November 21, 2011

What an Editor Is Not

I’ve been a professional editor for more than 5 years, and during that time I’ve learned a lot about writer/editor relationships.

Obviously, the relationship can be touchy. Tenuous. Confrontational. It can lead to all-out verbal sparring, hurt feelings, and bad attitudes.

But the relationship can also be good-natured. Respectful. Mutually beneficial.

I think it all depends on one’s expectations.

So, I thought it might be helpful for me to give an editor’s perspective on an editor’s role.*

1.    An editor is NOT a REWRITER.

While an editor (especially a line or copyeditor) most definitely can tweak minor wording issues, he/she should always attempt to keep the writer’s voice intact. In most cases (and some would disagree with me), an editor shouldn’t change wording simply because he/she doesn’t “like” it, but only when the grammar is incorrect, the flow is off, or the wording doesn’t make sense.

2.    An editor is NOT a CONTENT CREATOR.

Ultimately, the writer creates the content. While an editor can (and most likely will!) offer new ideas for directions your story can go, he/she is not ultimately responsible for coming up with a brilliant ending, doing the research to make a historical novel more believable, or creating a character description that sings.

I will say that a good editor SHOULD point out when content isn’t working, but he/she should explain why. It is not at all helpful to a writer for an editor to say, “I can’t figure out why I think this doesn’t work for me, but it just doesn’t, so change it.” Where does a writer go from there?

3.    An editor is NOT an EGO BOOSTER.

An editor has a job to do—help a writer finesse a piece until said piece is in the best shape possible. An editor points out flaws in logic, holes in the story, “poof” moments, characters who aren’t believable, etc. etc.

While an editor should most definitely use kindness when pointing out these issues,  a writer should not expect the editor to sit there and praise the work to high heaven. That is not helpful either. A good editor will both point out what you do well (so you know where you’re on track) and use constructive criticism to show you where you can make improvements in your writing.

Your Turn: What did I leave out? What else should writers be able to expect from their editors?

*Just a note: Obviously, some editors work differently than I do. There are some workplaces in which an editor has final say, and that’s that. Here, I’m describing a relationship that’s more give and take.


  1. I have no reference points to speak from so I can only say thank you for providing some ground for me to build upon, your lists seems pretty reasonable.
    A respectful relationship seems to be key.
    Question: I am thinking about having my manuscript edited, approximately how much does that cost and how do I find a trustworthy editor (or even locate one at all...are you taking new works)?

  2. An editor is not evil.
    Well, let me qualify that: An editor shouldn't be evil. I have met some evil editors in my time and they editors a bad rap. I am affectionately called The Evil Editor by my writing buds (they assure me it is said with affection.)
    But my goal is to make a writer look good--look better than what they looked like when I first saw their article or chapter or ms.
    I am not a butcher.

  3. Beth, I think that's awesome, I know I would want someone to help make my book great. Constructive guidance is much appreciated and needed.

  4. I like #1. Sometimes I've gotten critiques where I felt like the person tried to rewrite my work and it didn't sound like my voice at all. I'm sure from an editor's side, it's a tough balance to strike.

  5. TC, the cost definitely varies from editor to editor. I'll send you an email as soon as I can with some ideas. :)

    Beth, I definitely agree! I've known editors who get pure pleasure out of tearing others down. Not cool, and definitely not what their job description should be.

    Sarah, yes, it can definitely be a challenge to balance between changing a writer's voice and correcting grammar, especially in a story when grammar rules are sometimes broken!