Posted on Oct 02, 2020
How to Be a Good Editor: Expert Advice for Honing Your Craft
Like any craft, editing skills develop with years of practice. World-class editors don’t simply emerge, fully-formed, from liberal arts colleges; instead, aspiring editors refine their craft through a combination of experience, networking, and a willingness to adapt one’s process to each new project.
To help you get started, we reached out to top Reedsy editors and asked them to share some of their wisdom.
What makes a good editor?
The qualities that make up a good editor will vary depending on your area of editing specialization. For example, while a copy-editor should have an excellent eye for detail, a developmental editor must be able to think about how the plot unravels on a macro level. However, there are a few universal traits you need to lock down before you call yourself a good editor.
1. You know what you know (and what you don’t)
Giving clients clear, confident suggestions will help you to gain their trust and make for a more successful collaboration. And the best way to grow in confidence is to really know your stuff. “Knowledge is power,” Francis Bacon once said, no doubt referring to overtired editors huddled over a laptop at three in the morning.
Define your editing niche
Rather than being a Jack of all trades (and master of none), a good editor is always a specialist. According to Rebecca Heyman — who has edited hundreds of books over her 13-year career — editors should focus on genres they know the most about, ideally those they love to read:
“You’ll feel more confident giving feedback when you can reference popular titles on the market, discuss common tropes, and interrogate the success of the story as an exemplar of that genre.”
If your job is to assess a manuscript’s big picture, writers will rely on you to have a working knowledge of the genre’s elements. You should know what readers expect from structure, characterization, pacing, theme, and conflict — and you should be well-versed in the genre’s most common tropes. We encourage our Reedsy editors to indicate their specific genres of expertise on their profiles for precisely this reason.
Specializing in a few select genres also means listening to that little voice inside your head that tells you when a project isn’t the right fit for you and your editorial skillset — even when the money looks good. As Rebecca tells us, “a good editor knows and respects her limits.”
Keep a style guide handy
When it comes to line-editing and proofreading, the best of the best will know their given manual of style like the back of their hand. Editor Tracy Gold (who has worked on books published by major imprints) always keeps a physical copy of the style guide she’s using to hand. “A good editor can recognize when they are unsure and knows when they need to stop and look something up.”
The Chicago Manual of Style is one of many books on editing that you should have on hand.
2. You stay true to the author’s vision
Though a good editor is knowledgeable enough to advise changes with confidence, they also take care to interrogate their own bias. Tracy stresses the importance of making the book meet the author’s vision, rather than approaching projects with a personal agenda. “That could mean embracing a non-traditional structure, or realizing an author is using sentence fragments on purpose during a copy edit and not trying to ‘fix’ them all. The best editors find a way to help the author improve the work while staying true to the author's vision and style.”
Of course, a good editor never refrains from making suggestions when they think something doesn’t work — but they ensure that their reading is considered and thoughtful. Rebecca encourages editors to consider the role of grammar and mechanics in a manuscript’s overall style: “Though editors aim to provide their clients with the ‘correct answer’, the nature of ‘correctness’ means taking context into account. For example, lax grammar in dialogue is generally accepted as correct, since we are often trying to privilege voice over mechanics.”
Avoid prescriptive editing, or editing on autopilot. Stay attuned to the author’s vision and individual style, and be prepared to adapt as needed.
3. You foster good client relationships
Editor Julie Artz (whose clients have been published by Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan) believes that “an editor-client match is a lot like a marriage.” She doesn’t mean that 50% of them end in a shouting match on the street; instead, she stresses the importance of “timely, clear communication and the flexibility to design packages that meet the client’s needs.”
Every day at Reedsy, our support team gets at least three emails from authors, worried that they haven’t heard from their editors in over a day. Are they going to finish my edit in time? Do they hate my third chapter? Is that why they’ve gone silent? In almost all of these cases, the editor has been slammed with other projects or hasn’t checked their email over the weekend. Sometimes, a quick update makes all the difference between a happy client and a panicked one. That said, Rebecca reminds us that “it’s important for editors to set clear expectations and boundaries when a project begins. Whether you plan to provide daily updates or go silent until the work is done, let your authors know what to expect from you.”
Balance honesty with tact
Honesty is always the best policy when it comes to editing: you should never fail to tell a client about a manuscript’s problems because you’re worried about causing offense. As Tracy will attest from her experiences on both sides of the editing process, a good editor explains problems in a way that is both clear and encouraging, providing a combination of practical advice and support. “Being positive, and looking at problems as opportunities to realize a book’s potential, is the best kind of feedback you can give to an author.”
If you’re a developmental editor, you’ll be making suggestions that require a significant amount of work and might feel personal to the author — especially if you’re bold enough to suggest killing a few darlings. Even as a copy editor, you could advise changing sentences the author has pored over. So, to foster a good editor-client relationship, try to be positive and solution-oriented. For example:
🚫 Chapter 1 is all over the place. You’ll have to rewrite most, if not all, of it.
