Thinking about the job of editing

I’ve been thinking a bit about this, as I’ve been nose-to-the-grindstone on editing the third edition of Primetime Adventures. There’s a part of me that wants to encapsulate in a relatively small amount of text what I do as an editor. Talking about grammar and organization and stuff is all well and good, but I think those are means, not at end. To that, I have the following two duties I hold myself to as an editor:

  • My job as an editor is to make your text match your intent
  • My job as an editor is to call bullshit on your intent (or what I perceive your intent to be) when warranted

Grammar, spelling, all that copy editing stuff is there to make the text communicate well. Organization is there to make the act of processing and understanding the text to flow as smoothly as possible (among other uses). But none of that matters if you’re communicating something other that your intent. And your intent doesn’t matter if it’s off, or if I misunderstand your intent because of your text.

I think about that from a whole-book level, from a chapter level, a spread or page level, section level, paragraph & sentence level. I think that makes me a slower editor than I could be, and I know I don’t have that luxury on a larger book to be that critical and detailed, but right now that’s the editor I like being. Revealing a writer’s intent is rewarding.

(This probably bleeds into game development, which is why Paul credited me as both editor & developer on A Penny For My Thoughts.)

Anyway, back to work. I just wanted to share some (likely disorganized) thoughts. Feel free to call bullshit…on my text or intent.

– Ryan


10 Responses to Thinking about the job of editing

  1. Actually, that’s a pretty clear job description for what an editor should be doing. At least the kind of editor that handles this type of duty (as opposed to one who only does copy editing).

  2. Tom Cadorette says:

    I agree… so long as you’re sure you understand the writer’s intent, and that the writer has explicitly agreed that you’re allowed to substantively edit their text. That sounds like it should have a “well, duh, yeah!” response made to it, but no, I think that clearly needs to be expressed in advance between the writer and their editor. Many writers acknowledge they need editing, but what they usually consider editing is just copyediting or proofing. When you get in there and discover exactly what you’ve talked about above, that their intent is not aligned with their text, then it’s best to make sure that the writer is totally on board with your alignment of text to intent … or else bad things happen, and someone starts flinging accusations only to be cut short by a rap to the head from a collapsible bite-stick.

    But I digress.

    As an editor in my day job (and a freelancer for some RPG folks), I’m always anxious about the above, as well as angsty at the pocketbook level about doing substantive editing or rewriting … it occurs to me that if I’m doing that much revision, then I needs to get paid and/or acknowledged as a *writer* or contributor in some way, just as Paul did with you on “Penny.” Any editor knows that there’s a huge difference in the amount of time spent on substantive editing vs. copyediting, possibly an order of magnitude.

    So, my disorganized reply to your disorganized yet on-target thoughts is “you’re absolutely right about the need for an editor to align text with intent… if that’s what the writer’s intent is for having you as an editor.” That’s got to be clear up front, or unhappiness will abound.

    • Jonathan says:

      @cadorette said: “make sure that the writer is totally on board with your alignment of text to intent … or else bad things happen” This is so timely – we have a project close to completion that is currently going through this. It’s a major bump in the road that hopefully won’t derail things – currently the project is on full stop while the author and I sort things out.

      More specifically, I’m wondering what you mean about “alignment of text”. I do all the layout/design of NMP’s books, but part of that process includes (before I go into InDesign) a top-level sanity check: Does this work? It this section detailed enough? Not detailed enough? On a previous book I contributed a significant amount of addition (re)writing without much push back. My inclination is to do “substantive editing or rewriting” again on the current project. The push back though has been jarring. So – in your opinion – how much is too much (re)writing for the editor? How do you handle situations where – in your view – the work needs to go back to the Drafthaus? It seems like this must be a challenge more often than not.

      @macklin said: “a lesson in trying not to assume I know the intent something that needs rewriting” Perhaps this is the lesson I need to learn as well.

      @macklin said: ” I often find myself in the curious position of editing for a writer who is also the publisher” — what about when you are the Editor and the Publisher. How do you structure the relationship then – is it the alternative you suggest: “dictating”?

      And – BTW – this post is worth its bytes in gold. ten times over. Thanks again.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      As an editor-publisher, I have ultimate authority on the book. So I can dictate what is and isn’t suitable content and suitable intent. That said, I don’t have authority over a human being, so I won’t be a cockbite about it. :) Just as an editor can walk off a job, so can a writer.

