Being a Better Writer: How to Be a Good Editor

Hello readers! Welcome back to the last of the pre-scheduled posts! Huzzah! Yeah, I’m probably back by now, but just in case, I wrote this in advance anyway. And this one? It’s a reader request! Yeah, we had a reader out there that wanted to know how they could go about being a good editor.

You know what? It’s a really good question. One more people should ask, personally. Because here’s the thing: There are a lot of ways to be a good editor. And an equal amount of ways to be a bad one.

Now, there is something I’m going to lead this post with: If you want to be a professional editor, and I mean have that on your door, working either freelance or for a publication somewhere, that is an entire college track. It’s a career. This post? If you want to be a professional, make your living at it editor, then this post’s advice is to go to an education course for that. Pick a school, use legal means to acquire enough wealth to purchase a house so that you can afford a semester or two without incurring crippling debt, and become an editor that way. I realize that’s perhaps not the advice you wanted, but the truth is that if you want to be a professional editor there’s a lot to learn, from various literature standards held across different forms of print to when and how certain rules get broken and why.

Being an editor is not something someone decides they are because they are really anal about grammar and got an A in their high-school English class that one time, or used to subscribe to a magazine about literature. Sorry internet trolls, but the actual requirements for being a professional editor are a bit stricter than “tell everyone else how wrong they are.” Most of us that spend a decent amount of time online inevitably run into these folks, and none of them make for good editors.

So, if you want to be a professional editor and work at a publisher somewhere, or a magazine, or a paper (though both of those last two are getting unfortunately rare as both papers and magazines make cost-cutting measures), there’s a whole degree you can acquire in that, and I would urge you to do so, because there’s a lot of knowledge to gain.

But what if you’re not looking to be a professional editor. What if (as I somewhat suspect this reader was asking) you’re looking to be a helpful volunteer “editor” for a friend’s work? Or on a fanfiction site? What about then? Not professional, but at as hobby element?

If this is you, even just tangentially, then yeah, there are some definite pointers to give out. Hit the jump.

All right, so you’ve been handed, asked for, or been asked to go over someone’s work and give feedback. They want editing. Well, here’s the first thing to keep in mind, and then act on: Ask the person what they expect first.

Let me tell you a story about another writer. If my memory serves, this was written in Bird by Bird, but may have come from somewhere else, but in any case the story was told by an author whose mother was an editor when she was young. So, as a young child, she wrote a story, and then handed it to her mother saying “Edit!”

Which her mother did, handing back her story absolutely layered in red pen. At which point this little girl broke down in tears, because what she had wanted when she’d asked her mother to edit it and what her mother had out of habit done had been two different things.

This is why on a related note, authors tend to have multiple “steps” in an editing process. Pre-Alpha. Alpha. Beta. Copy. Etc. Because there’s more to editing than simply slashing with a red pen and picking out every “mistake” that you see.

And yes, I put “mistake” in quotes, and we’ll get to that in a bit. But for now? If you want to be a good editor, then ask the person whose work you’re about to go over what they expect you to offer feedback on.

They might not know, and if so then just do your best. But there’s a definite problem out there of people volunteering to be editors without actually knowing what they’re editing for.

Again, going back to Alpha and Beta. Authors do this with actual books because it’s pointless to worry about a typo in a paragraph when the entire paragraph will be cut later. Good editing is about fixing and improving all facets of the book, not just grammar or typos. It can be about looking for plot holes, or properly developed character motivation. It can be making sure that the world itself makes sense, or that a particular theme came across strong, but not too strong.

So when someone says “You’d like to edit this?” ask them what specifically they’re looking for with your feedback. Because all too often both parties fail to make this clear. One is looking for insight on how their characters are presented, and the other is only interested in checking for compliance with some bizarre rule of grammar that may not actually exist.

So, if you want to be a good editor, start by asking what the creator expects you as an editor to do.

Okay, so that’s an important first step to take. What’s the second step? Well, this is one I see a lot with folks that want to volunteer their services as editors. If you want to be a good editor, understand that this story is not yours. It’s not written for you, or by you. It’s written by someone else, and therefore they are allowed to take the story directions they wish. Your “position” as an editor is not a position of power and approval to “demand” rewrites to suit what you think the story should be.

Now I know some of you are thinking “Who would do that? Has that actually happened?”

Yes. Yes it has. It happens a lot, especially in the online world of “can someone help edit this?” I have seen people at sites claiming to be “editors” demand people rewrite entire stories to suit what they think the history or setting of the world should be. I’ve seen someone demand that a creator rewrite their entire story because the editor had a “better idea” for what the religious pantheon should be like. Which was, to no one’s surprise … the pantheon from their own writing.

If you think I’m joking, I’m really not. This event actually resulted in the creator getting their work turned away from a fic posting site that editor was associated with because they wouldn’t rewrite their story to put in the “editor’s” ideas. As near as I can tell, they actually stopped writing a short time later, or vanished and got a new account.

This is far from the only time I’ve seen this sort of behavior. I’ve seen an online “editor” demand that a writer rewrite an entire story and change the genre because ‘I like this genre better.’ I’ve seen variations, permutations, and bits and pieces of this sort of thing, all coming back to one core concept: The “editor” thinking “This story would be better if it were my story, and the author is asking me for advice about what I would write, because they want to write what I tell them.”

