Look in the acknowledgments section of almost any book, and besides a variety of loved ones, who do you almost always see receiving effusive thanks?
Good writers know they can only be great writers once an editor gets a hold of their work. Every writer needs another set of eyes to catch mistakes and inconsistencies. Every writer needs an independent, unbiased viewpoint to say, “This makes sense,” or “I think you need something else here.”
A good editor doesn’t change an author’s voice; they put it through a crucible. Reading through the edits on your writing can feel a bit like you’re the steel on a blacksmith’s anvil. But it’s your writing that is being hammered into a shiny, sharp knife — when your editor is done with you, you should be able to attack and defend, all with your words.
A good editor will help you become a stronger writer on all your work, not just the piece they are editing. A good editor will point out consistent mistakes and make suggestions that you can use in the future, as well.
A good editor is like Glinda the Good Witch: they’ll show up when you need them the most, set you on the right path, and bring out your best qualities — if you listen to them.
But sparkly pink ballgown and tiara aside, how do you tell a good editor from a bad editor? And what do good editors do that makes them good?
Put on your ruby slippers and let’s take a walk down the yellow brick road of wordcraft.
World of Wordcraft
There are three basic levels of editing. If you’re researching editors, you might see different names for different levels of editing, such as developmental editing, copy-editing, line editing, proofreading, substantive editing, and others.
What you need to know is this: your work should go through roughly three rounds of edits. The first is the big picture, the strategic look. In this round, your editor should look to see if your ideas are in the right order, if key statements are in the right place and emphasized correctly, and if the overall narrative makes sense.
They might make a few wording suggestions, but mostly they’re going to ask you questions (“Is this your main idea?”) and offer big picture suggestions (“You might move this to the previous section; it seems out of place because you’re discussing a totally different idea in this section.”).
The second round of edits is more tactical and specific. Here, your editor is going to get picky. They’re going to make edits to grammar, word choice, typos, and specific language. This round is where the proverbial red pen comes out and there will be lots of tracked changes on your document.
The final stage is the fine-tuning stage. It’s checking harnesses and gear and chutes before you jump out of the airplane to start the mission. This round is a final check of spelling, punctuation, grammar, typos, and other errors.
Sometimes the same person will act in all three of these roles. Here at Craft Your Content (CYC), we have three different people, one for each round. That ensures fresh eyes on your words every time, and backup for each editor, knowing that three brains are better than one.
And yes, this process takes time. Magic only looks instantaneous.
Please Pay Attention to the Person Behind that Curtain
Your editor’s goal is to help you craft the perfect bit of magic that will capture the reader’s attention and keep them hooked all the way to the end. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction, blog posts, marketing copy, or news releases: you want your reader to be enthralled by what you’re saying.
Editors will strengthen your writing by asking questions first. Some of the questions they might ask are:
- Did you mean this, or did you mean something different?
- Why is this bit here?
- Will your reader understand this term?
- Can you rephrase this so that it uses less jargon?
I like to think that all editors have a little bit of a four-year-old left in them, because one of our favorite questions is “Why?”
We’re trying to elicit more detail or more information. We know you’ve thought about this topic so much, or know it so well, that it makes perfect sense to you. Or maybe you assume that all your readers will know what you’re talking about.
Don’t assume that. Maybe a newbie to the field is doing research and stumbles across your article. Maybe someone wants to get into the business and is trying to learn all the lingo and terms.
If you leave important information out — even if you think it’s something everyone should already know — a good editor will keep asking you why (or how, or what) until you get a level of detail that all your readers can understand.
An editor looks for consistency and flow. They might ask you to move a section or paragraph. They might suggest that an idea would work better at the beginning of the section rather than at the end.
For example, if you write 800 words before getting to your thesis statement, your editor is going to ask you to introduce that statement earlier. (Like in the introduction, where it belongs.)
If you build your article around metaphors of fantasy witches and wizards, and then use an example of a mafia boss somewhere in the middle, a good editor will a) ask you “What the hell?” (in case you meant to do that), and b) suggest that perhaps you should revise your example to fit with your other examples.
Once you get past the initial round of editing, your editor is going to look for specific things. In addition to misspellings, grammar errors, and punctuation mistakes, a good editor will look for:
- Switching tenses
- Using the same word 17 times in four sentences
- Disagreeing tenses (or pronouns)
- A change in voice
- Incorrect facts
- Inconsistencies (“On page three, you said that the butterflies were blue, but on page four, you said they were purple.”)
- Missing words, sentences, or paragraphs
Depending on what round of editing you’re in, editors will either make suggestions or ask questions, or make specific changes to your text.
An editor may ask you to delete some things. Maybe a lot of things. A good editor will tell you why those words or sentences or sections in particular needed to go.
You might have gone off on a tangent on why Joss Whedon is the creator of all that is good in the world of language. It’s fun and interesting, but doesn’t support your article’s main idea. If it’s not relevant, a good editor will suggest you delete that section.
You might also repeat yourself. Or say the same thing two sentences later. It’s not a bad idea to reinforce your main points, especially in your article’s summary, but redundancy typically only adds more words to your article.
Streamlining your writing shouldn’t be about taking out ideas or important points; it should be about distilling your writing to its clearest and simplest form.
Having a good editor is like having The Doctor, Gandalf, and Glinda all rolled into one sparkly person with really great hair. But (short of tornadoes) how do you find a good editor?
Striped Tights and Tiaras (or How to Tell a Bad Editor from a Good One)
I have some fairly strong opinions about what makes a good editor. I recognize that’s mostly because I am one, and like any other professional, I’m proud of my craft. And I recognize the value of a good editor, because, trust me, the article you’re reading now is a reflection of the awesome editors with whom I work.
