March 4, 2014

Could We Be a Good Editor?

Magnifying glass on a book with text: 5 Steps to Freelance Editing

Last week I wrote about how to find a good editor, partly as a rant against the flood of bad editors out there. It seems like everyone and their brother—and their second cousin three-times-removed—thinks they can be a freelance editor.

And if my inbox is any indication, the flood is only going to increase. Since that post, I’ve lost count of the number of messages, tweets, emails, etc. I’ve received from people thinking of becoming a freelance editor and asking for advice.

Yes, there are that many looking to join the flood. Seriously. I lost count.

Now I don’t say that to discourage anyone from going into editing. With the rise of self-publishing, the need for good freelance editors isn’t going to go away. However…

Just as I ranted last time about how too many editors aren’t that great, this continuing flood means that many of those considering becoming editors wouldn’t be that great either. Harsh, but true.

So how can we make sure we’re not one of those simply in it for the money, one of those delusional about our abilities, or one of those who would add to the tsunami of crap? How can we make sure we’d be one of the good editors?

(Even if you’re not planning on becoming an editor, this post might give you more ideas for how to judge a good one, or how to improve your beta reading/critiquing skills. *smile*)

5 Steps to Becoming a Good Editor

Being a good editor is very different from being a good writer, critique partner, or beta reader. Yes, there’s some overlap, but editing requires a certain skill set, and if we don’t have that, we’re not going to be helpful to authors.

So let’s take a look at the path someone might take in trying to become a good editor.

Step 1: Know Our Background

The first thing to ask ourselves is why we’re considering this path:

  • Do we have a background in editing?
    This isn’t required, but it can help us know the basics as well as our strengths and weaknesses. However, many with an editing education come from non-fiction, which is not terribly helpful for fiction editing.
  • Have we judged writing contests?
    Again, this isn’t required, but seeing the scoring sheets of several contests can help us know what to look for and/or help train our brain for judging and analyzing stories.
  • Have we done lots of beta reading or critiquing for many different authors?
    This one I’ll say is required unless we can say yes to the first question for fiction editing. If we don’t have this, why would we think we’d enjoy editing, much less be good at it?
  • Have others encouraged us to edit professionally?
    While not required, feedback from those we’ve read for that “we’re the best or most helpful critiquer/beta reader they’ve ever had” might indicate we have natural talent.
  • Have we been a voracious reader for years?
    This is probably another requirement. As Carradee points out in the comments below, reading creates exposure to stories that sink into our subconscious and help our innate knowledge base.

For comparison, I had a minor copy-editing job as a teenager, so I’ve developed my editing frame of mind for decades. I’ve judged dozens of entries for 8 different contests. I beta read or critiqued dozens more manuscripts for over 15 different authors before I started offering my editing services. And yes, many people encouraged me to edit professionally, and I’m lost without something to read in front of me (when desperate, I read cereal boxes *smile*).

That’s not to say a lesser background won’t cut it, but keep all that in mind for the next sections.

Step 2: Identify Our Natural Strengths

Next, we have to ask ourselves what type of editing we might be good at. When beta reading or critiquing:

  • What types of suggestions do we typically make?
    Are we nitpicky on grammar or word choice? Do we point out awkward sentences? Do we come up with ways to fix plot holes? Etc.
  • What issues can we identify without hardly trying?
    Do we find missing words? Word echoes? Pacing issues? Missing emotional reactions? Flat descriptions? Weak turning points? Etc.

By discovering our natural strengths, we’ll know which type of editing might be a good fit for us: developmental editing, line-editing, copy-editing, or proofreading.

For comparison, I started in copy-editing, and I can do all types of editing. However, given my instincts for story structure, my natural talents lie in developmental editing.

Step 3: Ask Ourselves if We’re a Natural Editor

Before we go any further—before we spend time and effort developing our editing skills—we should determine whether we’re cut out for being an editor. Most people are not.

  • Do we have a natural editing instinct?
    This is required. Period. The End.

We can stuff a lot of knowledge into our brains, but knowledge alone doesn’t mean we have the ability to find issues. While knowledge will support and enhance what we can do naturally, we need an inherent ability to analyze X writing aspect—in our sleep. No amount of knowledge will create that instinct.

