For one of the manuscripts I am reading this summer, I have been instructed to do only a copy edit. Normally I read for character and plot development, for believability, and for language. On this manuscript, I am limiting myself to watching for typographical and grammatical errors. It’s actually been an eye opening experience.
The manuscript is well-written already (and I’m not actually finding that many errors, which is unusual; you’d be surprised how many writers turn in manuscripts that seem never to have been proofread). I can see why they don’t want me to do a structural edit: it doesn’t strictly need it. Yet as I read along, I find places where I would push the writer to dig deeper, to question why the character is really doing that, to decide whether that scene is really necessary. It’s not that the manuscript needs that revision to be enjoyable or publishable (although I like to think any comments I give always help make a manuscript better), but as an editor, I am always going to find places that could be improved.
I read a quote recently (I cannot recall where or I would quote it properly) by a book editor who said, in a nutshell, that editors are the people that walk down the street, see a beautiful woman, and tell her if she just cut her skirt to flare a little differently, she would look 100% better. It’s not that the beautiful woman needs to look 100% better, and it’s not that the editor is trying to be hurtful or critical; editors simply look for ways to improve. It’s also worth noting that the editor’s vision for the work comes into play here: one editor might tell the woman to shorten her skirt, and another might say to lengthen it. Just as with everything in life, editors are biased towards their perception of what is good. [If you are getting different suggestions on how to fix a specific character or scene, though, don't just chalk it up to editors' tastes: if they both think the scene needs work, then figure out what your vision is and revise in accordance to that.] Of course, editors are usually highly trained in shaping good writing into better writing.
I’m not writing this post to say ignore what editors say. Just because a manuscript is good without my comments doesn’t mean it can’t be better. But at some point, everyone needs to stop revising. As an editor, I read published books and find things I would critique (and I’m not just talking about Twilight). It’s up to you, the author, to know what your vision is for the book and to know whether the edits are helping or hurting. As for me, I’m going to enjoy reading this manuscript for simply a copy edit. It’s kind of fun not worrying about whether character A would really say that to character B.