An American Editor

March 20, 2013

How Do You Know You Are a Good Editor?

Sometimes from out of the blue, a question is asked that causes not just a little hesitation but weeks of pondering. Philosophy and religion are riddled with such questions. Yet, editors, too, have such a question to deal with: How do you know you are a good editor?

By good editor, I mean a status closer to, or akin to, great rather than to adequate or normal or usual or level of the mass of editors. It is not that an adequate editor cannot be good in the ordinary sense of good, and thus an appropriate editor to hire for a project, but rather that a good editor in the sense I mean — and the sense meant by noneditors who ask the question —  is closer to the pantheon of editorial gods than to the mass of editors — the cream of editors. Perhaps good is a poor word choice, but the question is usually phrased in terms of good, not in terms of great, by those who want an editor to distinguish him-/herself from all other editors.

The quick answers that will roll off the tongues of most editors are these:

  • I’ve been an editor for x years and I am still busy all the time.
  • My clients tell me I’m the best.
  • My clients keep coming back.
  • My clients refer colleagues to me.
  • Fellow editors tell me I’m good.
  • I must be good because I make $x.

And the list goes on.

None of the above responses really address the question except superficially. The heart of the question is beyond such surface responses. After all, how many of our clients are really knowledgeable about editing skills and standards? How many of our colleagues would we really put on a pedestal as exemplary editors we wish we could emulate? What really is the relationship between years of experience and being busy to how good you are? How much of how well we edit is governed by the combination of pay we receive and the schedule we have to live with?

Unlike some other professions, editing lacks an objective group of core standards against which an editor can be judged. And while I do think many of my colleagues are good editors, do I really know that to be true? When was the last time I reviewed a manuscript a colleague edited? And even if I did review such a manuscript, how do I know whether the problems I see are the editor’s or the client’s fault?

Yet the answer to this question is important. It is important for clients and prospective clients, as well as for the editor him- or herself, and the editor’s colleagues.

I suppose there are myriad ways of approaching this problem of how to define what makes an editor a good editor, but none are objective and many, if not all, can only be defined by the editor him- or herself. It is clear to me, however, that a grasp of language and grammar is insufficient on its own to declare a person a good editor, just as being a good business person but lacking language skills would not make a person a good editor even though editing is a business that requires business skills, at least for a freelance editor or an editor with an editing company.

Instead, I think, it is a melding of many attributes that bring a person success as an editor that defines a good editor. I think it is the combination of being a good business person and being facile with language and grammar that can define a good editor. The combination brings together the years of experience, client praise, repeat business, referrals, and all the other things that we give as quick answers.

Which roundaboutly brings us back to several things that we have discussed in previous articles, such as the resources we use and have handy, our command of the tools we use, our decision-making process, and whether we can support our decisions other than by saying “Chicago says….”

In addition, how our colleagues view us adds to how good an editor we are. Although insufficient on its own, that our colleagues seek our opinion, praise us to others, listen to what we have to say, indicate that others in our profession think we are good editors. The better editors our colleagues are, the more valuable are their opinions of us.

We need to be careful that we do not base our decision on whether a colleague is a good editor on differences of opinion about things like word choice and the other matters with which we deal daily that are subjective rather than objective. It is objective to note whether an editor regularly meets or misses deadlines; it is subjective whether the right word choice is since or because.

But we do need to base our opinion on an editor’s understanding of the basic tools of the editorial trade: language and grammar and the editing process. The editor who constantly misses homophones and homonyms, no matter how good the editor’s mastery of the other elements of what makes a good editor, should not qualify the editor as a good editor.

Needless to say, I have avoided two significant questions: Once I ascertain that I am a good editor, how do I communicate that to colleagues and clients? and How does a potential client identify a good editor? I admit that I have no better answers to those two questions than I have to the original question: How do I know I am a good editor?

I am almost tempted to say that I am a good editor because no one has said otherwise. But then, is an editing test that we take but do not pass a comment on our skills? Not really. Because I judge tests, I know that there are lots of reasons why a person does not pass, reasons that may have little to do with language skills, which is what many editors think the sole criterion should be, and more to do with mastery of the editor’s tools.

I suppose one sign of my being a good editor is that clients ask me to cobid with them. I do work for a vendor who bids to provide a package of services to a publisher and that client asks me to prepare the editorial services portion of the bid, expecting me to do the editorial portion of the work if the bid is successful.

But even that doesn’t satisfy my editorial soul. There is still something missing. Do you have answers? How would you define a good editor?

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