Good editor, bad editor

From Rick:

I do promise I’ll get back to my series on dialog, but in the meantime, several topics have shoved their way into my path. One that keeps coming back almost ad nauseam is the subject of editing and the necessity for having it done well.

Coincidentally, last time Scott chose to discuss it. While he and I somewhat coordinate our blog efforts, many of our posts are done independently about what strikes our fancy. Even before Scott did his post on editing, I had already decided to do one about the editors themselves.

Just as there are different types/levels of editing, so are there different types of editors, who match those levels of editing. Here, though, I’m doing to divide them into two categories: GOOD and BAD. Again, coincidentally, after I chose this topic, I ran across a blog post by Edward Lorn on the topic of editors. He references another article in his. Check these out.



What differentiates a good editor from a bad one? Edward Lorn sums up one difference very nicely: “Bad editors rewrite your work, while good editors make you do all the work.”

On occasion, in the capacity of a reviewer, I’m often tempted to rewrite other people’s work, particularly when that work needs a lot of work. I stop myself (usually) and give examples instead, or I may rewrite a sentence or two to illustrate. This is not the same as rewriting; this is showing how to rewrite.

Lorn also points out that dialog is sacred. No editor should ever change an author’s dialog except to correct for punctuation and obvious misspellings. Nothing else. You don’t touch the grammar. Ever. You can question whether a grammar misuse fits the character. Nevertheless, I’ve had editors do exactly that, change a word or two that changes the flavor of the dialog (change “who” to “whom” when the character would NEVER say “whom”).

A good editor helps the author to make the writing perfect for a novel, not perfect for an English paper. Among the good editors is a small subset of great editors, an extremely rare treasure you should hold on to if you find one.

Bad editors exist in two forms: those who overcorrect, and those who simply lack the skills to be a good editor. The ones who overcorrect often don’t have a good grasp of fiction writing. All they’re interested in is perfect grammar and punctuation. (A future post will be titled “Rules, rules, rules, I’m so sick of rules.”) It’s fine for an editor to try to stick to them, but when the editor is either not a writer of fiction or thinks that other writers should write the way he/she does, that editor is doing both of you a disservice.

The other type of bad editor, those who probably shouldn’t be editors, lack the knowledge and proper skills of an editor. They may be bad spellers, don’t know all the grammar rules, don’t have the command of the language that they should–or some combination of these.

The problem with bad editors is that you may not have a clue that they don’t know their business as well as they should. How do you find out? You have to test them with a sample that contains known errors (plus some obscure points as a test).

Many times a fine line exists between what should and should not be changed in the editing process. What makes an editor’s job difficult is that there are two types of writers: those who know what they’re doing, and those who don’t. If the editor doesn’t know the author, it can be especially hard to distinguish the difference. Some writers will deliberately break a grammar rule for a good reason, and if the editor doesn’t recognize the difference, unwarranted changes can happen.

A really good editor should be able to discern that the writer seems to know what he/she is doing and should therefore question before making blind corrections. This is where MS Word’s “Track Changes” feature is invaluable. A good editor will use this to let the writer see the changes before they’re set in stone.

I had one unpleasant editorial experience (due to a mix-up in instructions between publisher and editor) where the editor made changes that should not have been made and sent the final to the publisher without my seeing it (and without Track Changes). I ended up doing a side-by-side comparison of my version with the edited version to look at the changes and to undo only the unnecessary ones. Fortunately, Word’s “Compare” feature made it less a chore than it could have been, but it still took me many hours’ work to correct it. I have no desire to repeat that experience. This was a case of a competent editor who was too set on rule following than on the context.

You should INSIST that anyone who edits your work use “Track Changes” so you can verify that no improper changes were made. In addition, seeing the actual changes will likely help you become a better writer.

Whenever I edit stories for Fabula Argentea, I always send the author the final copy for approval, even for just punctuation and format changes–in case the author disagrees with even a punctuation change. And if I feel the need to change a word, rephrase a clunky sentence, or fix a spelling inconsistency in a character’s name, I get the author’s okay. In my opinion, EVERY editor should work this way. And this is part of my definition of a GOOD editor: one who respects the author’s work instead of playing the role of English teacher or thinking he/she knows better.

Where does this leave an author in the search for a good editor? Maybe I’m off base, but I don’t see an editor’s job as trying to tell an author how a book should be written. An editor is there to fix mistakes, true mistakes, not what the editor perceives as a mistake. If the editor is unsure, he/she should ASK the author, not make assumptions. Period.

When I wear my editing hat, if I encounter something so bad that fixing it goes beyond what I perceive as an editor’s job, I’ll tell the author to go back to the drawing board or to find a critique group to help. Maybe I’ll put on my critique hat, but I won’t be acting as an editor.

To be a good editor, you need not only grammar skills, but also an excellent knowledge of vocabulary that extends into the areas of slang and terminology. While I consider myself well rounded, I’d be lying if I claimed I knew even close to everything. Whenever I have a niggling doubt, even if only 99% sure, I look it up. Or I question it with the author.

Every editor will make mistakes, will miss (probably more than one) something. That’s why having a second editor (or another trusted set of eyes) review the final work is not a bad idea–if you really want to put out your best work. I can almost promise that a second editor will find things the first one missed.

Among editors there can be legitimate differences of opinion. In those cases, you, the author–and no one else–must be the one to cast the final vote because it’s your work, not theirs. At the same time, don’t blindly ignore their advice. And as Edward Lorn said, “Professional attitudes are best.”


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