If you don’t find it difficult to turn off your natural editor when pleasure reading, you probably don’t have the natural instinct to be a good editor.

Sorry, but this post isn’t about how to be an editor. It’s about how to be a good editor. The industry already has enough so-so editors, and I’m not interested in encouraging more of those.

A good editor has to find nearly all the problems within their scope, not just some of the problems. And that means we have to think problems are so easy to find that they’re blindingly obviouslike blinking lights. If we have to work hard to find problems, we’ll miss too many.

For comparison, underdeveloped plot points or character arcs stand out to me like a bum note clanging through a song. I can pick out a single line in a 100K manuscript and say “Here’s your theme.” When reading, I can see the underlying story structure and know which scenes are unnecessary, slowing down the plot, or destroying the story tension with one eye closed.

It’s as easy for me to see those problems as it is to read. No exaggeration.

Step 4: Gather Knowledge about Our Editing Scope

If we’re still here after that discouraging note of Step 3, we now have to build the knowledge to support our instinct. Instinct allows us to hear the bum notes; knowledge allows us to identify the offending instrument, know how to fix it, and give suggestions on how to improve the whole orchestra.

Our strengths from Step 2 directed us to which type of editing we might have the natural talent for. If that still sounds like the right direction for us, we’d:

  1. Check websites of other editors for that same type of editing.
    What kind of issues do they mention pointing out for their clients? Learn what’s within the scope of that type of editing and what’s not.
  2. Make a master list of all the things our type of editing should look for and/or be able to find.
    This list will be different for each type of editing. Visit at least 10-20 websites of that type of editor to ensure we have the full list of necessary abilities.
  3. Study all the skills necessary for our type of editing.
    If we want to be a copy editor, we should be on a first name basis with all grammar rules, know the differences between the various styles (Chicago, AP, MLA, etc.) and learn the appropriate rules for our target market (fiction or non-fiction). Etc.
    If we want to be a developmental editor, we should know story structure, beat sheets, tricks for fixing pacing, conflicts, character development, etc. forward, backward, and inside out. Etc., etc. etc. *smile*
  4. Learn the tools for communicating our suggestions.
    For most self-published authors, they expect to deal with their freelance editors through Microsoft Word. Know MS Word shortcuts, how to use comments and track changes, etc.
  5. Practice with beta reading and/or critiquing.
    Give away our abilities for free until we’re able to find with ease every kind of issue within the scope of our type of editing. Practice until we’re confident with our skills.

Looks like a lot of work, doesn’t it? But that’s what it takes to edit at the professional level. Anything else is just poking at random things with a red pen to see what sticks out to us.

Sure, those other editors will find some things, but they won’t find nearly everything. And that so-so level of editing doesn’t help the author or the flood of delusions about editing quality and qualifications.

For comparison, I knew story arc instinctively when I first started, but it took years to develop the knowledge to support that instinct and be able to analyze, fix, and improve story issues. My blog posts and worksheets give evidence of how well I now understand story structure and beats, character development, story and character arcs, conflicts, goals, themes, etc., and just as it took years to write all those posts, it takes years to develop the necessary knowledge.

Step 5: Strive to Be a Good Editor

Congratulations! If we’ve made it this far, we now have the basic qualifications to be an editor. A few additional traits will help us be a good editor:

  • Are we able to give blunt, honest feedback to everyone?
    We shouldn’t be mean, but if we struggle with being honest, we won’t do authors any favors. We have to tell the truth as we see it, even if they’re our friends or someone who paid us money. Honestly, this part is often no fun at all.
  • Are we able to give reasons and suggested fixes for issues we find?
    Finding issues is hard enough, but can we also help fix the problem? That means being able to analyze and discover the underlying issue.
    An editor might say “This section reads flat.” A good editor might say “This section reads flat because we’re missing her emotional reaction here—how does she feel about her mother’s words? Betrayed? Angry? Scared? Show the reader how she feels.”
  • Are we able to respect the author’s voice and intentions?
    Just because the writing isn’t how we’d do it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Developmental editors need to respect the story’s premise, themes, and what the author’s trying to say with their story. Copy editors have to respect the author’s voice for word choice, rhythm, etc.
    If we feel the need to change something that isn’t broken, we have to give a reason why. We’re supposed to make their story better, not change it into our story.
  • Do we know our limitations?
    We’re not going to be the right editor for every story or every author. We’re going to be more comfortable in certain genres or with authors of certain skill levels. We’re not going to be equally qualified for every type of editing. Do we have hot button issues that would make it difficult to be objective on some stories? We need to communicate our limitations to authors.
  • Can we be humble?
    No matter how much we think our suggestions are perfect and the answer to everything wrong with a story, we should deliver our suggestions with the attitude of “Here’s how I see it, but maybe I’m misunderstanding what you’re trying to do.” This approach helps authors listen to our feedback less defensively.
    When combined with the technique of giving reasons for our suggestions, they’ll question whether their reason for doing something is more important than our suggestion. Being humble might help the author take our advice.

