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 obvious—like 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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*
- 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.
- 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.
A 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*Pin It