How To Be a Good Editor

Ever wanted to be an editor? No? That’s probably wise.

But just in case all your other options suddenly fall through (ie: the bowling alley installs an automatic pinsetter, the crash test dummy program stops accepting applications from humans, the professional dog walker eliminates her “Assistant Dog Walker In Charge Solely of Scooping Poop” position), here are some tips on how to be a good one. (If, perchance, you would rather be a bad editor, just do the opposite of what I suggest. And good luck with that.)

Be selective. Edit the books you love; work with writers you like. This makes the job of editing embarrassingly enjoyable and reduces the likelihood that you’ll be cursing your career choice before you even get to page 27. Some good reasons to say no: scheduling conflicts; lack of familiarity with the genre (to avoid having to say this, read widely); discomfort with the author him- or herself (the relationship is a bad fit); you can’t see how you could help (the book has too far to go, or is already so good your contribution would be minimal). Note: It’s easy to be selective when the bills are being paid.

Read between the lines. Most writers suffer from low self-esteem and fear the Red Pen. But generalities aside, every author is an individual with specific needs and expectations. Ask lots of questions before you agree to work on the writer’s book and listen carefully to their answers. Some want to be assured they aren’t pursuing an impossible dream. Others believe they’re just one step away from achieving it. Knowing the author before you even look at the manuscript helps you to anticipate the sorts of challenges you may uncover in the editing process.

Immerse yourself in the story. Read it through as if you just bought the book from your soon-to-be-shuttered Borders bookstore. (Sorry Borders. I still love you. I did earn a paycheck or two from you a few years back.) Don’t open to page one and begin editing, be a reader first. Spend time in the world and with the characters. The big issues will reveal themselves as you read. The smaller ones will simmer in the back of your head and pop up just in time for the Red Pen once you get down to the business of editing.

Let go of your own writer voice. If the writer already has a strong voice, this isn’t difficult. Once you’ve immersed yourself in the story, you’ll become intimately familiar with it and editing in that voice will be second nature. But if a writer doesn’t have a strong voice – as is the case with most inexperienced writers – this can be a challenge. You may be tempted to edit using your own writer’s voice. Don’t. Instead, make it your goal to help the author discover his or her original voice. Find the seeds of that voice (word choice, tone, rhythm, etc.) and water them. This is the best thing you can do for a writer. (Yes, I just used a gardening metaphor. I’m allowed one gardening metaphor a year. This was it.)

Respect the story. You have two masters when you’re an editor. (Three if you’re being contracted by a publishing house to do the edit.) The most obvious master is the writer. She’s the person paying you, so it’s important to respect her desires and concerns. But a happy writer with a bad story really isn’t a happy writer at all. Let the story guide your editorial notes. Communicate those notes in a way that doesn’t disrespect the writer’s hard work, but don’t shy away from saying the hard things when the story and the writer disagree.

Say encouraging things. Editing isn’t all about noting what’s wrong. It’s also about revealing and encouraging a writer’s strengths. If you find a particularly brilliant sentence or description, say so. You can even use exclamation points in your comment. However, be honest. Don’t make up things to praise. That just feeds false hope. If you have a hard time finding nice things to say, you can always say (with absolute sincerity): “You wrote a book. You have done something many people only aspire to. Good for you!” (Note use of exclamation point.)

Don’t edit with a jackhammer. If you find bad habits, point them out. Be direct, but avoid hammering a point more than necessary. Show the writer why the habit is bad, offer suggestions on how to solve it, then let the writer make the appropriate application to the rest of the occurrences. This gives the writer a chance to practice a better habit.

Exude confidence, but never arrogance. You’re an editor because you know books. You know characters and plots and how to show instead of tell. You have a sixth sense about what works and what sucks. So edit with confidence. However, you’re not God. Not even close. Have a good reason for every editing note and every change you make or suggest, but don’t presume your suggestions are the only ones that work.

Invite discussion. The writer will initially be intimidated or discouraged by your notes. (Even those who say “I love being edited!” experience some measure of one or both of these feelings.) We’re trained at a young age to fear the Red Pen. You’re not here to tell the writer she’s an idiot or a fool or a failure. You’re here to help the writer discover more of the writer inside. You’re not here to dictate, but to encourage and shape and direct. Talk with the writer. Explain your choices. Listen to her disagreements, concerns, fears. Then together, learn.

A good editor is a writer’s best friend – the kind of best friend who tells you when you have spinach in your teeth. Or adverbs.

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “How To Be a Good Editor

  1. The site looks great! Very professional.

    I enjoyed this post, as always. Such good advice. I have to tell you, I would love to be an editor. I always have a great time editing stories and essays for students (although I do apply the Red Pen of Doom too liberally.) I think I’m such a bossy boots, I probably make a better editor than writer :-)

    Do you enjoy the work? You are such a good writer yourself, how do you keep separation between the two roles? Do you find yourself too much the editor when doing your own writing? And how are you these days? Having a good life? :-)

    1. Hi Sarah. Thanks for your kind words, as always.

      Yes, I enjoy my work. I like the challenge of finding the missing pieces in a novel (and in a writer’s voice) and helping to put them where they go. I like making other people look good.

      Is it hard to separate the editor from the writer? Yes. This is why my novel is taking years to write. I edit as I go, which is a terrible way to write a novel. [Don’t try this at home, kids.]

      Hmm…am I having a good life? Let’s just say I’m collecting material for short stories not unlike the ones I’ve already written and leave it at that. But thanks for asking.

      1. You need to write a comedy, my friend. Or a sweet and magical fairy tale. :-) They say write what you know, but I’ve always thought writing what you want is a much better idea.

  2. “Immerse yourself in the story. Read it through as if you just bought the book from your soon-to-be-shuttered Borders bookstore. (Sorry Borders. I still love you. I did earn a paycheck or two from you a few years back.) Don’t open to page one and begin editing, be a reader first. Spend time in the world and with the characters. The big issues will reveal themselves as you read. The smaller ones will simmer in the back of your head and pop up just in time for the Red Pen once you get down to the business of editing.”

    All of your points are exceptional, but this one speaks the most to me. I’m sure time constraints play a large part in an editor’s choices, but this one means you care about the person.

    I’ve never heard a professional editor say this about his “duty” as an editor. In fact, they acted surprised when I asked them if they did this.

    I’m sure you’re the best, Stephen.

    1. Thanks Nicole. I’m far from the best, but I’m always learning and trying to get better at this job. My greatest reward continues to be when a writer I’ve helped finds the success they’ve been looking for.

  3. Ha. I got extra ‘meta’ enjoyment from reading this post. Nice stuff. Reconfirms my impulse to approach you in the first place. Hope that particular project hasn’t turned into a slog. I look forward to the wisdom of the great red pen.

  4. This just became my favourite blog post on the entire internet. Time to see if I can find more gold for my eyes and mind on this blog!

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