My life this past week has been filled with a bunch of drama regarding the subject of editors: What makes a good editor? Are there warning signs that an editor might not be what they advertise? Is an editor really necessary? And of course, horror stories about bad editors. I tell you, this was fate just begging me to do a piece on what you should get from an editor, with perhaps a couple of notes on what should constitute a warning sign.
Here are a few things you really need from an editor:
- Brutal but constructive honesty. This is a tough line to walk, but it's important. Any editor should be able to determine the difference between something they just don't like versus something that just doesn't work. The difference between "I didn't like that" and "this needs work" is an editor's prime duty, and should be followed up with broad-brush recommendations on how to repair it - but not plot guidance.
- Distance from the project. The best editors are not co-authors, not contributors, and definitely not people with a close personal tie. There are always exceptions to these rules, but in general, anyone who fits into these categories is putting the editorial process at risk.
- Open for discussion. I emphasize discussion in this - not debate or pointing out who is right and who is wrong. When the editor says, "I didn't see how the events in one chapter led to events later on," the editor should be open to discussing what seemed to be missing or what would fill in the gaps. This is NOT an invitation for the author to explain why, in fact, the events tied together, but rather a chance to say, "Okay, I intended for these to tie together, so how would you get to that point?" A good editor will throw out ideas (none of which are binding), and the conclusion should be an author with some thoughts about where to go from there.
- Connection to the subject. This is different from distance from the project in that the editor should have an interest in the broad subject being discussed, and hopefully experience in reading/critiquing the genre. Just as a fiction editor might not be the best fit for a how-to book, an editor specializing in westerns might not be a great fit for a sci-fi novel. This is not a hard-and-fast rule - a strong editor can work outside their specialty, but the editing pool may not be very deep for some writers and there are only a few people to choose from.
And quickly, a few things to note:
- If your editor is not catching grammar errors, there's trouble. Nobody's a perfect writer, and we all mix up the group of "there," "their," and "they're" periodically. An editor should cover you on this base, and should offer broad comments if necessary about excessive use of the passive voice, point-of-view shift, present/past tense mix-ups. If they miss these, they are not earning their paycheck. And on that note...
- Pay your editor. This may sound odd, and who wants to pass up a chance to get an editing pass for free? Well, with the free deal, often you get what you pay for. More importantly, when there is an exchange of money for services rendered (preferably upon completion and not in advance), the editor carries a moral obligation to hit the deadline, impress the client, and earn every penny. Beta readers are different - that can be a fun opportunity to read something and offer feedback. However, once they put that editor hat on, some kind of financial arrangement helps seal the deal.
Now that I have defended editors, I hope I didn't scare anyone off. They are an important part of the process, even though they are not always a part that the writer gets to appreciate.