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What to look for in an editor

Good editors are worth their weight in gold, and a lot scarcer. If you find one, hang onto her. I have to give kudos to Faith, my editor at Black Opal Books, who astonished me with her advice, her edits, and her overall approach. She’s a peach.

So you’re looking for an editor. If you sign with an agent or a publisher, you might not have any choice. But if you do, here are some things to look for.


Before hiring an editor, find out about her experience. You’re thinking, well, that’s a no-brainer. No, I mean really find out about her experience. Get references from writers she’s edited for and, if at all possible, a copy of a project she has edited, complete with her edits on the document. That’s the best way to see her in action.


A good editor understands the need to use the kid glove approach with her clients. Writers are sensitive creatures, and we think of our work as our children, part of us. Constructive critiquing is an art, and when done well, writers can see its value. Done poorly, it becomes criticism, and whether or not it’s meant to be harsh, that’s the way it will be received. Criticizing, as opposed to critiquing, a writer’s work can be perceived as a personal attack.


A good editor understands the author/editor relationship. The two are in it together. They are partners, not adversaries. I’ve known editors who seemed to delight in making snide and demeaning comments. An editor who makes a “Really?” note on a manuscript needs to work on her people skills. Even if the writer has done something incomprehensible, and which of us hasn’t, snide remarks tell the writer, “You’re an idiot.” Once that attitude surfaces, the rot has already set in, and the relationship is probably not going to end well. Time to cut bait.


Any editor worth her fee can grasp the big picture of the project. If she’s going to obsess about commas, she should become a proofreader. I’ve had editors consistently put notes in the margins asking questions that made it clear they hadn’t been paying attention to plot and character development. There’s no excuse for that. A good editor also keeps her personal preferences out of her work. She doesn’t read a perfectly good sentence, think to herself, “That’s not the way I would write it,” and change the sentence to suit her preference. She understands the need to retain the writer’s style and voice.

Types of editors and their functions

If you’re looking for an editor, and you have the ability to make the choice, you should be familiar with the different types of editors out there.

Developmental editor. The developmental editor helps the writer plan the book, looking at overall structure and concept. She may coach the writer as the book is developing. They are mostly used for nonfiction.

Content editor.  The content editor oversees all the details of plot, characterization, voice, and setting. She may also do a conceptual edit. A good content editor looks at a broader scope than specific diction or syntax. A content editor may have to reorganize sections or restructure the project as a whole.

Copy editor. The copy editor specializes in grammar, punctuation, fact-checking, spelling, and formatting.

Proofreader. Proofreaders go over a manuscript after all other editors have finished. They look for the mistakes missed, generally in punctuation, spelling, and formatting. Basically, anything missed by the copy editor.

In many organizations, two or more of these functions are combined. But writers should beware of anyone who claims to be qualified to do all these functions.

A writer looking to hire an editor should choose carefully. As I said, a good editor is a treasure. Like most treasures, they’re not easy to find.

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