I would venture to guess, based on my relatively small sample size of conversations I’ve had in nearly 20 years since I first took editing classes in graduate school, that, unless you have ever worked in the field of editing, you may surmise that an editor is merely a grammar geek and a spelling nazi.
You would be right that an editor possesses those traits, but saying that grammar and spelling is all an editor does would be akin to saying that a general medicine doctor only has understanding of the skin, rather than the whole body.
You have choices in the field of editing, just like you do in the medical field. You can choose an editor who does everything, like a holistic practitioner; or, you can choose a specialist. And, sometimes after you get a general assessment, you may be referred to a specialist.
So what types of editors are there and when do you need which one? I’ll try to summarize that here.
First, there is a content editor. Like a holistic practitioner, this editor looks at your document in its entirety, evaluating if your content is relevant and in the right voice for your target audience. A content editor assesses your table contents, chapter names, and the flow of the book. A content editor also identifies potential questions and points out extraneous information that interferes with clarity. This content editing process is also referred to as substantive editing in the traditional publishing world. Many content editors are general content editors, but there are also two other types of content editors as well.
A technical editor is also a content editor, but more specialized. If the material is highly technical and intended for a technical audience/teacher of that technical field, then a technical editor is a good choice. If however, you want your technical product to be understood by a nontechnical person, a general content editor may be a better bridge and representative of your audience.
An expert/industry editor is also a content editor, just in a certain academic field or industry. If an industry is also technical, like medicine, an industry/expert editor can also be a technical editor. Sometimes it is wise to choose an editor with expertise in the subject matter you are presenting. If you are publishing in an academic journal, or if you are on a really tight deadline and your readers will also be experts or within your industry, you may need to choose an editor in the field of expertise. The danger here though, is that if you are looking to explain matters to someone outside the field, that audience may be better served by a general content editor who is expressly checking to see if someone without the expertise can understand it.
Tonight, for example, I had the opportunity to get an editing job that was far outside my expertise—that opportunity was actually the source of inspiration for this post. I realized that I would have had to study extensively to understand the material on a tight deadline. It was better for my client to go with another editor, who had expertise in the subject matter in this instance.
Sometimes, it also serves authors well to have different types of content editors. You just need to determine which person will take the lead.
A copyeditor comes in after content editing is finished. After the author or editor has helped write the missing pieces and the author agrees to the cuts that are made, a copyeditor goes through the material to check transitions, sentence structure, word choice, subject clarity, verb strength and much more to make the work as concise and as clear as possible on the sentence level. So, in our doctor analogy, this editor is the specialist who looks over each part carefully.
A proofreader finalizes the work prior to publication. After a copyeditor checks to make sure the sentence structure is correct and that the text flows from one sentence to the next, a proofreader checks for grammar, spelling and style.
Can one person do all these processes? Absolutely. Can one person do all these processes at one time during one read?. No. But that is a topic for a different post.