For comparison, this step is where I’ve grown the most over the past two years. I don’t claim to be perfect about any of these steps, but I do try my best.

After all our training and knowledge, it’s hard to be humble sometimes. Especially when we have the instincts to know the effect our suggested changes would have.

But as a freelance editor, we’re just the hired help. The story isn’t our baby, and we might be wrong about what the author is trying to do. Sometimes we have to let go of our ideas and suggestions.

good editor listens to the story, the characters, and the author just as much as they listen to their instincts and knowledge. A good editor embraces the traits of Step 5 to earn the trust of the author. And all of that is why just knowing about writing isn’t enough to be a good editor. *smile*

Do you disagree with any of my steps or requirements? Do you agree that a natural instinct is required? Am I missing any steps or suggestions for how to complete this path? Do you have other qualifications or traits to add? Do you have questions about any aspect of this path?

Full Disclosure: Yes, I do developmental editing, but I’m not even linking to my services page. This is simply a rant on how not to be delusional about whether we’re qualified to be an editor. *smile*

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Oh, it’d be very good to find an editor who can give suggestions whilst still letting you follow your own voice and style. So I agree that’s very important. Hmm, well since I’m the type of person who doesn’t believe there is such a thing as natural talent (I think I told you about Ericsson’s 10, 000 hour rule), I’m inclined to say that all the “natural instincts” for editing comes from some kind of practice or extensive experience or exposure we’ve had in the past, rather than something we were born with. But if anything is innate, it might be our personality. Some people might just be more interested in editing in general than others. I know that I myself am FAR more interested in writing than in editing, lol. Not that I dislike the latter, as it can be fun too, but I am clearly nowhere near as passionate about editing as some other people! 😀 And also, when I read books, I already told you how I have a problem of noticing the positives but being quite blind to the negatives unless it’s really THAT bad. I think this positive bias is partly because I subconsciously just want to enjoy the story, and partly because of my personality orientation towards life in general: I tend to see the bright side more clearly than the dark sides; you could say I’m a rose-tinted glasses type of person, haha, so clearly that’s not going to be helpful to authors…  — Read More »


my belief that there is no such thing as natural talent, and that the only thing that may be natural is one’s personality (though even personalities can change), is only my belief I agree, though I look at it from another angle. Though I do believe some people’s learning styles and backgrounds naturally incline them to having more “talent”, that’s all built from personality. (And for the record, I can often ID a writer’s learning style and sometimes even disabilities from looking at their work. Writing shows a lot more than people realize.) Talent is also dangerous. Someone who is told they’re talented and therefore relies on that talent will face far more risk of stagnating, never improving (either because they don’t think they need to or because they don’t know where to find someone who can tell them what they need). I’ve said before that I’ve probably read 2500+ books in my life. That’s where my writing and editing “talent” comes from. I’ve edited a handful of debut authors who were fantastic writers from the debut story…and they all read. Some authors who impressed me with their debut stories—and though I don’t know the circumstances with all of them, at least one of them handed me their first story ever; admitting which one will defeat the purpose here: • Dan Harris • Jennifer Recchio • Elizabeth Corrigan • Mary Fan • Jason Anderson (okay, technically I proofread rather than edited this one). The common denominator? They read. What the…  — Read More »

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

“I’ve said before that I’ve probably read 2500+ books in my life. That’s where my writing and editing “talent” comes from. I’ve edited a handful of debut authors who were fantastic writers from the debut story…and they all read.