No. No they don’t. No one does. They want to write what they want to write. It’s not on them to write your story for you. That’s what you will do if you ever write anything. What this person is doing is writing their story, and a good editor will work to see that story reach its full potential, not to replace it with their “superior” story.

This is the writer’s story. “Editing” is not an invitation for a free commission. It’s a request for improving aspects of another story. Not getting your own written. It isn’t asking “What would I do if I wrote this?” It’s asking “What can the author do with their abilities to make this story work better?”

And yes, maybe that story will have a weakness with a pantheon or has rough spots within the genre (instead of just “I don’t like this genre”). But that’s something you point out so that the creator can fix it in their own way, not yours.

If you want to be a good editor, keep in mind that your work is not someone else’s work, and their work is not your work. It’s theirs. The aim is to help them improve theirs. Not write yours for you.

Okay, so that takes care of the two biggest missteps I see with volunteer editing. But what else is out there? What else should a volunteer editor keep in mind?

Well, this one’s less “keep in mind” and more “have an open mind.” Another way to say this could be “exercise a little humility and trust.”

See, I once saw a volunteer editor freak out over a dream sequence in a story. Because it was a dream sequence, there were obvious “disconnects” and out-of-place elements, such as characters appearing and disappearing as it became more and more clear that the protagonist was having a nightmare.

Well, this volunteer editor made it several paragraphs and then declared that there were so many “mistakes” that it was obvious the story wasn’t “worth his talent” if it was so crude (or something similar) and left a comment saying he was done, and maybe if the author polished the story he’d deign to come back.

Yes, they made themselves look like an utter skagg. All because they couldn’t be bothered to see what the author was doing. They made a snap judgement, and then made a fool of themselves.

I can think of other instances where this has happened before. Someone sees a deliberate error that’s a clue, or seen a word that isn’t spelled normally but is consistently kept through the work, and rather than question “Was this on purpose? Could it be? Why?” they simply assume that the author is inept and make a big show out of “fix this.”

This extends to a lot of things, both grammar, structure, and even spelling-wise. And I’m not saying “never question anything either,” but this brings me to our next point, which again actually comes from Bird by Bird on editing.

It’s better to point with the sword of truth than chop.

Look, sometimes it’s not a deliberate choice. Plenty of times actually. But it also might be. And even if it isn’t, it’s a lot better for an editor to say “So I’ve noticed this word has been spelled this way several times now, is that a deliberate choice for something in the plot, or just a repeated typo?”

Extend a writer a little trust. Maybe it is intentional. Maybe it isn’t. There’s nothing wrong with asking “Are we going to get more on this character’s fear? I wanted to hear a bit more!” instead of saying something like “There wasn’t enough exploration of their fear here, and you need to put more here right now.” Both work, yes, but one is smoother than the other. And the first accounts for something like the author saying “Yes, four paragraphs down!” or the editor getting there first and saying “Oh, here it is! Excellent!”

Or conversely, when it doesn’t show up, saying “Aww, I was really hoping for _____, I think it would have helped establish their character a little bit more.”

Another way we can be a good editor is to make sure we’re informed about what the author is looking for. If they want grammar editing, we can make sure we know a bit about grammar, and the style they’re going for (this latter one is important; if all you know is journalism styles, you won’t be as helpful with novel styles). If they want you to hunt for typos, or find misspelled words, you might want to know what the correct spelling is, or what standard they’re operating under (yes, I have seen volunteer “editors” get prissy over “grey vs gray” or “color vs colour,” and even go back to making demands that the author from a country that used one switch to the other).

If there’s something said about a boat or a ship that we can’t verify, and they’re looking for verification of this information, check on it! Learn a bit! It never hurts to expand our own knowledge of things.

Just be aware that if what you find doesn’t instantly mesh with what’s going on in the story, it could be several things. It could be that the author didn’t do the research properly. Or it could be the other way around, and you didn’t do the research properly. It could be that you’re missing context, or that the author is. If you’re editing, well then check. Or even ask. Sands, I’ve been asked about stuff in my books that I know about due to direct, repeated personal experience that wouldn’t be easy to find otherwise. Conversely, I’ve had editors that were well experienced with something I had researched go in and offer subtle details that my research hadn’t picked up on.

Okay, so we’ve covered a couple of things here, but you may have noticed that there’s one big theme tying them all toghether.

Be nice.

Editing is mind-numbing sometimes. Dull. It can be painful, and frustrating. It’s hard to be a creator and see that what you worked on for some time, trying and changing and trying again, just didn’t work yet. That all the prior efforts might not have even gotten you closer.

It can be frustrating. Depressing even. The last thing any writer wants is someone grabbing their face and mashing it against mistakes shouting “Look how bad you are!” Which is what some volunteer editors seem to think the position is about.

But it’s not. At the end of the day, a good editor is one who’s holding out a hand without malice and says “all right, I want to help.” They don’t want their own story written, or to hold above everyone else’s head how much better they are. They just want to help.

And if you can do that, you’ll probably end up being a pretty good editor.

So good luck. Now get writing editing!

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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: How to Be a Good Editor

  1. This entry could/should be required reading for all authors and everyone they ask to help them tell better stories, not to mention being an excellent paradigm for human interactions in general. Well said.


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