What makes a good editor

March 31, 2013

A few months ago, people on one of the mailing lists I belong to started an interesting discussion: How do you know if the editor you or your publisher hired is a good one? Most first-time writers don’t have the skills or the experience to tell the difference between a good editor and a bad one.

During the last six years, I’ve published six novels (and I’m working on getting the first five republished and completing the seventh), two novellas, and fifteen short stories. I’ve worked with almost a dozen different editors, so I’ve learned to tell the good ones from the bad ones.

Here are a few things to look out for.

A good editor:

  • … is able to explain the reason behind her suggestions and changes. 
  • … gives constructive criticism, feedback that is honest, but encouraging. An editor who’s just flattering your ego is useless, but so is someone whose feedback is so crushing that you want to give up writing.
  • … will make specific suggestions about how to solve a problem, so instead of just saying “your main character needs more development,” she might say, “How about showing a bit more backstory about her divorce here?”
  • … should be able to rewrite sentences—more as an example of what she wants the author to do, not as a ghostwriter who will rewrite the whole book.
  • … respects the author’s style, voice, and vision. She’ll make suggestions to improve the manuscript, but she won’t try to make it into her own.
  • … is a good teacher. Working with a great editor can teach you something for all of your future works and help you become a better writer. 
  • … knows the market and the target audience better than you do. She knows what publishers and a particular demographic of readers is looking for.
  • … won’t introduce errors into your manuscript. She won’t make any changes without knowing or checking the rules, the dictionary, or the style guide. I once had an editor who arbitrarily changed quotation marks and added commas within compound predicates. Needless to say that I never worked with her again.
  • … should be familiar with the applicable style guide, e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style.
  • … is organized and disciplined. She’ll meet the deadlines and send your manuscript back on time.
  • … will point out the strong points of the story as well as the flaws. That way, you know what not to change, and a pat to the back is always a good motivation when it’s well-deserved.
  • … knows the difference between subjective taste and objective mistakes. Maybe the author’s voice differs from that of the editor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s poor writing.
  • … has good interpersonal and communication skills. She won’t just pull out the red pen and start editing but will first make sure she knows what you need and expect from the editing process. Editing is an ongoing dialogue with a lot of back and forth.
  • … doesn’t just make changes without giving you a way to know what she has changed. She uses the “track changes” function so that authors can accept or reject changes. That allows the author to learn something for her next book and to retain full control over the manuscript. Personally, I wouldn’t want to work with an editor who is refusing to use “track changes.”
  • … won’t overedit and change things that don’t really need to be changed, just because it’s not the way the editor would have written it.
  • … doesn’t just point out errors but will make suggestions on how to realize the story’s full potential.

Any other traits or skills you want in an editor? Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.



  1. You have an excellent list!

    The other day I got a new follower on Twitter: someone offering editing services. Their website had at least 23 grammatical mistakes that I could see (but I’ve had practice, being a copy editor myself). But the point that I considered the ringer? They had a “let us see your work and we’ll let you know if you’re worth our time” policy, and they didn’t offer a single sample of their work. I mean, how could you hire a proofreader who always spelled it “proof-reader.” But this is a great list of advice!

    • No one, not even a great copy editor, can find all the mistakes in his or her own work, but a website full of spelling and grammar mistakes is a bad sign.

      I once read a book on copy editing and found a dangling participle on the very first page.

  2. […] What makes a good editor. […]

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    • I’m glad my blog post helped. I know it’s not so easy to find a good editor, but it’s easier if you know what you’re looking for.

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