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What Is an Editor?

The answer seems obvious. An editor is one who edits, i.e., prepares a manuscript for publication. That preparation can run the gamut from a few comma corrections to a major rewrite. On the surface, this appears to be simple enough. But is it really? Have you tried to find a good editor?

Authors pour their hearts into the words they put on paper. They bare their souls through their characters or through the nonfiction experiences they share with all who read their articles/books. Their words deserve to be handled with dignity and buffed to a soft glow or polished to a brilliant shine, depending on intent and context.

People who call themselves editors abound. Anybody can hang out an editing shingle and be in business. But in way too many cases, writers pay big bucks for poor or almost nonexistent editing that neither dignifies their work nor validates them as artists. And make no mistake—good writing in an art.

Great editing requires highly developed language, grammar, and punctuation skills that few people possess. It demands a strong sense of story/content development. Good editors are few and far between as the cliché goes; excellent editors are rare, indeed. So how do you find an editor who will take your gem in the rough and shape it into a Hope Diamond? The following is an excerpt from my writing/editing workshop manual:

Request references. A competent editor will be glad to share names of clients or letters of recommendation. Be sure to contact the writers whose names you are given. Ask them what kind of feedback they received from readers and professionals in the field after their book went to press.

Talk to others in your writers group. Have any of them used an editor? If so, were they satisfied with his/her performance? Did the edit help the writer place the manuscript?

Ask for a work sample. Compare the manuscript the editor received from the client with the finished product, checking hook, development, flow, readability, dialogue, grammar, etc. If you aren’t sure about the grammar, seek the help of a qualified friend or an English teacher at a local high school or college. No edit is perfect, but errors should be minimal.

Evaluate compatibility. Talk with the editor. Share your writing concerns, your vision, your goals. Listen to the responses. Discuss the editor’s approach and accessibility. Your manuscript deserves a great edit. You may not maximize its potential if you have a personality conflict with its editor.

Editing is an essential part of preparing a manuscript for publication, but it also represents a significant financial investment in your work. A typical edit can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. However, the return can be huge. Just make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

One last point: don’t allow yourself to be flattered or sweet-talked into committing to a particular editor. Do your homework. Then make a decision based on facts and goals, not on emotion. It’s your future as a writer—invest in it wisely.

What has been your experience with editors? I’d like to hear about them—good or bad.

Writer/editor/publisher Linda Lane has just published her latest novel, a psychological drama entitled Treacherous Tango. Writing is her passion, and helping other writers to learn their craft is her love.


  1. Thank you! That was very concise and helpful. I really like that you stress doing homework before choosing an editor. I have no experience of editing yet other than the woman I write with. She is excellent and reads my stuff before it goes too far afield. I, in turn, help her with grant applications and promotional stuff which she sucks at. Yay!

  2. Bravo! Very much on point. Finding a good editor for your material isn't as easy as it may sound and yet is so crucial.

    Giggles and Guns

  3. Yes, it's very important that an editor be someone with your style of communication. If you can't communicate openly with your editor, better find a new one.

    Very helpful post. Thanks.

  4. One shortcut is to hire an Editor from here!

    Morgan Mandel

  5. I've never hired an editor. I've had great crit groups, and haven't needed formal editing until the works were accepted by a publisher, and then I was assigned one. Over the course of my novels and short stories, I've worked with half a dozen editors, and some are better than others. But all of them have been 'good listeners' and there's been excellent give and take.

  6. This is a great post. I also believe finding the right editor for your work is best. Each finished project may need a different set of eyes depending on that editors expertise. You don't want an editor of non-fiction to review a fiction piece.

  7. Good post. It's important, I think, to find an editor you trust. If the edit results in major changes in the manuscript, trust is important. That doesn't mean you must agree with everything the editor recommends. It means you're comfortable working with that editor.

    Straight From Hel

  8. As someone who "put out a shingle and went into business" as a freelance editor, I just want to echo every point you've made.

    Writers, do your homework. Don't be afraid to ask questions, ask for references and samples. I have no problem providing those because I'm a writer just like you: my novels are my heart and soul, and I wouldn't trust them to just anyone!

    I do wish Linda had spent a minute talking about the difference between line editing and copy editing versus developmental editing.

    In my practice, the reality of what I see is that most authors come to me out of the gate thinking they're ready for a line edit, when the truth is that their novels have deep structural issues that need to be addressed before a line edit makes sense.

    They may not have fully developed their premise, leaving them with a book that may be solid for what it is but is nevertheless a weak offering compared to the marketplace.

    They may have committed any of a number of errors in the process of turning their premise into a storyline. With time and effort, they'll learn how to craft a solid storyline, but the novel they're excited about right now doesn't have a storyline that holds water.

    They may not have learned yet how to portray their characters in ways the story demands, which is a whole art unto itself.

    None of these are problems that a line edit--let alone a copy edit--can even begin to touch, and for that reason I won't agree to line edit something until I see it first, even if that's what the author wants. If they're right, and the novel really is ready for it, then great. I'm happy to oblige.

    But the other 95% of the time, they're much better served by a developmental edit so they can fix the story's deeper issues first.

    There's nothing magic about a developmental edit. It's just a critical analysis of the manuscript's writing craft, story craft, and character development. Writers can use that to fix the manuscript in a revision or re-write, yes, but more importantly they can use it to grow their own skills. A developmental edit is also like a personalized writing seminar, where the curriculum is based on your own work and the exercises are tailored towards addressing areas where you are weak.

    So, writers, when you're out there looking for an editor to hire, take a moment also to ask yourself whether you're really ready to be shelling out big bucks for a professional line edit, or whether you might be better served by a developmental edit. The choice is yours, as always, I just want to make sure you know the full range of options before you go shopping.

  9. Jason, thank you for bringing up the point about developmental editing. This is, in fact, much of what my editors and I do when we work directly with our writers. You are so right that the manuscripts of many budding authors are not ready for a line edit or copy edit, much less proofreading, because the structural and developmental problems are running rampant.

    In the future, I hope to post a piece on the different kinds of editing. Many writers seem to believe that all editors do the same thing, which, of course, we know is not the case. Thank you again for noting the importance of our defining what we do in terms of edit types.


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