✅ How can we bring more clarity to Chapter 1? Remember, we’re trying to activate character and conflict right away; everything else can wait. Current version of the chapter feels frenetic; consider a rewrite.
Don’t ignore logistics
A good editor starts every potential collaboration by discussing the nuts and bolts of a collaboration. What services are included? Excluded? What are your rates, how much time do you need, and what will you deliver at the end of the collaboration? It’s okay to be firm about the process you think is most effective, but make sure you’re paying close attention to the author’s needs. Considerations must be made for the author’s timeline, budget, and communication style before you commit to a collaboration.
How to be a better editor
So, now we’re starting to understand some common practices of successful editors. But knowing what a good editor looks like and knowing how to get there are two very different things. After all, watching the NBA finals won’t turn you into LeBron James. Let’s see what our freelancers say you should be doing in practice to become the best editor you can be.
1. Learn from other editors
Like many professions, the big benefit of 'learning on the job' is the ability to watch more experienced editors ply their trade. And there are lots of different ways to go about doing just that.
If you have the option, landing a job as an editorial assistant, agent assistant, or publishing-industry intern is one of the best ways to learn from old hands. Though at first, you may only get paid in MetroCards and free coffee, you’ll be given guidance and a steady stream of work, not to mention the experience you’ll need to eventually strike out on your own. In some cases, you may even be given the chance to read through manuscripts jotted with editorial notes, which will help you to develop an instinct for diagnosing problems and potential.
If you don't have the luxury of working your way up at an agency or publishing house (especially if it means moving to a city where your rent might be the same as your zip code), there are other options. At Reedsy, we host virtual events that feature our editors flexing their editorial skills. Check out our First Line Frenzy or copyediting events to see your peers in action.
Elsewhere on the internet, editors like Louise Harnby and Carol Saller have blogs (and podcasts!) where they discuss the craft and business of editing. Other editors live on social media, where they talk shop and discuss the latest developments in their industry. The key is to read widely and critically — remember that charlatans are often some of the loudest voices in any field.
2. Read as much as you can
“The best way to be a better editor is to read, read, read,” says Julie Artz. Hopefully, you’ve chosen an editing career because you’re already an avid reader, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve on your reading habits. Read aggressively within the genres you edit most, and take the time to interrogate what you read. Sharpen your editorial skills by articulating the elements you think are particularly successful, considering what kind of reaction the writing evoked in you — and why.
Rebecca cautions against resting on your laurels when it comes to being well-read. “Fiction, and especially genre fiction, is evolving constantly. What makes for good sci-fi and fantasy today, for example, is much different than what we were seeing in those genres even 10 years ago.” To be an excellent resource for your authors, you have to stay current in your understanding of the market.
Read editorial literature
Occasionally, however, you might swap out your bedtime fiction fix for some industry-related non-fiction. Some editorial literature staples include Elements of Style (4th Ed. by Strunk & White) and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. You might not want to read them cover to cover, but they're helpful to have on hand when you need to reference something on grammar, style, writing, or narration. You can also read the occasional chapter or two to brush up on your skills.
Keep up to date with editing news
Julie points out that “clients rely on editors not only for comma usage and other Chicago Manual of Style issues, but as industry experts who can guide them toward success with their work.” So, she recommends keeping up-to-date with editing news.
Many editors will bookmark sites like Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly, where they’ll find updates on all the latest deals. While this won’t necessarily help your skillset, you will get a sense of what publishers are looking for right now.
It is perhaps even more important to stay on top of current trends. Literature is often at the forefront of societal change, with topics like the #OwnVoices movement, the American Dirt scandal, and the controversy surrounding J.K. Rowling’s comments on trans rights frequently making headlines. Writers, editors, and publishing professionals alike recognize the importance of the industry’s role in advancing change, and so will often make an effort to stay informed. You can find intelligent discussions in mainstream news sources like The New Yorker, Slate, or The Guardian, so it isn’t hard to keep up to date, and doing so will make a big difference to your growth as an editor.
3. Be open to constructive feedback
You might be thinking, Constructive feedback? Isn’t that my job? It is — but that doesn’t mean you’re immune from professional growth. Alyssa Matesic, an editor who has worked with bestselling authors at Penguin Random House, suggests feedback should be a two-way street.
“Editors, by nature, are excellent at giving constructive feedback — but it's equally important to be open to constructive feedback about your editing. Listen to the writers you're working with. Was one of your recommendations confusing, or did they disagree with a point you raised? Don't write off those moments — log them, and use them as an opportunity to improve your editorial communication skills.”
If you dish it out, you have to be able to take it, as they say. So always try to value the feedback of the writers you’re working with as much as you’d expect them to value yours. At the end of the day, your clients will largely determine whether your career takes off or flounders.
If you can take a few of these steps to become a better editor and keep those important qualities in mind, you should find that the standard of the work you produce just keeps improving. One day, if you keep doing the best work you can do, a project of yours might just end up on the bestseller list!
Special thanks to Rebecca Heyman for her judicious edits on this article.