The common denominator? They read.”

😀 Thanks for this comment. Gives me more hope that I can become a more helpful beta reader given more experience, haha.

And wow, 2500+ books! 😀 I still have a long way to go to get that far, lol.

Taurean Watkins

Okay Jami, I’m having an emotional day (Not your fault!) but one question I feel civil enough to ask right now is this- Where’s line between a helpful beta-reader and a great editor beyond just the nitty-gritty grammar stuff? What can beta-readers do if we don’t have some of those inherent skills? I wasn’t born knowing how to do video but I’ve been learning that skill and I think I’m getting better (If you’ve seen my videos one of my YouTube Channels or the welcome video on my website linked to all my comments here) I’m especially thinking of writers just getting started who already feel like they need tons of help just get their barrings with the process, when does any ol feedback matter versus people who are pursuing the writing you want to do? For those of us who can’t afford (Assuming we’re talking about the great ones) up to last week you’ve said beta-reading When I read your query letter you said I’d helped. I certainly don’t have your skillset as an editor. It might’ve helped that I knew what one was (LOL) and wrote dozens of my own, but you said my feedback was helpful, and I don’t read as much romance as you, particularly the erotic kind, yet I was helpful to you in some way. I’m glad, since I get a lot out of your blog, even the stuff that frankly scared me to death (I’m thinking back to the post about plagarists and…  — Read More »

Rhenna Morgan

Such a great post, Jami. You know, I’ve had some really enlightening editing experiences this year, all of them positive in one way or another. Out of the three, two of them have shown me just how valuable a skilled editor is. Classes and critique partners are great–think commercial grade workout equipment when you’re trying to skinny down for swimsuit season. But a good editor? That’s your personal trainer. And when you go to put on that swimsuit, you’ll look pretty damned good!

My other experience taught me that just because someone calls themselves an editor does not mean they automatically bring value to the table. Find out what they really know about the business before you dive in.

Patrick Thunstrom

As one of the delusional flood, this post is actually heartening. I expect difficulty when considering freelancing and entrepreneurship in general. But I’ve been told by many to try my hand at it, and my biggest coach in it was a managing editor for a literature magazine (Thus why I’d even start the process, her opinion is already important to me).

I believe a natural drive is key to a lot of tasks, not just editing.

Point 3 though was probably the most heartening part of this post, since one of my key metrics for how much I enjoy a book or story is how quickly and completely I can shut off my inner editor while reading it.

Laurie A Will
Laurie A Will

Hi Jami, I really appreciated this post and your last one. It seems like everyone these days who has published a book (traditional, self-published) or has a degree in English automatically think they can edit. I have been a free-lance edit for about two years through word of mouth. I am currently working on a website. It’s going slowly because I have limited funding and no experience designing websites. I’ve read at least thirty books on the craft and some specifically on editing. That’s how it started. I wanted to learn how to edit my own work. Then I spent several years beta reading and in writing critique groups. I joined for help with my own writing and discovered I had a knack for editing. I think the bulk of my education when it comes to editing came with countless hours of helping others improve their manuscript. It really prepared me the manuscript I am editing now. It’s middle grade book with a character with a unique voice. His voice is wordy. It has been a tremendous challenge to trim down this worm’s dialogue without losing the author’s and character’s voice. I never could have done it without all those years of helping others for free. I’ve sent in samples of my writing when looking for editors to have them send back a copy that was not improved and offer to charge me $5.00 a page so they can exchange one word for another without enhancing my work. I’ve also…  — Read More »

Kristen Lamb
Kristen Lamb

AWESOME POST. Editing is a VERY different skill set and it’s more than putting in missing commas. It is tough to find editors who aren’t trying to inject their voice and who can almost be chameleons to our voice and make OUR voice the best it can be.

I know when I help people with development I have to be VERY careful. I always want them telling the story THEY originally wanted to tell, though maybe a more streamlined version.

Anne R. Allen

Great post and great comments. Even a visit from Kristen herownself! She is so right that many editors merely try to inject their own voice. They’re wannabe writers who are using your work to project their own voice, not polish yours.

It’s about streamlining, not changing.

And I know some writers who are simply the bossiest person in their own critique group feel they’re qualified to edit.

