What it takes to be an editor

Here’s an interesting post at Jane Friedman’s blog: What It Takes to Be a Freelance Editor

I don’t think I would be a particularly good editor. Copy editor or proofreader, yes. Other things, maybe? Sometimes it’s easy to offer important advice about the structure of a book, but surprisingly (?) often, I find myself saying, “This book didn’t really work for me, for some reason.” That’s not especially helpful.

I’ve worked with some really good editors. I’m curious about what the author of this post, whom I presume is an editor, has in mind for “what it takes.”

You love reading, right? And you’re really good with grammar and spelling. Maybe you even have an English degree or an MFA. What else do you need?

Curiosity, education, and ruthlessness.


I think it does help to know stuff. That’s for copyediting — which I think of as “Proofreading plus factual errors plus continuity errors plus anything that seems iffy.” I’m not sure if everyone more or less treats the term that way. But if that’s what copyediting includes, I’m not sure I would say “education” is helpful, exactly. I would say “knowing lots of random stuff” is helpful.

Let me go back to the post …

Yes, “knowing lots of random stuff” is pretty much what the author means by “curiosity.

By education, she means “knowing stuff about current trends in publishing and about currently available editing tools.” I guess that could be helpful, though it’s very different from the sorts of things you need to know to suggest story-level changes to a manuscript.


 No matter how beautiful the writing is, if a sentence doesn’t fit the character or the story, it’s gotta go.

I would prefer to say, If the sentence or scene is beautiful, perhaps think about how to make it fit the character and the story so that you can keep it.

Many early-career authors use their elevated Special Writer Voice, and their editors must challenge them not to make their words “better” or “more polished,” but more truthful to the author’s own voice.

Yes, but maybe it would be nice if their very own author’s voice was also skillful and perhaps polished?

Purely nurturing feedback is unhelpful. Straight criticism is discouraging. An editor must identify what’s wrong, clarify why it must be fixed, and excite the author to do the work. Editors must inflict the pain of “It’s not good enough, yet.” I’ve told more than one author to cut their first 50 pages. That’s painful! What I say about their work must ring so true that they trust me enough to endure that pain, for the sake of a better next draft.

And that paragraph finally strikes me as true. I don’t have any quibbles with that.

A helpful post, considering the upcoming Archon panel on editing and Lines You Won’t Cross and so on. If the editor has done the above — pointed to something wrong, clarified what’s wrong with it, hopefully in a way that makes the author want to fix that problem — most of all, if what the editor says immediately rings true — then she’s done a fine job as editor.

My first reaction to a lot of comments in a lot of editorial letters has been: OF COURSE! WHY DIDN’T I SEE THAT?

That’s pretty much an ideal reaction to editorial comments. It means the editor truly succeeded in nailing a problem and clarifying why it’s a problem and perhaps what to do to fix it.

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