long and complicated process. (And we haven’t even covered developmental editing, line editing, or proofreading.) But rest assured, your high-charging editor is doing much more than just adding a few commas or making a few comments. 

Jeanette the Writer is a freelance editor and writer based in Dallas, TX. When not at her computer, you can find her crafting, scuba diving, or posting pictures of her cats on Instagram. Visit JeanettetheWriter.com for more info and follow @JeanettetheWriter on Instagram and Facebook.

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