One way to tell if an editor is going to be right for you is their ability to see what’s RIGHT with a book. If all their comments are negative, they’re not going to help, and they could do you a lot of harm.

So I’d add to your questions: can you be positive and encouraging, even when a manuscript needs a lot of work? And can you turn down a book when you know you don’t like it enough to do it justice? (I guess that falls under “knowing your limitations.”

Melissa Maygrove

This is a great post. Good for you for being bold enough to speak honestly.

Many of the qualities you listed are good for any kind of fiction editor to have. The only thing that gave me pause is you just said ‘editor,’ then went on the describe a content editor as if they’re the only kind.

I’ve been looking into editing services (I’ve begun to freelance), and I’m learning the nuances of that craft. It is possible for someone with an eagle eye for spelling and grammar and a reasonable understanding of fiction to be a proofreader or even a copy editor (awkward phrasing, repeated words, POV errors, etc.) without needing to have the skill of developmental editing. Many writers don’t need that if they have good instincts and good CPs. Sometimes, all the really need is a decent proofread.

Anyhow, I’m a detail person–it’s difficult for me to see the forest for the trees. I tell this to my clients and adjust my fee accordingly. 😉

Jami's Tech Guy (Jay)

Great post Jami!

I do a lot of beta/critique reading for free. Sometimes I’ll see stories after a “professional” editor has already provided feedback.

Authors, do your due diligence before hiring an editor. Get referrals and testimonials at a minimum. Because some editors, even popular ones, shouldn’t be trusted to edit a grocery list.

Great list of points. Rating myself on your list:
Step 1: 80% Yes
Step 2: 90% Yes
Step 3: Yes
Step 4: A mix of Meh, Ugh, and Yes
Step 5: Yes, Hell Yes (re: voice), and I’m awesome at being humble!

Given my answers to #4, I’ll stick with beta/critique reading. Especially as I’m not interested in line editing. I can do a decent job of it, but it’s no fun. I much prefer focusing on the characters and the world building.

Speaking of beta reading… Guess what story I finally opened today. 🙂


Denise D. Young

Great post, Jami. I would point out that for most of us, these skills can take years to master. I have a background as a copy-editor/magazine assistant editor, have two degrees in writing, and I’ve been a crit partner/beta reader since grad school–and I’m still amazed how much more I have to learn. I could serve as a nonfiction editor or a copy-editor again in a heartbeat. But I know I’m not quite ready to be a fiction editor yet.

I think it comes down to this: For a story to truly come alive in the reader’s heart and imagination, every aspect has to be great. Some writers are naturals at dialogue or world-building or description or structure, but a good story can’t just have one strong element. ALL of those elements have to be strong or the story won’t sing. And that’s where a GOOD editor comes in. Whether that person is a freelancer hired by an indie author or an editor at a publishing house depends on that writer’s chosen path, but I still think the author-editor relationship is a necessity in this industry.

Thanks for what will be a helpful post for many.

Aaron Davis
Aaron Davis

I never really looked at this side of editing. You really opened my eyes to the craft behind critiquing, and it’s funny, I just finished writing a critique not an hour ago. Some of the things you outlined are exactly how I approach editing, especially about turning off the urge to edit when reading for pleasure. I found after critiquing for so long, I can’t read any of my favorite books without pointing out red flags. I don’t think I’d be a great editor— I’ll leave that to the professionals— but I do find joy in sharing a critique with fellow peers, even if it just to see the level of talent I’m writing up against. Thanks for the great insight!


[…] needed to write the last couple of posts about finding a good editor and what it takes to be a good editor because I’ve seen and heard too many horror stories from authors who were misled by […]


[…] Could We Be a Good Editor? fab post by Jami Gold. Truly great info if you’re looking to become a good editor. Wish I could just do better editing myself! lol. […]

G S Meredith

I thought about setting up as an editor but to be frank I don’t think I have the qualities. I’m easily distracted for a start, which is a bad thing. I’ll be reading something and my mind will wander off. I think you have to have a certain gift for it and accept when you don’t. Will keep to writing and leave the editing to those with the skills.


[…] few weeks ago, I posted about how we can identify a good editor and the skills a good editor should possess. During those posts, a conversation with fellow developmental editor Stacy Jerger gave me another […]

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