A good editor gives constructive, positive feedback. She or he wants you to succeed. A colleague had submitted his first book to an editor. His manuscript had come back with “CUT, CUT, CUT” scrawled in red ink across the first page. He said to me, only half joking: “She didn’t understand. She was talking about my baby.” Exactly. Writing is hard enough. Nobody needs this kind of feedback (unless you thrive on tough love).
A good editor respects your content. Another colleague, who’s in fundraising, once had an editor whose rewrites changed the content of a grant proposal. He had to revise the rewrites and triple check everything before he could submit the proposal. In another example, a friend complained that an editor rewrote so much that she felt as if her manuscript were no longer hers.
When you’re searching for an editor, look for someone whose abilities complement yours. If plotting is hard for you, pick an editor with an eagle eye for holes. If your dialogue tends toward wordy, find a laconic editor.
Your personalities should click, not clash. If you can’t stand small talk, then select someone who cuts to the chase. If you’re an extrovert who communicates best face to face, then your best match is not an editor who prefers only email.
A good editor should disclose any biases. Maybe you write Westerns, and a potential editor loathes them. I was once approached about helping to finish a book in a genre I never read. I turned down the project; I wasn’t a good match. Other biases are more subtle. For example, I don’t like repetitive words, “got to” constructions, or overuse of adverbs. I point out these things while editing, but I also acknowledge to writers that these are pet peeves.
How do you know if you’ve found a good match? Ask the editor to edit a few pages of your work as a sample so you can see what the editing is like. Know what you need; there’s a big difference between substantive editing and proofreading. (See the next Rose’s Red Pen for more.) Finally, talk to the editor. If you’re not in the same town, then arrange to meet, Skype, or at least chat on the phone. Do you click?
Your editor is a significant other when it comes to your writing. After all, you’re entrusting him or her with your hard work. Take the time to make sure you’re a good match.