Is Your Editor Worth It? Or Not?

In Feature Articles by Guest Contributor

If you’re thinking of employing an editor for your novel, take a look at this detailed list to help you decide if the editor is worth it. Or not.

Editorial by Jim Dempsey, Novel Gazing

Jim Dempsey is an associate editor at NovelGazing.org

Jim Dempsey is an associate editor at NovelGazing.org

Recently, a few authors have approached Novel Gazing to ask us to work on novels that have already been edited. The authors had trusted these editors, and felt they had done a good job. But later, when they got feedback from other readers, the authors were told that the novels still contained many grammatical and consistency errors. The authors started to doubt the quality of the editing and also wondered whether this meant there were problems with their story structure and character development. These aspects were more important to the authors than a few missed typos, and that’s when they came to us for a second opinion.

Authors often complain about editors. After all, we ask them to make changes to their precious work. A love/hate relationship is only to be expected. But we’ve seen more and more of these requests from dissatisfied authors in the last year or two. I won’t speculate on the reasons. It might just be a coincidence of circumstances we’re experiencing at our company. Regardless of the causes, authors need to know how to tell if an editor is any good. Or not.

The next time you’re looking for an editor, send a few sample pages of your manuscript first, then check their work for the qualities below. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but every good editor will do all of the following: 

Give Advice

No editor should demand that you delete or even rewrite whole tracts of text, or get rid of a character or insert a murder at the end of chapter three. Or any other chapter. They should never command or bully authors into making unwanted changes.

Editors should, of course, correct typos and grammatical errors, but when it comes to substantial matters, such as plot structure, story flow and character development, they should only advise – and give good reasons – but they should never insist.

Which brings me to…

Criticize Constructively

Good editors will never (OK, rarely) point out a problem without offering a workable solution. You should never see a comment like, “The pace drops here,” without at least one helpful idea for the author to consider in the rewrite. The editor could, for instance, mark a few lines of overly expository dialogue in the preceding text and recommend cutting or revising them. Or suggest – never demand, remember – that the murder could come earlier in the story. At the end of chapter three, for example.

Provide Explanations

While offering solutions applies more to substantive editing, explanations are more usual in copy editing and proof-reading, especially when an editor has had to make a significant change. This can happen when the meaning of a sentence is unclear or could be misinterpreted.

For example, the author might write:
I saw a rat looking through the basement window.

From the surrounding text, it’s clear to the editor that the author really meant:

I saw a rat when I looked through the basement window.

It’s the kind of thing authors easily overlook and could even question why such a change was made since they already know what it’s supposed to say and have read that sentence a hundred times already without noticing a problem.

In such a case, it’s good practice to add a comment with an explanation.

This leads nicely to…

Practice and Preach

The comment attached to the above example could read something like:

I changed this because the reader might think the rat was looking through the window.

And not:

Changed as reeder might think rat was looking thru window.

A good editor’s comments and feedback will have no spelling mistakes, grammar or punctuation errors. We can’t ask you to give your best work if we can’t be bothered to give ours. (Although, I must admit that I have occasionally failed on this point, but I do try my best.)

Take Care

You really don’t need an editor to add errors to your manuscript, but it happens. Surprisingly often.

The most common error an editor will leave behind is a double space between two words. When you get your edited manuscript back, use the ‘Find’ function in Word to search for double spaces. A good editor will have done this before sending it back to you, so you shouldn’t find any. (Note: this only applies to documents where all the changes have been accepted.)

Another error to watch out for is inconsistency in spelling. There should be no organizations, for example, when you really want to have organizations.

Aim for Thoroughness

In this case, that means adding a few extra items to the list of qualities you’ll find in a good editor. Punctuality is one. An editor should always deliver their work on time.

Politeness is another. They could ask you to “please check this is what you mean” rather than an abrupt, “Check this” (which could also be misinterpreted).

And there’s nothing wrong with an editor who’s pedantic. They should look for every tiny error and check every little detail and fact. Was there really a full moon on Halloween’s night of 1957? (No, there wasn’t.)

Finally, good editors will be curious. They are always willing to learn and are keen to improve their skills. So tell me, what qualities do you think a good editor should have? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Jim Dempsey is an associate editor at Novel Gazing. Novel Gazing offers professional editing services to authors and publishers.

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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.