Stacia Seaman ©2005
In a nutshell, the editor's responsibilities during the publishing process are: correcting errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation; and querying the author on characterization, pacing, and flow, as well as continuity and factual errors.
To a lot of people, that sounds quite tedious. And it can be. I think editing takes a certain type of personality (for example, you refuse to buy from a car dealership that displays a banner reading "Get cashback on a new car"). An editor must have a wide range of knowledge-not only about the mechanics of writing (grammar, spelling, and punctuation), but also about the craft of writing.
It's important to remember that all editing is not alike. Different types of editors need different types of skills. A technical editor may be familiar with a specialized lexicon but know absolutely nothing about characterization; likewise, a fiction editor may be a plot and pacing wizard but have no idea how to organize into a book a series of papers presented at an academic conference.
The most important thing editors need to know is what they don't know, and the second most important thing is to know where to find the answer. A big part of editing is looking stuff up.
I look to a variety of sources-books, Web sites, my colleagues-when I need to find an answer. The following are the sources that I find most useful.
Choosing which dictionary to consult isn't always as easy as you'd think. For example, some dictionaries list a word's most common definition first; others present them in historical order. Some dictionaries are neutral in presenting a word's usage; others are prescriptive, meaning the focus is on the "correct" usage.
Often a publisher will choose a specific dictionary that all editors use. This ensures that spelling and usage will be consistent regardless of who edited the manuscript.
- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, is the dictionary I use the most because many publishers use it.
- The Oxford English Reference Dictionary is what I use if I am beta reading or editing for someone who uses "Commonwealth English" rather than American English.
- The American Heritage Dictionary is a good reference for usage notes. I use this dictionary when I'm off the clock, and I think it's the best all-around family dictionary.
- Webster's Third New International Dictionary is a good, comprehensive, unabridged American dictionary. This is where I usually go if Merriam-Webster's doesn't have what I'm looking for.
- The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), compact edition is my baby. I love this dictionary, which shows what a true nerd I am. This is perhaps the ultimate tool for discovering the history and evolution of a word. It's not the best dictionary for day-to-day use because most of the definitions are obsolete, but if you've resorted to the OED, chances are those are the definitions you're looking for anyway. <grin>
- Roget's International Thesaurus. A very useful tool.
- Foreign language dictionaries. I have Czech, French, German, Russian, and Spanish dictionaries that I use when I just need to look up a word or two. For more than that, I prefer to consult a native speaker whenever possible, or else I call my professor friends.
A style guide deals primarily with formatting, from punctuation and capitalization to how to organize a bibliography. The publisher almost always specifies which style guide an editor should consult, and often supplements it with an in-house guide.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, Fifteenth Edition, is a very well-known and respected guide for book publishing.
- The Associated Press Stylebook is geared more for journalists (as the name implies). It's often used by newspapers and magazines.
- The MLA Style Manual from the Modern Language Association is primarily used in academia (the humanities in particular).
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is used by academics and professionals in the social sciences.
- The Government Printing Office Style Manual (GPO) is the style guide of the U.S. federal government.
- The Elements of Style. A must on any writer or editor's bookshelf.
Other English Grammar/Usage Reference Books
- English Grammar, The HarperCollins College Outline series. A basic reference for those issues that style guides and dictionaries don't always address.
- Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, by Claire Kehrwald Cook. This book is designed to help writers with the mechanics of their writing rather than the craft, which is why I list it here.
- Schaum's Outline of Punctuation, Capitalization, and Spelling. A basic reference with numerous examples and exercises.
Books About Writing and Editing
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne & Dave King. This book is very popular. I don't much care for it myself; some of their suggestions result in ungrammatical constructions that most editors will change. I do like their section on dialogue, though.
- On Writing, by Stephen King. Along with Elements of Style and Steering the Craft, this is a book that every writer should own.
- Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Wonderful. Simply wonderful. "Exercises and discussions on story writing for the lone navigator or the mutinous crew."
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss. This is a gem. Embrace your inner word nerd!
Other Reference Books
I've had to learn more than I ever wanted to know about Microsoft Word, QuarkXPress, and Adobe InDesign. I keep at least one good reference book on hand for each software application that I use on a daily basis. A lot of online editing is formatting or, more precisely, undoing formatting to make the final file as clean and simple as possible.
The New York Public Library Desk Reference. Fact, fact, and more facts.
Also, I buy a new World Almanac every year for updated general information-the spelling of names of people and places, who won what awards (Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes, for example), and things like that.
- Bartleby.com: Great Books Online (www.bartleby.com): This is a good place to look up quotations and the like to verify the wording and the source. It also contains a lot of material that's in the public domain.
- The Chicago Manual of Style Online (www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/cmosfaq/cmosfaq.html): Membership is required for full access to the site, but the public pages are a very good resource as well. Their FAQ section is wonderful, and they've been very helpful on the occasions when I've e-mailed them questions.
- The International Trademark Association (www.inta.org/tmcklst1.htm): A terrific resource for double-checking trademarks.
- Merriam-Webster Online (www.m-w.com): Online dictionary and thesaurus. Good for when you don't want to carry around a heavy book.
- Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page): Another good source for general information.