How Do You Spot a Good Editor and Avoid the Amateurs?

In Discussion by Guest Contributor

By Anna Yeadell-Moore, Novel Gazing

Red Pen EditingThere are editors, and there are people who call themselves editors. There are those in both groups who say they are good editors, but many are clearly not. This is a painful reality for the authors who put their money, faith and precious words in the hands of such editors, only to be disappointed when the text comes back with basic errors missed or, worse still, their voice and style usurped by the editor’s.

As a professional editor with many years’ experience, I have often had to pick up the pieces when an author has had a negative experience. This is bad news all round as, once confidence and trust in the editing process is shaken or lost, it can take a lot of hard work and cajoling to restore an author’s faith.

The bottom line is that authors need editors, and good relations between the two are the key to a successful publication. It’s pretty clear that the difference between a compelling novel and a mediocre one is often decided at the editing stage.

So, how do you go about choosing a good editor for your cherished first novel or your short story? How can you tell the difference between someone who says they’re good and someone who actually is good? I’ve come up with some guidelines that can be used by any writer in any situation; whether it’s a short feature article for a magazine, a first novel or an academic dissertation, the same rules apply. But first, let’s take a look at what qualifies someone as an editor:

It’s your book, not mine!

Anna Yeadell-Moore

Anna Yeadell-Moore

An obsession with grammar is pretty much essential. Check out the grammar and punctuation on the editor’s website and in any correspondence you have with them. An earlier career as a journalist or in publishing is common but not imperative. Being an avid reader (of anything and everything), and having an empathy for writing is a must. Indeed, being a writer, blogger or tweeter can all enhance someone’s qualifications for revising your work, but they don’t automatically qualify that person as an editor — and more accurately, a good editor.

Self-discipline is important for a good editor, as is good judgement and, crucially, an ability to express thoughts clearly and succinctly. But the thing that distinguishes a good editor from a bad one is a willingness to accept the role of an unsung hero, located firmly in the background, without even a mention in the acknowledgements. A good editor maintains the author’s voice. We walk in your shoes and never leave evidence of our own footprints. At my company, Novel Gazing, our editors have a mantra: ‘It’s your book, not mine!’

A good editor is a guide

Editing someone else’s work is a sensitive task. A good editor will never underestimate an author’s connection to, or passion for, the work. We will handle you with care. But a good editor will always be honest with you too, and point out areas of weakness or grammatical errors. A good editor will guide you through your work, show you areas where you can express yourself better, more succinctly, and help you to look at your work from a distance. We will never change your voice or style.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In my experience, there are three clear categories of editors out there – let’s call them the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I’ve already touched on what you can expect from a good editor, but here’s how to make sure you don’t employ someone who is not up to the job of editing your work:

The Bad – the frustrated writer

A bad editor is often a frustrated writer. They are more interested in showing off their own skills as an author than helping you to hone yours. They change words needlessly and suffocate your style. You will get a bad feeling in your stomach when you read your edited text; you’ll feel like you’ve lost your voice. Remember, a good editor won’t change words arbitrarily or on the basis of their preferences. We won’t change ‘boundaries’ to ‘borders’ or ‘fumble’ to ‘grope.’ We will make sure that your original voice shines.

The Ugly – the sloppy editor

Quite simply, the sloppy editor doesn’t have the necessary eye for detail. They will miss inconsistencies, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors in your text. Producing a consistent, error-free text is the fundamental task of an editor. A good editor won’t leave you with both ‘criticise’ and ‘criticize’ in your manuscript. We will make sure your spelling and punctuation are consistent and sharp, and we won’t confuse ‘its’ and ‘it’s.’ The sloppy editor seems oblivious to the fact that, especially in the world of e-publishing, what sets an author apart from the crowd is a manuscript free of grammatical blunders, jarring spelling mistakes and formatting errors.

The Good – five essential qualities

Keep these points in mind and you will be sure to choose an editor who will handle you, and your work, with skill and care.

  • A good editor does not have an ego
  • A good editor will be brutally honest with you, and will treat you and your work with respect
  • A good editor has an obsessive eye for detail and is sensitive to inconsistencies
  • A good editor will make sure that every sentence counts and is structurally sound
  • A good editor can explain, in detail, the reason why every change is made

So how do you know if the editor you’re about to hire has these qualities? You will find clues in your contact with the editor. Does the editor communicate with you promptly and professionally? Are you happy with the estimates of time and costs? But the most important piece of advice I have for you is to ask for a free sample edit. Any professional editor will be happy to do this for you, and you will be able to tell within a few pages if your editor has the qualities listed above. And remember, a good editor has your best interests at heart.

Anna Yeadell-Moore is associate editor at Novel Gazing. Novel Gazing offers professional editing services for self-publishing authors. Put Novel Gazing to the ‘good editor’ test! Submit the first five pages of your manuscript for a free proof-reading or copy-editing by one of our professional editors. Visit www.novelgazing.org/contact.  

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.