The art of editing is a bit of an ephemeral skill, and apart from an editor’s credentials it can be difficult to know how seriously to take their notes. Sure, if the person works at Random Penguin Harlequin Harper House and has edited every famous Jonathan under the sun, you may wish to give their notes some extra care.
But good editors come in all shapes and sizes, even outside of the publishing industry, and chances are you’re going to be squinting at a critique partner’s or spouse’s notes and wondering whether to trust them.
Ultimately it’s up to you and your gut to decide which suggestions to take or not take, but here are a few ways to know if you have a good editor:
A good editor will not tell you how they would write the book
Bottom line, a good editor knows it is not their book. It is your book and it is their job as an editor to be somewhat egoless and try as best as they can to help you write your book and achieve your vision.
When you get notes or critiques from a good editor, they should be consistent with what you set out to do as a writer. If they’re wildly divergent from what you’re trying to do, either they don’t get your book or they may not be a good editor and are trying to impose their own ideas on you.
A good editor will not tell you precisely how to fix a plot hole
Good editors tend to focus more on spotting problems than prescribing solutions. Sure, they may have some ideas about how to get a character from Point A to Point B in a cleaner fashion, but these ideas should be offered up more to illustrate potential directions than as concrete “take them or leave them” suggestions.
Chances are the author will come up with the best possible solution to address key problems, because no one else knows the world of the novel and the characters better than they do.
A good editor will not tell you they love everything
This is exactly what you want to hear and is not helpful at all.
A good editor will not tell you they hate everything
This also is not helpful.
A good editor will focus their suggestions at the right level
Some books need a ton of work. If this is the case, the advice should be synthesized at a very high level — plot structure, characters, voice.
Some books are in good shape but need refinement. In this case, the advice should be more focused on chapter structure, plot holes, tightening.
Some books are nearly ready and need fine tuning. In this case, the advice should be more along the lines of line edits, dialogue, prose.
When an editor thinks entire plot arcs need to change, it’s not particularly helpful to also provide minor line edits on chapters that could be removed entirely, except to illustrate broader points.
A good editor may frustrate you, but will also give you “ah ha!” moments
When an editor makes me mad, it usually means they’re right but my brain is resisting the change. A good editor will absolutely frustrate you at times. That’s totally normal.
But a good editor will also leave you smacking your head with things you can’t believe you didn’t see and get you jazzed up to make your book better.
At the end of the day, you are the actual editor, and you have to decide which course to take with your book. But a good editor will feel like a great teammate and coach along the way, even if they frustrate the heck out of you.
I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! More info here. And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
Art: The Village Carpenter by Tony Offermans
Mirka Breen says
I find that the best editors, for me, have given me those AH-HA moments. It's thrilling to see something and recognize its value, and feel so in sync with another's mind.
Bryan Russell says
Editors are good folk.
Carol Newman Cronin says
Great advice here which is useful to we self-editors as well. Especially: There is no point in copy editing a section that should just be deleted…
JOHN T. SHEA says
But Bryan, haven't you heard of the Evil Editor? http://WWW.EVILEDITOR.BLOGSPOT.COM
Gippy Adams Henry says
What I find frustrating with 'following the rules' especially with first-time writers and publishers, which I am at this time, is the fact that when one is finally well-known, all the rules can be broken. Many of the long-time bestseller professional writers who have one of the big house's publishers behind them all use she, he, names, etc. for beginning sentences and a lot of them. They don't worry about cliches either. Cliches today are listed as just normal speaking people in our country–for whom I am writing my novels.
Yet now, I am spending every day, a year later, changing many things in my book through AutoCrit, not because I couldn't get readers or good reviews, but because I had one reader who got angry at me on a social media site and gave me a bad write-up not even having read the book, stating cliches etc. I even stopped marketing months ago except for off-line where I do well. Everyone else seems eager for the sequel, but I'm still working on 'improving' my terms of grammar in my first book, and yes I did have an editor but I suppose not a good one and five readers prior to publishing. My goal is not to be famous but to get the word out, which is why I'm almost to the end of a BS in Criminal Justice Administration–to help others realize how they get into the system or become a victim through suspenseful fiction. Sorry, got carried away here.
Thanks so much for your wonderful expertise and help for those of us who are just starting out, Nathan.
I also find the best editors are the ones who give you as you mentioned those ah ha moments. The ones who make you think and point out those little things that are annoying you but you can’t quite think what it is. Great post by the way.