Editing is the assembling of textual material into good order and quality so as to effectively communicate ideas or information to an audience. A text editor can assist a writer with structure, basic language details such as grammar and syntax, semantic fit and appropriateness, sometimes the law and the value judgements associated with that (like copyright infringements), and the whole kitchen sink business of making a finished product on behalf of or with a writer.
Unless, of course, the writer makes other rules for the editor to follow.
Thinking about what an editor does…
Edit means “to put forth”, which is both useful and not useful in understanding the term.
The original function of an editor was to gather together all elements of, historically, a written work and to check that it was complete and in good order. It was then sent to the copyist or printer, after which it became the responsibility of the author to sell the thing.
In the last four or five centuries a slightly different arrangement became common: publishers – the word means “send out to the people” – emerged, dedicated to making money from the enterprise of spreading ideas. Fair enough: it’s a market economy and a system of sales was important to the spread of knowledge in an increasingly-literate age.
Editors then became specialist employees of publishers, but often very powerful ones. Editors became skilled at knocking the author’s work, and sometimes the authors themselves, into publishable shape on behalf of the publisher. Their ability to take a raw work and refine it for a specific audience willing to pay money for the end product is what kept, and keeps, both publishers and authors afloat in a mercantile world.
The idea of having someone critically look over your writing to ensure its integrity and effectiveness at communicating your ideas pre-dates and survives the commercial world. All students (secondary and tertiary), all bureaucracies (and that includes businesses and, say, government departments) benefit from critical editing of reports, essays, policies and procedures: of any writing expected to be a standard reference. Note that “critical” originates in a Latin word meaning a judge: and judging is one very deliberate function of the editing process. Sometimes it’s an ego-bruising process, too. Judgements often are.
Writer/ editor relationships
There is always a tension between an editor and a writer, especially if their shared purpose isn’t solely and precisely to make money. Dare I mention the word “artist” at this point?
Authors abound who can tell you horror stories of fractious relationships with their editors as they each embed themselves into incompatible positions over a work that the author regards as finished but which an editor thinks is a half-way decent first draft but still misses the point… Conversely, authors who have experienced real nurturing by an editor will speak of a partnership of value and depth.
The relationship between an editor and a writer is important, possibly crucial, to the end product. The boundaries of that relationship need to be uniquely negotiated prior to the editing work beginning and adhered to throughout the whole process. Both parties have to have an understanding of the power of an editor to influence the outcome, and be utterly wary of it. A writer who is able to choose an editor (and not all have that choice) should select one who has strengths that are useful to the writer: editing strengths which allow the writer to produce their best work.