Now I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes I've heard people complain about the editorial process as one in which their deathless prose was mangled. I'm not sure if anyone writes deathless prose any more, now that Henry James is dead, but my guess is that everyone can use a little help, even if you're enraptured with your own prose right after you've finished writing it. Most of us do a lot of self-editing before we send something out (although I've reviewed manuscripts where someone apparently thought, "Commas? I don't need no stinkin' commas!" and sent it), so it ought to be in good shape.
But here's what editors can do, if they're good, when they're responding to a manuscript*:
- They can praise the right things, and praise them in the right proportions. I know that this is the "carrot before stick" approach that we use in student papers, but we use it there because it works, so why shouldn't it work on us as well as for us? This is the sugar high that gives you the energy to tackle all the work that you know you're going to have to do when you revise.
- They can point out, tactfully, when your wilder flights of fancy have left the building, so to speak, and can ask questions that can bring you back down to earth.
- They can suggest phrases to cut while still retaining the sense of the piece, phrases that you'd labored over for so long that you can't really see for yourself that they aren't needed.
- They can question you on matters of fact and on items that you'd thought were obvious (but weren't).
- They can also, through their questions, make you think about the issues in new ways.
- Although you have to try to conform to the citation style, it's their job to make sense of the style, which sometimes is MLA, sometimes Chicago A or B, and sometimes a little number that the publishing house has whipped up all on its own, like Chicago with a soupçon of MLA and a dash of CBE.
But by giving this kind of careful reading to your work, they can do something that you can't entirely do for yourself. It's sort of like carrying a suitcase: you get to a point where you can't carry it any more, and they pick it up and carry it for you. When they hand it back to you, you have a new energy and can take it further than you ever could have on your own.
*(and this is where I knock wood so that some kind of editorial nightmare doesn't befall me after I've written this.)