What makes a good editor?
This is a question many authors and aspiring editors ask every day. But being a good editor means different things to different authors. Most lists about editing focus on a love of reading or attention to detail. Those things are essential but there are some other personality traits that benefit authors and make for a good editor.
Successful book editors need to have obvious skills like a love of story structure, grammar, and their genre(s) of choice. As I researched becoming a book editor, I looked into what was offered in the book world. I followed editors on social media. I befriended fellow editors. And I sought feedback from authors as I took on projects.
Furthermore, I used all of this feedback to take an honest look at myself, other editors, and author needs to distill the information down to these three lesser talked about traits that make for a good editor regardless of genre.
1. A Service Mentality
The first thing that makes a good editor is a service mentality. What this means is that being an editor isn’t the starring role in the publishing world. Our job is to literally provide feedback and support to authors. It can be hard to know what level of service you may want to provide and that’s an early decision you have to make when setting up your business. The good news is that you can always adjust this as you learn and grow.
This also means that your work as thorough, creative, or valid as it may be is a suggestion. Your author gets final say on all of your edits. Therefore, the author is well within their rights to reject even your most poignant edits. It can be hard for editors to put their heart into work that ultimately goes in a different direction. Being able to keep your service mentality can make this easier because your ultimate goal is to help the author reach their goal even when it may not be what you had in mind.
2. Clear communication skills
Did you know that written communication (emails, social media posts, blogs) are more likely to be read with a negative tone than spoken communication? Moreover, book editors communicate with written words the majority of the time. They email clients, write website copy, give job proposals, leave hundreds of comments, and write manuscript letters. Occasionally they speak to clients on the phone or via video, but the majority of your communication will be via written methods, so knowing how to communicate clearly and professionally is essential.
Clear communication is essential to sell your services, edit manuscripts, and explain your edits. Your authors may not always know what is exactly wrong with their manuscript, but your explanation can help them trust your edits further. Authors rely on editors to help make their communication with readers clearer too. Knowing how to get your message to authors succinctly as well as get their message across to their audience makes you an easy editor to pick.
3. Judgment reservation
Finally, this skill goes overlooked by many and solves a major fear of many authors. Authors are often anxious interviewing and hiring editors due to a fear of judgment by the editor. I’ve heard horror stories of editors telling authors to scrap ideas or that their works aren’t good enough to publish or even edit. This is outside of almost every editor’s scope of practice. Most freelance editors are not here to judge work. Even editors who do acquisition work tend to not judge books and pass without judgment noting that a work isn’t right for them.
In practice, withholding judgment is essential in the editing process as well. I will be honest that I don’t love everything I’ve ever edited, but knowing where personal preference and editing good practices diverge is critical. A good editor acknowledges that their bias or favor for certain tropes, lines, or themes is not a reflection on all of readership. Despite my preference I never let an author know that their book may not be at the top of my list. My job as an editor is to strengthen their work and provide the people who are their ideal readers with the best experience possible while reading their book.