The editor as sculptor

'I saw the angel and carved until I set him free.' So said the Michelangelo, the great Renaissance sculptor, painter and architect. Michelangelo's 'Awakening Slave'

This got me thinking about the role an editor plays. Many people have said to me that they could do what I do because they have a good grasp of spelling and grammar. (That's proofreading, by the way.) But that's rather like taking your car to a mechanic because you know he can tighten a screw. 

Strengths and capabilities

Ethics studies the problem that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it. Good careers counselling and business training tackle the same issue. A capability is something everyone can do, such as changing a light bulb. A strength is some thing that you in particular excel in, that not everyone can. For instance, all healthy people can run, but only Usain Bolt wins Olympic gold. Editors do so much more than correct errors. Our strength isn't correcting mistakes (though it does include that) but honing the original to be more readable.

The strengths of an editor

checking the text An editor should be familiar with the style that is required in the text he or she is working with. Obviously, a medical textbook will need to be written in a different style to a training manual. I work with many first-time authors of fantasy, historical fiction, travel and biography. Besides the usual amending of spelling, grammar and punctuation, I delete sections, reorder paragraphs and look for repetitious words, phrases and ideas, among other tasks. I make suggestions tactfully, as the authors are often nervous that I might be over-critical of their efforts.

Sculpting the story

What I mainly look for is what is stopping the flow of the story. The author's voice (which is always present no matter how bad the writing) needs to be retained and recognisable. It is not my job to rewrite what they've written but to tease out what they wanted to write. It is a privilege to work with an author to craft, shape, sculpt the real story hidden beneath. To adapt another saying of Michelangelo's: 'Every author's manuscript has a story in it and it is the task of the editor to discover it.'

If you would like help with editing your book, I'd love to hear from you. Contact me at

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