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?



  1. I’d say a good editor is someone who can balance (1) the author’s wishes for their work, (2) the aims of the publisher and (3) the reader’s needs in terms of readability and accessibility. Editors who can truly keep the interests of all three parties in mind, while of course also attending to the basics (grammar, meeting deadlines, etc.), are doing well. Whether in developmental/structural editing, copy-editing or proofreading, all these factors come into play, just on different scales and in different ways.


    Comment by Hazel Harris — March 20, 2013 @ 6:21 am | Reply

  2. I agree with Hazel. There are three parties to consider when editing, and it’s a challenge to keep them in balance.

    I find I’m developing a chameleon approach in response to the broad range of work I get from a matching range of parties. I give essentially the same service with different emphases according to the job’s criteria. This results in a stream of happy clients, though I know I’m not the best editor on the planet. Plenty of people have greater knowledge, better work systems, sharper eye and memory. I strive to fit my skills to the assignment, then give a bit more.

    I liken the career to the advanced education I never got formally, because every project is a dynamic learning experience. So I invest myself as part of earning the dollar, and steadily become a better editor because of it.


    Comment by Carolyn — March 20, 2013 @ 6:47 am | Reply

  3. It takes more than the right skillset to make a good editor; you have to have a certain mindset, too. It helps to be skeptical, to question everything, especially to doubt the extent of your own knowledge–to be vigilant in the realization that you don’t know what you don’t know, and so those things that your editorial radar glosses over are often the very things that you need to query and verify. It helps to be stubbornly inquisitive, to dig beyond the first or second or even third answer to a question. A good editor is also adept at wearing many hats–diplomat, architect, financial planner, referee, surgeon, teacher, detective, nanny, ventriloquist, stable boy (with shovel), attorney, carnival barker, and therapist. Other attributes: humility, a resurgent sense of humor, patience, optimism.


    Comment by Will Harmon — March 20, 2013 @ 11:17 am | Reply

  4. Great question, great post, and great comments. I think self-confidence and self-awareness also play into being a good editor; you have to be confident in your own skills before you start asking questions or suggesting changes to an author or publisher. Good editors don’t feel like they need explicit support from Chicago or some other style guide to support every mark they make. Good editors know that what is forbidden in one type of writing may be perfectly acceptable in another. Good editors know what they don’t know and aren’t afraid to ask for help.


    Comment by Tammy Ditmore — March 20, 2013 @ 12:06 pm | Reply

  5. The Editors’ Association of Canada has a certification program that tests against a set of Professional Editorial Standards. The program was developed and is proving successful as an objective way to determine if someone meets the standards to do a professional editing job with a minimum of supervision.

    The standards and exams cover the knowledge, skills, and practices most commonly required for editing English-language material of any sort. Certifications are awarded in four disciplines: proofreading, copy editing, stylistic editing, and structural editing. Candidates who pass all four exams are further awarded the Certified Professional Editor designation.

    Certification exams are open to EAC members and non-members both inside and outside of Canada. Since the program was launched in 2006, about 200 certifications have been awarded, and a number of clients/employers are starting to recognize EAC certification as an asset when hiring editors.

    See and for more information.


    Comment by Lana — March 20, 2013 @ 1:07 pm | Reply

  6. A lot of these points seem to relate to perception, but also to a business focus rather than actual editing skills. I think what makes me a good editor is that:
    I know U.S. (and some UK) English grammar, usage, spelling and punctuation very, very well and can recognize and fix errors in those areas;
    I respect original authors’ voices and can fix mechanical errors in grammar, usage, spelling and punctuation, as well as larger issues of consistency, coherence and organization, without intruding and changing documents into “words of Ruth”; and
    I make my editing clients look good by giving them versions of their work that are mechanically better, if not perfect, than the originals.

    My editing clients mention all of these skills in saying why they like my work and come back to me more than once.

    The business side is important to those of us who are freelancers or have our own editing businesses, but I think you can be a good editor and a bad business person. You may not get as rich as you would if you were better at the business side, but you can still have the respect of your colleagues and a solid client base—neither colleagues nor clients necessarily see your business side. Business skills might be less important to in-house staff editors than to independent editors, although some in-house editors still have to understand the nature of the publishing business to be of full value to their employers.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — March 20, 2013 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

    • Ruth, I have to disagree with your perspective on the business side. I’ve been a self-employed editor for 28 years and also worked in-house (as I currently do) for several publishers and other businesses. Being business savvy is important in both roles. You are far more valuable to your clients/employers when you understand and can accommodate their big-picture business considerations, including timeliness, budgeting, cost-benefit ratios, economies of scale, and opportunity costs. Of course, someone whose sole focus is copyediting or proofreading doesn’t necessarily need the knowledge base of an editor whose duties include author acquisitions and project management, but even a basic knowledge of business and contract law, financial planning, and operations and management strategies becomes invaluable if you want to move up the food chain.

      I appreciate that some people prefer to focus on proofreading, copyediting, and the mechanics of usage and style, but a top-notch editor has to excel at all that and a lot more.


      Comment by Will Harmon — March 20, 2013 @ 7:16 pm | Reply

  7. […] take a look at the post How Do You Know You Are a Good Editor? on Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog. It uses “him- or herself” two or three times. Given […]


    Pingback by Singular ‘They’ Breaks Borderline Zombie Rule | notrehta — March 21, 2013 @ 4:37 pm | Reply

  8. One requirement for being a good editor is having a good ear. Some years ago while I was the copy editor for a monthly magazine, we had commissioned an article about the 100th anniversary of San Francisco Opera. The writer, a knowledgeable and skilled arts critic, used the phrase “tout San Francisco” in ironic reference to the opera-going swells of that city. When the manuscript arrived on my desk, I noticed that the editor had changed “tout” to “all.” I objected strongly, pointing out to the piece’s editor (who was also my boss) that the writer chose the the word “tout” carefully and that translating it into the English equivalent “all” destroyed the tone the writer was trying to set. Alas, I lost this battle. Tone-deafness in an editor can do a lot of damage.


    Comment by Charles Smyth — March 21, 2013 @ 7:51 pm | Reply

    • Hear, hear, Charles.
      And a second meaning to that, as well. Good comment.


      Comment by scieditor — March 23, 2013 @ 9:25 am | Reply

  9. I know that I need certain skills to be ‘an editor’, and these I work on and improve via CPD. All these have been discussed in previous comments. I also know that I use my intuition when working with a client (a publisher) and the author. I see myself as a chameleon (and I have just noticed that Carolyn also mentions this word), who can hear an author’s voice and work with that, who can clarify text without treading all over it. I empathise with Charles and his ‘tout San Francisco’ comment, which explains exactly what I mean – knowing that ‘all’ just doesn’t do the job.


    Comment by Irene Pizzie — March 22, 2013 @ 6:02 pm | Reply

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