Editorial Skills You Didn’t Learn in English Class

Guest Post by Irene Watson

Good editing is integral to the success of a book. A good editor can do wonders even with the worst of manuscripts, and authors who find good editors are grateful and will spread the word about the editors’ skills. However, editing is not solely about fixing grammar errors or even suggesting places where a manuscript needs further development. Good people skills are also required if an editor wants to be successful.

You were an English major in college. You’ve read lots of books, and you know good writing from bad. You get rankled when you find typos in books, and you are certain you could do a better job of editing and proofreading than most people out there. You know what a split infinitive is; you understand the conditional tense, and you would never, ever, under any circumstances allow a pronoun not to agree with a subject in a sentence. In short, you believe you have all the skills necessary to be a phenomenal book editor.

You may well have all the technical skills required, but knowledge of grammar and punctuation is not sufficient if you want to be a good editor. Emotional intelligence and true dedication are required if an editor is to succeed. Over the years, I’ve heard some true horror stories from authors about editors they’ve worked with, and also from editors about authors. Most of these boil down to not the editor’s skills or ability to do his or her job, but to personality conflicts. Following are some tips for editors to help them have good relationships with their author clients.

Giving Price Quotes and Editing Samples

A good editor will know how much to charge, not by setting one price for all books, or inflating prices, but simply by looking over the manuscript, editing a few pages, and basing an estimate on how much time it will take to edit the book. An editor may edit 1,000 words of a manuscript, discover it took fifteen minutes to do, and then figure he can do 4,000 words an hour, so for a 60,000 word manuscript, it will take approximately fifteen hours to edit. A price can then be derived based upon what the editor wants to charge per hour and whether a second or third edit, which will take less time than the first, will also be required.

A good editor will give a price quote, say $1,000 for editing a specific manuscript, and then stick to that price. Occasionally, the editor might find the book is not as much work as was expected, but after some practice, editors will usually be able to do a pretty accurate estimate. If the editor ends up putting in a few hours more than was estimated, a good editor will also stick to the price quoted rather than alarming the author by asking for more money midway through. Authors don’t want to pay by the hour because they become frightened by what the price will end up being, and they also want to know ahead of time so they can budget. A good editor will calm those fears by sticking to his word (the estimate).

An editing sample, besides setting a price, also allows an author to have a sample of the editor’s work so he can see what kinds of changes the editor will make to the manuscript so it is clear what kind of work will be done. The editing sample ensures that the author is not surprised later by what was or wasn’t done to the manuscript by the editor.

A good editor will be upfront with the author at the start about the price and what the expectations for the manuscript will be.

Badmouthing Other Editors

I know many editors who have taken over working on a book from another editor. Several unqualified editors are out there—people who set up shop with or without an English degree, and who have no previous writing or editing experience. Too often, these editors not only are not qualified to edit a book, but they don’t have the dedication required.

Editing consists of many silent hours of sitting and working with the text at hand. It requires good organization skills, determination, and quite a bit of stamina. Sadly, not every would-be editor is up to the task.

It’s always a good idea for an author to have a separate editor and proofreader. Unfortunately, the proofreader who receives a book edited by one of these unqualified editors ends up having to fix a lot of problems like subject-pronoun errors that were really the editor’s job. In these cases, I’ve known proofreaders or second-editors who badmouth the first editor. Such behavior is unprofessional and unnecessary. The proofreader or second editor’s job is to make the manuscript as error free as possible, regardless of what the previous editor did. If need be, charge more for the work, but rather than badmouth someone else, let your work speak for itself. Send the author back the manuscript with the corrections and let him see for himself what you changed and why.

I have known editors who have gotten into name calling wars with one another and trapped the author in the middle. I’ve also known editors and proofreaders who behave professionally by never saying a bad word about the previous editor; instead, they simply fixed up the manuscript. The author will notice the improvements, and next time will go to the second editor first while not using the first editor again. I’ve known this situation to happen repeatedly, and the professional editor only benefits by exhibiting professionalism in such cases.

In short, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” is a good rule to follow when it comes to an editor or proofreader looking at another editor’s work.

Having a Positive Attitude

However, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all” does not apply when it comes to communicating with the author about his own work. A good editor not only will fix errors, but especially in issues of content and development, explain to the author where the book is lacking, not to complain or judge, but with the intent to help the author improve the book.

The most important skill for an editor to have, short of a good command of the English language, is a positive attitude. Editing can be laborious, and at times frustrating work, but an editor need not take his or her frustrations out on the author. Granted, the author might be lazy or a bad writer, but that is why he hired you. If everyone were as skilled a writer as you are, no one would need an editor and you’d be out of work. Be grateful and do the job you were hired to do.

I have known editors who write snide comments in the manuscript, and worse, get so frustrated they quit halfway through editing the book. There may be cases where an author does not have the ability to improve, and even the best editor can only do so much, but a good editor will be willing to do a little more to create a readable and passable book. Taking out your frustration on the author, even if for his or her faults, serves no one.

Rewriting and Ghostwriting

A good editor is also a writing coach. No two clients are the same, and the editor needs to realize that and show some emotional intelligence about how best to help the author and to analyze the author’s skills and personality. Some editors may be able to coach an author through improving the book. Other editors might end up just doing some ghost writing of paragraphs, transitional sentences, or in extreme cases, even entire chapters, for the author. As long as you factor such work into the project upfront, the editor can help improve the book immensely by offering the skills the author does not have.

While authors who want to be writers may be willing to make changes and be more sensitive about changes an editor makes, many people just want to write books to promote an idea or to help their careers; they may not have the skills or the time to devote to rewriting and developing a book. In those cases, the editor may need to do some rewriting or ghostwriting for the author. While at times, such work can be frustrating for an editor, if the editor took a good look at the manuscript in the beginning, he will have factored in some time for such work into his price quote. Beyond that, it’s best to remember that “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well” is a good policy to have when an editor. An editor’s name is usually printed on the book cover, jacket, or copyright page, so an editor wants the book to be a good advertisement for his services; a little extra time and effort where needed can pay off in the end with future clients.

Communicating and Meeting Deadlines

I’ve heard many horror stories from authors who send their manuscripts to an editor, then do not hear from the editor for weeks, and the editor doesn’t return phone calls or emails. Of course, extenuating circumstances can occur. The editor’s mother may unexpectedly die and the editor has to have a week or two off to cope with the funeral and other family issues. But in such cases, the editor should still be responsible enough to call the author or send an email explaining the situation.

A good editor will communicate with the author throughout the editing process. Even just a friendly email every few days to say, “I’m up to chapter four,” or “Things are going well and I should be done next Thursday” is sufficient. Most editors are also bound to have questions for the author as they work through the manuscript. Besides clarifying things, such questions provide the author a sense that the editor is not only working on the book, but cares about the work and is interested in improving it. Communicating with the author is key to keeping a good relationship with the author and producing a quality book.

If You Want to Be an Editor….

If you want to be an editor, I hope I’ve offered some important things for you to think about. Be honest and upfront with your pricing, go the extra step to help the author, keep a positive attitude, and keep communication open. Then you’ll have all the skills, beyond the basics of fixing grammar and punctuation, to make you not only a superb editor, but a successful business person whose skills will be in high demand.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


Posted on May 13, 2011, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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