Writing is something I've always enjoyed doing. I fell into my editing work by accident. In a way, I consider it one of those freak incidents that no one could ever even hope to predict, like frogs raining from the sky. Unlike frogs falling from the sky, the impact of editing was a little more significant than amphibian sky divers. Not only did editing change how I approached my own writing, it led me to one very important conclusion:
You can't judge an editor by their writing skills.
A good editor doesn't need to be a strong author. Writing a good (or great) book is made up of a lot of factors, ranging from adept skills with the English language, a strong sense of character and plot, and many other little things. Authors need to develop and hone these skills. It's not easy, and anyone who tells you otherwise is telling you a lie.
The greatest of authors put a lot of work and effort into learning their craft. Sure, by the time they got around to writing the book, the process might be considered ‘easy', but in reality, these individuals paid the piper before they wrote their first sentences.
An editor does not need to have these skills. An editor needs to have the ability to visualize the impact of these skills on a book. An editor's job isn't to write. Editors are visionaries. They are people who need to have foresight on what the author wishes to accomplish, and needs to find ways to bring the true story to the forefront. An editor is someone who understands the elements of a book. And editor is someone with the understanding of the language, the ability to see how words can be improved, and how characters and plots can be enhanced to make the book a better experience for the reader.
Most of all, an editor is a reader who can clearly tell what they like and dislike about a story, compare it neutrally to the rest of the market, and offer advise. At the end of the day, the editor is someone who can see the market, understand what makes a book strong, and can come up with ways a writer can improve their story. Editors are a lot of things. But, an editor need not be a writer.
It isn't uncommon for failed writers to become amazing editors. Why? Editors are people who love to read. Editors are people who understand books.
Just because an editor may not be able (or willing) to go the extra mile on their own stories is no indicator on whether or not they have the vision needed to bring someone else's work to the front and center of stage and make it shine. If you're a writer looking for an editor, don't ask about an editor's personal fiction.
An editor's ability to write has absolutely zero relevance on how well they work as an editor. If you want to see how good they are of an editor, ask for samples and references. This will help you see exactly what you're getting into. The sample edits will show you their active work and what you can expect from a chapter or scene. References will tell you what they are like for the long haul. Both of these things are important. You want an editor who delivers what you need not what you want. This is hard. Most people want to be told their stories are fantastic and there is little to fix. Most people need to have a kick to their rumps to make them see they can do better.
Knowing the difference between what you want and what you need will help you make the best choice possible in your editor.
If your editor isn't a writer, don't be discouraged by this. Sure, you may not think they understand the hardships of drafting a story. Sure, you may not think they have the experience in storytelling to help you improve your story.
This is where you'd be wrong. Why? Editors invest a lot of time and heartache into a story. Well, the good ones do, at least. This isn't the time nor place to discuss the con artists out there. For the sake of discussion, this will be for editors who are genuine, who care about their clients, and take pride in their work.
This also applies to all types of editors, although developmental editors often have the major onus of burden. Copy and proofing editors are just as important. In a way, they're even more important than the developmental editor. Why? These people directly impact how your readers perceive your book. They catch the mistakes before the readers do.
Oh, and another thing: There is no such thing as a perfect book. Everyone — even the most talented of proofing editors — will inevitably miss something. It happens. Don't sweat the small stuff. Most readers won't notice little errors. It's true! If it bothers you that much, gather a list of all of the tiny errors you made, and when your second edition launches, quietly correct the wayward errors.
No one is going to notice. Unless, of course, you do a complete restructuring of the novel. That's a different story altogether, though. 🙂
This is a short list of the major things I think editors need to succeed:
The vagueness of these five basic skills is part of my major point: Quantifying a good editor isn't easy.
Don't judge them by their writing. Instead, judge them by their work. When you hire an editor, always ask for references and a sample of their work. Better yet, ask for a sample of the editing work done for the reference you're talking to.
This will help you see more of the truth, and get a real feel for what you're getting yourself into. This extra precaution will also help ensure you don't fall victim to a lazy editor or a con artist.
Good luck finding the right person for your writing / editorial partnership.