February 23, 2021
By Jim Dempsey
I got a worrying email from an author last week. He had contacted me about a year ago for a free sample edit. He mailed me back after I’d returned the revised text to say he was happy with my work, appreciated my insight, but he had decided to go with another editor because they charged less.
His recent mail details a list of issues he then had with the other editor, including missed deadlines, errors introduced into his manuscript and basic errors missed. Most troubling of all, however, was that the cheaper editor had entirely changed the first two pages of one chapter. The author had originally written the narrative in retrospect—a common technique to fill the reader in on what has happened with these characters since we last saw them—but the editor had completely rewritten this as three pages of dialogue!
I literally gasped.
That, to put it mildly, is heavy handed editing.
I’m reluctant to revise dialogue in any novel because I feel the author knows the voice of the character much better than me. Of course, I’ll offer revision suggestions and correct any obvious errors, but there is, to me, something very intrusive about editing dialogue, so I’d certainly never consider rewriting whole pages in the voices of the author’s characters.
I’m still mentally gasping as I think about this.
This is not an isolated experience, I know, although it is perhaps the most extreme example I’ve heard in a long time. This, unfortunately, is a painful reality for many authors who put their money, faith and precious words into the hands of such editors, only to be disappointed when the text comes back with their voice and style usurped by the editor’s.
I understand that editing is a major investment in your writing career, but sometimes the cheaper option is not always the best or even the most economical. Such stories are bad news for authors and editors alike as, once confidence and trust in the editing process is shaken or lost, it can take a lot of hard work to restore an author’s faith.
A good relationship between an author and editor is essential to a successful publication. The difference between a compelling novel and a mediocre one is often decided at the editing stage.
So, how do you go about choosing a good editor for your cherished novel? How can you tell the difference between someone who says they’re good and someone who actually is good?
I’ve come up with some guidelines writers can use in any situation; whether it’s a short feature article for a magazine, a first novel or an academic dissertation, the same rules apply. But first, let’s take a look at what qualifies someone as an editor:
It’s your book, not mine
An excellent grasp of grammar is essential. Check the text on the editor’s website and in any correspondence you have with them to make sure there are no errors.
Many editors will have a background as a journalist or in publishing, but that’s not necessary. Being an avid reader (of anything and everything) and having an empathy for writing is a must. Indeed, being a writer, blogger or tweeter can all enhance someone’s qualifications for revising your work but they don’t automatically qualify that person as an editor—and, more accurately, as a good editor.
Self-discipline is important in a good editor, as is good judgement and, crucially, an ability to express thoughts clearly and succinctly. But the thing that distinguishes a good editor from a bad one is a willingness to accept the role of an unsung hero, located firmly in the background, without even a mention in the acknowledgements. A good editor maintains the author’s voice. We walk in your shoes and never leave evidence of our own footprints.
A good editor is a guide
Editing someone else’s work is a sensitive task. A good editor will never underestimate an author’s connection to, or passion for, the work. We will handle you with care. But a good editor will always be honest with you too, and point out areas of weakness or grammatical errors. A good editor will guide you through your work, show you areas where you excel, where you can express yourself better or more succinctly, and help you to look at your work from a distance. We will never change your voice or style.
What to look out for
There are a few characteristics you should beware of when looking to employ an editor. Some people who call themselves editors are often frustrated writers. They are more interested in showing off their own skills as an author than helping you to hone yours. They change words needlessly and suffocate your style. You will get a bad feeling in your stomach when you read your edited text; you’ll feel like you’ve lost your voice. Remember, a good editor won’t change words arbitrarily or on the basis of their preferences. We won’t change ‘boundaries’ to ‘borders’ or ‘fumble’ to ‘grope.’ We will make sure that your original voice shines.
Then there are editors who just don’t seem to have that necessary eye for detail. They will miss inconsistencies, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors in your text. Producing a consistent, error-free (as humanly possible) text is the fundamental task of an editor. A good editor won’t leave you with both ‘criticise’ and ‘criticize’ in your manuscript. We will make sure your spelling and punctuation is consistent and sharp, and we won’t confuse ‘its’ and ‘it’s.’ The sloppy editor seems oblivious to the fact that what can often set an author apart from the crowd is a manuscript free of grammatical blunders, jarring spelling mistakes and formatting errors.
Five essential qualities
But let’s focus on the positive. Keep these points in mind and you will be sure to choose an editor who will handle you, and your work, with skill and care.
a good editor doesn’t have an strong ego that demands recognition or their voice on your page
a good editor will be brutally honest with you, and will treat you and your work with respect
a good editor has an obsessive eye for detail and is sensitive to inconsistencies
a good editor will make sure that every sentence counts and is structurally sound
a good editor can explain, in detail, the reason why every change is made
So how do you know if the editor you’re about to hire has these qualities? You’ll find clues in your contact with the editor. Does the editor communicate with you promptly and professionally? Do they belong to a recognized professional organization where there is a clear procedure to follow if you have serious complaints?
But the most important piece of advice I have for you is to ask for a free sample edit. Most professional editors will be happy to do this for you, and you will be able to tell within a few pages if your editor has the qualities listed above. And remember, a good editor has your best interests at heart.
Previously published in WriterUnboxed
Jim Dempsey is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist.
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