      And just because I have authority doesn’t mean I have inherent understanding, so even as an editor-publisher I like to work with writers in a peer situation. Two brains are smarter than one, and all that.

      – Ryan

    • Jonathan says:

      yes of course – that’s pretty clear and I agree 100% that “even as an editor-publisher I like to work with writers in a peer situation. Two brains are smarter than one” Or 15 brains as is the case with NMP over the long haul (trust me – it doesn’t scale so nicely in practice though. =D) – But this position is sometimes at odds with your prior statement “As an editor-publisher, I have ultimate authority on the book. So I can dictate what is and isn’t suitable content and suitable intent.” is it not? It all comes down to personalities and relationships I suspect – but collaborating on a project and managing a project are probably more often at odds than not.

      When you do find yourself at odds with with Collaborating vs. Managing a project, how do you handle it? I’d be interested in knowing some examples of how you may have navigated these sticky situations (“muddied waters”) in the past.

      As an aside: this reminds me of something my father used to say (he was in Advertising for _yearzzzz_): “Finishing the last 10% of a project feels like 90% of the work”.

  3. Ryan Macklin says:


    What you said 100%.

    Working with Paul on Penny was always about dialogue, but he was a pretty reachable guy on this project, so asking him low-level stuff like “what do you actually want to achieve with this paragraph?” was easy to do. I have worked with less reachable writers where I have to assume a lot more about intent because dialogue was infrequent.

    That’s to say that I don’t see achieving my two primary duties as something done solely by text-changing. Dialogue is key.

    I can’t remember where, but there was a paragraph in Penny that Paul & I went back and forth about. I kept asserting that it was unclear, so I eventually rewrote it to be what I thought he was saying. His solution was “That’s not what I meant…but you’re right in that it was unclear. Here’s what I mean.” That experience has stuck with me as a lesson in trying not to assume I know the intent something that needs rewriting, if that makes any sense.

    Of course, I often find myself in the curious position of editing for a writer who is also the publisher, so I often frame things in the form of conversation rather than dictation. I’m an editor who often only has authority to walk off the job, and everything else is looked at as mere suggestion. But, I find that’s a healthy way to converse with writers (at least, I do right now). And that was a total tangent, wasn’t it?

    – Ryan

  4. Tom Cadorette says:

    That kind of relationship in editing, where it’s collaboration and dialogue twixt writer and editor, is precisely what I look for in the freelance stuff that I do. If that’s not there, then generally I’m not interested in doing it. Thankfully just about everything I’ve done has been that kind of work, or close enough to it. I get too much with the day job of what I have no control over, primarily because our writers pander to… er, write for… a specific audience with whom I have little in common.

    In re: tangent, hey, I’m firmly possessed of the opinion that it’s impossible to go off on a tangent on one’s own blog, since for the most part, a blog is pretty much a collection of tangential thoughts. :)

  5. Guy says:

    I got here through the circuitrous road the internet sometimes takes, but yeah. That sounds right.

    The lack of power is really an interesting issue. People in the indie-crowd often speak of “Creator-control”, but the editor is also a creator, no? Heh.

    That lead me to realize that sometimes editors around here are more like proofers, due to the lack of the dictation ability.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      As an editor, I try not to think of myself as a creator. That muddies the waters. Of course, sometimes the writers think of me that way.

      Long ago, I was editing a friend’s story for my anthology, Finis: A Book of Endings. I marked it up heavily, and sent it back to him for comments. He sheepishly IMed me asking if I wanted co-author credit.

      My response was more or less: “Fuck you. I’m your editor. You wrote this. I just took out the scaffolding you left in.” (For the record, he was someone with whom I could answer with vulgarity, so it was a friendly “fuck you.”)

      But yeah, some are more like copy editors than managing editors. For RPGs, I’m ill-content to just copy edit. So I turn down jobs that look too much like that. I’m a craftsman, and I’m doing this thing because I love it.

      – Ryan

  6. Jonathan says:

    oops — meant to have my reply be here at the End. I must have clicked the reply under Tom’s comment. And – since you don’t mind tangents: any of you going to SynDCon in April? =D