Storytellers & Grammarians: The Different Types of Editors

A few months ago, Hubs and I were at one of our favorite restaurants, enjoying a nice basket of Cajunized tots and a couple cold beers. And, being the creepers that we are, we eavesdropped, I mean overheard, a conversation from the next table that started me thinking. While waiting for their food, the boy at the table would challenge his sister on rules of writing, definitions of obscure words, and other English-related stuff. After the first couple rounds, Hubs started looking to me for verification, mouthing, “Is he right?” Because, as an editor, this should be my realm of expertise, yes?

Eventually, though, I honestly wasn’t sure without having to use some sort of reference guide. See, the boy had transitioned from the basic rules of grammar we all abide by into things like the roots of words and obscure facts about the structure of language and grammar that I rarely need to know while editing. But he clearly loved it as much as I love talking about the techniques of storytelling. And right there, the proverbial light bulb went off, clarifying something I’d been witnessing for a while, but that I hadn’t put into words — there are two fundamental types of editors.

I know what you’re thinking: there are way more than two types of editing. And you’re right, there are. For argument’s sake, here’s the list of the most common editing activities:

  • Developmental (Overall storytelling)
  • Line Editing (Word Choice, Smoothness, Clarity, etc.)
  • Copy Editing (Grammar, Spelling & Punctuation)
  • Technical Editing (One specific aspect of a manuscript)
  • Proofreading (Formatting issues, Typos, etc.)

Note that I called those editing activities. Because, while there are five different areas an editor can be skilled in, there are still only two types of editors — the storytellers, and the grammarians. What I’ve witnessed over the past few years is that, regardless of the type of editing activity, the person doing it will invariably fall into one of these two categories. Why? Because I’m talking about the core way they view a manuscript, their fundamental perspective.

You’ve heard me talk before about how editors are not all the same, how it’s important to know whether you’re working with a copy editor or a developmental one. And this is why. The core philosophy of your editor will dictate the quality and type of editing you receive.

Grammarians are fantastic line editors because they’re brilliant with the actual words. They love the English language will the zeal of an English professor and will be the first to call you out when you deviate from the grammar laws. In short, they’re the grammar Nazis I mentioned in my post on the different types of critiques. But in the grand scheme of things, they’re superficial editors. Meaning they never dive past the actual words on the page, the specific combinations of letters and symbols on a white background. This is the main reason you’ll see some editors charge tiny little fees and have a turn-around rate of two weeks. Because all they’re doing is polishing the surface of your work, putting a band-aid on wounds they may or may not even see.

I’m sure I’ve just offended a large portion of the editors out there, and for that, I’m sorry. But it’s true. A grammarian editor will never look at the deeper problems of a story. For that, you need a storyteller. Storyteller editors are a rare breed, capable of doing the same level of line edit quality as a grammarian, but also capable of seeing past the words to the story underneath. They’re the equivalent of literary surgeons. They’ll spot the weird bone spurs, the fractured character arcs, the fatal plot holes that bleed the life from your story, the illness that keeps the emotional context from resonating with readers. And this is true whether you hire them to only do line edits, or whether you want the developmental side. Because they can’t help but see those things.

Storytellers understand elusive concepts like voice and style, and they’ll help you bend the rules of grammar to fit your story. Grammarian editors won’t. To them, that’s a cardinal sin, and they don’t understand why you would want to do that. Storyteller editors will ensure all the pieces of your manuscript work to form a cohesive narrative. Grammarians won’t. They’ll make sure all your words look pretty. Storyteller editors will challenge you, pushing you become a better writer. Grammarians will fix your typos and call it good. I’m sure you’re starting to see the pattern here.

So, how can you tell the difference? When you’re looking for a freelance editor, or you meet your publishing-house-assigned person for the first time, how can you know which type of editor you’re getting? That’s the tricky part. Ideally, you’ll want to look at any previous work they’ve done. Buy (or borrow) one of the books listed on their resume and see how you feel about it. Is it solid grammatically, but riddled with storytelling problems? (Readers are surprisingly attuned to these kinds of issues, so you’ll be able to feel it, even if you don’t know exactly why it didn’t work.) Chances are, they’re a grammarian.

Another option would be to track down other authors the editor has worked with and ask them for their impressions. Did the editor help them with a particularly tricky part of their story, or were they fast? (Speed is an indication of quality, remember? It’s much faster to skim the surface of something than it is to really internalize and think about someone’s work.)

The final clue will be in the feedback itself. If you’ve found a storyteller, they’ll always start with in-depth feedback that delves into the core of your story. Their first email to you will likely contain information on theme, character development, pacing, and any potential problems with those areas. Or, alternatively, if you’ve hired someone solely for line edits, watch for feedback that steps out of that territory. Trust me, storytellers can’t help but point out flaws in logic or areas that are murky/underdeveloped. Whereas grammarians will stick exactly to that — the grammar.

It is my opinion, in case you couldn’t guess, that storytellers are the stronger editors, and whenever possible, you should seek one of them. But grammarians have their place as well. They’re excellent proofreaders, and if you’re confident in the integrity of your story (as in it passes your critique partners and beta readers with flying colors) and simply need someone to double-check/polish your grammar, they’re perfectly acceptable.  The important thing to take away from this is that there is a difference. So know exactly what you’re looking for, and who the best editor is for that. Don’t ask a grammarian to do developmental edits, and don’t expect a storyteller to ignore structural flaws while line editing. Understanding the way your editor is likely to view your manuscript will give you a better idea of what to expect in terms of feedback. Which, in turn, leads to a better working relationship, and everyone likes when projects go smoothly, right?


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