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What It Takes to Be a Good Editor, Part I

by Floyd Largent, book editor

As a writer, you probably know it’s always best to get at least one unbiased person to review your manuscript before you submit it to a publisher or agent. In fact, that’s probably why you’re checking out this website. And as you wander through these pages, you may be wondering what it takes to be a good, constructive editor.

I think this is a topic worth discussing, because if nothing else, you can apply these lessons to your self-editing. As I noted in a recent blog, revising is an integral part of good writing; in fact, I’d argue that’s where your real talent and skill as a writer come into play. Very few of us produce publishable copy the first time around, and even when we do, there are always a few rough edges that can use polishing.

I can’t speak for all editors, but I can draw certain conclusions from my own 35 years of actively writing, editing, and submitting manuscripts, with nearly 15 years as a professional editor under my belt. I support myself and my family through my literary efforts, so all false modesty aside, I’m as good a source of advice as any. Keep in mind that I’m primarily a developmental editor, though I also do standard copyediting as I go.

A good editor doesn’t need a college degree in English, Journalism, or Comparative Lit to edit well, though many editors do have such degrees. My own degrees are in history and anthropology—and one of my best editing teachers was my committee advisor while I was working on my Master’s thesis in archaeology. He’s not officially an editor, but he is one of the world’s leading experts in his field, and he’s published hundreds of articles and books. He taught me how to strip redundancy out of my work, possibly the best editing lesson I’ve ever received.

The best editors are voracious readers and practiced writers, whatever field they initially choose as their bread-and-butter career. I feel it all begins with a thorough grounding in literature, both classical and in the particular genre within which they edit. I’m not especially impressed with most so-called mainstream literature, which I find excessively experimental, self-referential, and topically constrained, though it still produces the occasional gem. More important is storytelling: a well-constructed plot, vivid characters, emotional investment, and an engaging hook that pulls you into the story.

Those determined to become proficient editors should focus on books written in their native language by writers of their native culture, since that’s typically the milieu they’ll be editing in. Americans, for example, should read Hawthorne, Twain, and Steinbeck; Melville and Harper Lee can’t hurt, either. Though translated epics can be wonderful, too often a story loses important elements in translation, since not everything can be directly translated. One is also at sea when it comes to cultural references, unless reading an annotated version. Even Shakespeare may be confusing without annotations. But the aspiring editor should read him anyway, because of his influence on all modern English and world literature.

If the editor intends to work in the fantasy genre, then they should read Tolkien and H. Rider Haggard as well as George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson. For mystery, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain, and Robert Parker are a must. An editor of Westerns should read Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Elmer Kelton, and Matt Braun. I think you get the drift. While these writers may not necessarily resonate with the editor, they should be read to absorb the lessons they teach, and to understand where some of what are now tropes in the field came from. Then comes reading widely within their chosen genres, so they become aware of the common and overused tropes in the field, as well as accepted styles and topics. Constant reading should continue even after one has begun writing and editing in earnest, to maintain a fresh and up-to-date viewpoint and, frankly, for entertainment. The aspiring editor soon learns what’s fun and thought-provoking for them and what isn’t, and can use that knowledge in their own work.

I feel it’s critical that an editor also be a writer. When you write daily for years, you come to understand the field and its requirements—and develop the expertise of editing your own work. The self-discipline and skills-honing that result, especially if you persevere to become a well-published writer (in any field, fiction or nonfiction) will hold you in good stead. You’ll also learn how to face down the bugbear of writer’s block, and teach others how to do so.

Eventually, the 10,000-hour rule comes into play, the aspiring editor becomes an expert, and everything becomes much easier. And while a person doesn’t necessarily have to have been an active professional editor for years to be a good editor, the accumulated experience helps. One thing I’ve learned, for example, is that I work best as a development editor. I get caught up in the stories I edit, and enjoy offering my own contributions. It’s one of the best ways that I can make a mark on my chosen field, above and beyond my own writing (which I rarely have the time to practice these days).

This is by no means all it takes to be a good editor, but it’s a beginning. Because this would otherwise be a rather long entry, I’ll break it in half here, and discuss what I believe to be the other factors making a good editor—like an eye for detail, persistence, and an overall understanding of the story edited—in my next blog.

Keep Writing!

Book editor Floyd Largent is a historian and anthropologist whose first love is science fiction/fantasy.

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