What makes a good editor? Attention to detail. Impeccable grammar. A love of words. The ability to explain things clearly and succinctly. An eye for both the big picture and little details. (Notice that owning a red pen is nowhere in that list.)
You want an editor who catches things. Mistakes, inconsistencies, incomplete
(Want to have fun with your editor? Include a deliberate mistake. To be fair, all my editors caught that one.)
Good editors are always learning. They’re not afraid to do some research. For example, I don’t think it’s a badge of honor to have the AP Stylebook memorized. It’s there for you to look things up and since some rules are a little weird (Hey, did you know that you capitalize French toast but not french fries?), there’s nothing wrong with keeping a guide handy for a quick refresher.
What makes a bad editor? Aside from an editor with no grasp of grammar and terrible spelling, a bad editor won’t help you finesse your craft, and they will make broad, general changes without explanation and impose their opinion over your voice.
A good editor will pull out your best voice. It’s you, without the ums, likes, awkward laughs, malapropisms, and annoying (to the reader) linguistic tics.
You know that one shining moment where you encounter your ex-boyfriend and you say the most perfect thing? It’s witty and brilliant, but not mean, and shows that you’re oh so over him?
A good editor will help you say that perfect thing at exactly the right time in your article (as opposed to thinking of it 10 minutes after you’ve already ducked around the corner and tripped over your own feet).
Just like Glinda pointed out that the Scarecrow had a brain, the Lion had courage, and the Tin Man had a heart all along, a good editor will help you find the voice that’s already inside you.
A bad editor will focus too much on the details and ignore the bigger storyline. They’ll edit in their voice, not in yours.
Part of helping you find your best voice as a writer is being able to explain the reasons for suggested changes, because we want you to understand the why as well as the what.
Good editors should be able to explain why they made the changes they did, especially in the developmental editing stage. Our goal is to help you get better, not simply tell you you’re wrong.
Because we will tell you you’re wrong. #Sorrynotsorry
(And recognize that at some point, you’re going to have uncharitable thoughts about your editor. That’s okay, we love you anyway.)
If you’re not comfortable or don’t understand the edits on your writing, ask your editor why they made that change.
A bad editor will make changes without a good explanation, or tell you that’s just the way it’s supposed to be. For example, an author I follow on Twitter noted recently that her copy editor did a global find and replace of “which” with “that” in her manuscript. Not cool, copy editor, not cool.
A good editor knows when to be flexible and when to follow the rules. Even as we help you find your distinct, unique, best voice, there are going to be things we insist you do.
For example, if the company you write for follows AP Style, we’re always going to change “%” to “percent.” And if your company has a style guide that says to use the words “frozen treat” instead of “ice cream,” we’re always going to change that.
We’ll help you stick to those rules so your writing matches the voice and tone of the company you’re writing for. Here at CYC, all our clients have a voice and vision guide, as well as a style guide. As editors, we know those guides backward and forward, and we are here to help you be a stronger writer for the company you are representing (whether that company is yours or someone else’s).
Bad editors might try to suck all the creativity out of your voice, but a good editor will find plenty of wiggle room in the rules, knowing that a judicious use of unexpected language or grammar can be powerful.
One of my favorite writers is Joss Whedon. While many writers have invented other languages (Elvish, Klingon, Dothraki), Whedon has invented language in his mother tongue. Buffy the Vampire Slayer not only changed the way characters could speak, but changed the way everyone could speak as words and phrases from the show made it into common usage.
A strict editor might have taken a written version of Whedon’s words and removed all the wacky, the morbid much, the wiggins, and the slayage. (For fun, read the book Slayer Slang by Michael Adams for a most excellent discussion of language and Buffy.)
A good editor will work with you to keep the uniqueness of your voice while helping to make your writing something that fits the brand you’re writing for.
Finding and Hiring the Right Word Wizard
Well, not to get too forward or anything, but: hi. Being good editors is our thing, and we’d love to talk to you more about your projects.
But outside of engaging with CYC, here are a few tips to find and hire a good editor:
- Read their writing. Even an email can tell you a lot. Is it filled with misspellings? Weird or no punctuation? Disjointed sentences? If so, that’s probably not the editor for you.
- Ask for other writing samples. While your editor may be a better editor than writer, it’s rare that they are a brilliant editor but can’t write at all.
- Know that it’s tough to show samples of our prior editing work. We edit for other people, so we’re really sending you samples of their writing, and we likely can’t do that without their approval. Or we can’t show our distinct edits. To use a personal example, when I worked on a newsroom team, you couldn’t tell from the final edits on a document which of us had made which edits.
- However, please ask us to edit three or four paragraphs of something as an example. You’ll see our work and get an idea of how we communicate with you as a writer.
- When you’re looking at an editor’s resume or CV, there are certain keywords or phrases you can look for. Journalist, newsroom staff, writer, proofreader, fact checker: all these jobs or job titles are signs that your potential editor has experience working with words.
- Have a conversation with your potential editor. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with them, chances are you’re going to have a hard time being comfortable with their edits. If you can talk with your editor, they are more likely to understand your writing voice. This level of comfort is such a personal, subjective thing — it’s a little like finding the right therapist. You need someone you can be your raw, authentic self in front of; someone you trust to take the unpolished you and be helpful but not judgmental.
The Yellow Brick Road
Writing is a journey, and like any epic journey, it helps to have a guiding force to point you in the right direction, even if they also give you Herculean tasks to accomplish along the way.
Editors wield magic wands in the form of tracked changes and editing marks, questions and suggestions. They can help you weave the right words together to capture and keep a reader’s attention.
Good editors can help you become a great writer by helping you find your best voice and strengthening your writing.
Finding a good editor can be a journey of its own, but once you have your own word wizard in your corner, your writing will sparkle like a pair of ruby slippers.