Thursday, November 1, 2018

How to Tell Good Editing from Bad Editing

Over the years I have worked as an editor, I’ve encountered many authors reluctant to hire or work with editors because they've previously suffered truly awful ordeals during the editing process. As a writer, I survived a few of those myself, so I know firsthand how upsetting a bad edit can be. Bad editors create new problems in manuscripts and often do nothing to resolve existing issues that beg for improvement.

I am often asked how authors can tell a good editor from a bad editor. While there’s no guaranteed way to do this, I can offer a few suggestions that might help authors find an editor who will not only do a great job but will also be a good fit for their personality and writing style. Keep in mind I am speaking of developmental editing in this column, not just a copyedit that corrects typos and grammatical errors.

Look for an editor who offers to edit your first ten pages free of charge

Almost every confident professional developmental editor is more than happy to edit 10 pages free to give potential clients an idea of their editing style. As authors review their sample edits, they will soon learn if the editor is a good fit for their book. A great editor suggests beneficial changes that will improve a manuscript and make it more marketable and more appealing to readers. A bad editor rewrites the author’s manuscript, often scrambling the storyline and drowning out the author’s voice in the process.

If your 10 pages have been rewritten rather than edited, I suggest moving on to another editor, because the one you tried is not actually an editor but rather a frustrated writer whose only outlet for their dreams is plowing destructively through other people’s work. You deserve much more than that for your editing investment. Hire someone whose sample edit shows insight into what you are trying to accomplish with your novel, and whose suggestions improve your story and resolve problems that detract from its cohesiveness.

Find an editor who is constructively critical and honest

How your editor expresses suggested changes matters—a lot. If your ten pages are full of scathing criticism with few constructive suggestions to improve or amend problem passages, then you will not get much value from the edit. Worse, you could end up with something quite harmful…a ticking time bomb planted in the center of your most delicate commodity‑your self-confidence.

There is no room in editing for mean-spirited critiques. Authors must work up a great deal of courage before submitting themselves and their work to the editing process, and it is all too easy for an unkind editor to undo that courage with thoughtless and cutting remarks that serve no valid purpose.

You should also skip an editor whose edit is all sunshine and glitter bombs. Some editors shower authors with effusive praise in an effort to “land the job”. Be wary of this. An honest editor will point out both the good and the bad in your manuscript, and not feel compelled to tell you that you are the greatest writer in the history of the world.

A good edit should also lift up an author and encourage her (or him) to dive right back into their work with renewed enthusiasm and confidence that they can weave in the suggested changes to produce a better book. Bad edits do the opposite; they rob authors of confidence and make them feel like giving up.

If your sample edit either makes you feel like you just walked into a cloud of magic unicorn dust or would be better off throwing yourself in front of a train, move on.

Ask for recommendations from fellow writers

Ask your friends who write which editors they’ve enjoyed working with. Editors often specialize in one or more genres, so before you query, do a bit of research to make sure they’re experienced in editing for your genre. For example, you wouldn’t want a horror editor reviewing a romance. With their tastes and sensibilities so wildly divergent from those of a romance editor, you might end up with a zombie cat in the middle of an otherwise perfectly sensible romance, which would kind of ruin the mood.

Finally, attend writer’s conferences. Not only will you learn a lot about your craft, but you’ll meet other writers and make great new friends. And best of all, you might just discover the perfect editor for your book.

Patricia B. Smith is a journalist who is the author of 11 published books, including Idiot’s Guide: Flipping Houses, Alzheimer's For Dummies and Sleep Disorders for Dummies.

Pat is also an experienced professional developmental editor who serves as an Editorial Evaluation and Developmental Coordinator for Five Star Publishing. She works with private clients as well and has helped many authors land their first publishing contracts. Many of her clients have achieved notable success, including two winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-me Best Book of the Year Award.

Connect with Pat on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.

"Rejected" image by Sean MacEntee


  1. Amen! This is a great post on choosing the right editor for your work and your personality. Those 10 free pages are a must, and I suggest arranging a face-to-face meeting if this is feasible. If not, a Skype meet-and-greet or detailed telephone conversation can be a good substitute. Listen to what the editor says. Be perceptive about whether she/he is listening to what you say, what your goals are, and who your intended audience is. The right editor is a writer's silent partner during the editing process, and the goal is the creation of a marketable, well-written manuscript that remains firmly in the writer's voice. Excellent information, Pat!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Linda. A great editor really does make a huge difference in a book's readability, and ultimately, its success or failure in the marketplace.

  2. I've been blessed to have a wonderful editor with my Five Star books but have often wondered how to look for a freelance editor if I ever decide to self-publish. Thanks for these tips, Pat.

  3. On one of the groups I belong to, a writer had supposedly paid an editor to go over her work. The writer shared passages she felt weren't correct. If that person was a professional editor, I am Diana Prince (Wonder Woman). So many errors of every kind imaginable. So I think it is really important to have a resource that helps writers find accomplished editors. Anyone can claim that title these days, but they don't all deserve it.

    1. Great point, Diana. Writer beware.

    2. Diana, sadly this is a story I hear all too often. Anyone can claim the title, but asking for references from satisfied clients is one way to weed out a less than great editor that I didn't address in my post.

  4. It is very interesting. I love all the things you share and see your beautiful creation. Thank you for sharing with everyone.

  5. Great points, Pat! Your suggestions could also apply to choosing critiquing partners...

    1. Absolutely true, Ann, and a great suggestion.


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