How to Know if an Editor is Good
Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Editors seem to be as abundant as fleas on a hound nowadays. An online word search for “free-lance editor” can result in a daunting number of possibilities.
And editors are in demand. Not only because of the proliferation of self-publishing but also because, in this competitive publishing market, writers often hire free-lance editors to clean up a manuscript before showing it to an agent or an acquisitions editor.
If I were looking for an editor, the first question out of my lips would be: What editorial training have you received?
Especially among free-lance editors, you might hear, “I’ve published two books and been in a critique group for five years. Everyone in the group tells me my critiques are the best.”
That would be an unimpressive response. Being published means you’re a decent writer. But you might have the editorial instincts of a cockroach. The two skill sets don’t necessarily equate.
Even being a strong critiquer doesn’t mean you know how to edit. It’s one thing to pinpoint a trouble spot in a manuscript; it’s another to understand why that’s a problem and still another to know how to fix it.
Having someone provide you with a list of manuscripts he has edited isn’t proof of strong editing skills either. That person just might be great at marketing himself. You have no idea what shape those manuscripts were in when he got his hands on them, nor how improved they were when he finished.
Most really strong editors were mentored by a gifted editor. It’s like an apprenticeship. I don’t believe editor wannabes should be released out into the publishing world without having the oversight of a talented editor. Even if the person is a natural-born editor, that skill needs to be honed.
I don’t claim to be the world’s best editor, but I was trained by not one editor but by a team of editors. And my apprenticeship wasn’t for a few months; it was for several years.
I joined the staff of Cru right out of college, having majored in English. I had taken a creative writing class. And I liked to write poetry. That was it. Some qualifications, right?
But the director of Cru’s publications department saw some latent ability in me and requested that I be assigned to her department. Then the training began. Each week all the new recruits attended classes in which we learned: editing marks, common grammatical errors, headline writing, newspaper layout, caption writing, writing techniques, interviewing skills, editing know-how, AP style book, proofreading methods, the steps to produce both newspapers and magazines–from conceiving an issue’s contents to going to the printer to okay the print run, etc. Eventually we published books as well, and that meant adjusting our skills to a very different kind of format. We took tests. We were individually coached on weaknesses. It was intense and intentional.
We also were given assignments–not as a test, but to be published–to write brochures, slide shows, news articles, and feature articles. Sometimes we were given transcribed talks and told to transform them into great articles. I remember one time being handed a 50-page transcript of a speech and told to cut it down to a 300-word article that retained the colorful style of the well-known speaker. And, I might add, this was the era in which you literally cut and pasted an article together from the transcript. If you don’t learn editing with a task like that, ain’t nothin’ going to teach you how to edit.
We interviewed staff members who were working in a variety of countries and had returned to Cru’s headquarters (as well as some pretty famous folks). From the interviews we wrote articles.
I’ll now confess to the time I interviewed the head of a significant foreign division in the organization and forgot to turn on my tape recorder. It was a long interview. At the end, he suggested I check to make sure the recorder had worked.
Mistakes were made. Some were never repeated.
When we finished each assignment, an editor sat down with us individually and told us what we did well and what needed work. We revised. We were critiqued again. We revised…for some assignments, the write-critique-write cycle went on for several rounds. And, of course, our work was edited. We were then given the job of retyping our work, incorporating the edits–a great way to learn how to write better and how to edit.
Because we were working with different editors depending on what type of writing we were doing, we benefited from the strengths of each editor.
Many of us went on to become full-time editors, and while we already had received considerable training in the publishing process, classes and individual feedback remained in place. We never rested on our laurels.
After many years at Cru, I transitioned into book publishing and worked at Zondervan. Even though I was given an imprint (which is like running your own publishing venture within the larger publishing house), the managing editor’s job was to oversee my work. She became yet another mentor to me, noting areas I needed to shore up and offering guidance.
I view myself as privileged to have had mentors eager to push me forward, to offer me insights, and to make sure I never thought I’d arrived.
That is the kind of editor you want to hire. Someone whose skills have been developed under the watchful eye of others. You most certainly don’t want an individual who decided to augment her writing income with some editing on the side, or someone who designed an editor-for-hire business card and added a landing page with prices on his website.
While you want to dig into an editor’s background, what other questions or exercises could you use to ascertain an editor’s skill level?
How do you know if an editor is good? Click to tweet.
What would you ask an editor you wanted to hire? Click to tweet.