How do you know if you’re a good editor?

I was lucky enough to learn to edit from staff editors who gave me encouraging but useful feedback on how I was doing my work. And over the years I’ve worked with a lot of colleagues who aren’t shy about saying what I’m doing well and what I’m not doing so well.

But not all of us are in that situation. It can be very hard to tell how effective your editing is when you don’t have a mentor or colleagues available to look over your work.

Here are some rules of thumb that can help freelance editors:

1. Silence does not mean the author hated everything you did. Often authors are juggling multiple priorities. It often takes them a lot longer than you’d expect to read, process, and act on your edit. In any case, reassuring the editor they’ve already paid isn’t very high on their list of things to do. Don’t let silence frighten you off from seeking their feedback.

2. Listen to what clients say. Often, clients try to give feedback, but the editor just isn’t listening. I’ve heard exchanges that go like this:

Author: “Honestly, that edit was really overwhelming.”

Editor: “Oh, yes, it can sometimes feel that way. LMK if you have any questions!”

Did you see the part where the author gave feedback? “The edit was really overwhelming” means the author doesn’t know where to start in the revision process. An author should always know where to start when an edit is delivered! (Author overwhelm has a solution: stop trying to solve every. single. problem you encounter in a manuscript.)

3. Invite feedback. When editors come to me for coaching, I often ask, “What do your clients say about your edits?” and they often respond, “No idea. I’ve never asked.” But you should ask! Just say something like, “I’m surveying clients to make sure I’m doing the best work possible for them. Was there anything about the edit that left you confused or uncertain? Did you find it helpful?”

“Tell me a little more about that” is my favorite sentence when trying to elicit feedback from clients:

Author: “It was fine, there was just a place where I misread your recommendation.”

Me: “Tell me a little more about that.”

Author: “In the revision letter, when you said Joey needed clearer characterization, I thought you meant I needed to describe him better, but later, in the manuscript edit itself, I realized you wanted me to give him a stronger goal.”

Me: “Okay, gotcha, it felt like the revision letter and the edit didn’t quite match, is that it? So you started revising in one direction and then had to regroup. I’m sorry about that, but I appreciate hearing your concern! I’ll be more careful in the future. Was there anything else that tripped you up?”

4. Do they follow your recommendations when they make revisions? This one isn’t foolproof; sometimes authors don’t want to go to the work of implementing our suggestions, especially at the developmental level where our recommendations may require a lot of rewriting. So we may be absolutely correct about what the manuscript needs, but still not see it implemented. However, when that happens – we edit a manuscript but the author takes few of our recommendations – it’s time to dig a little deeper. Are you making arguments in favor of your recommendations or just issuing edicts?

Argument: “Because Paulie’s motivation is so opaque it’s hard for me to root for him to succeed in robbing the bank. Giving him a stronger motivation would put the reader on his side. Early on you briefly mention that he needs money but this thread is dropped and it’s not clear why he needs the money. But if his house is in foreclosure or his daughter needs surgery, then we can understand what’s driving him. You can give this motivation a lot of emotional weight by showing his connection to whatever he’s in danger of losing. If he’s puttering around his much-beloved house, fixing a creaking door, planting begonias, and so on, we can feel the potential loss more keenly.”

Edict: “Give Paulie a reason to rob the bank.”

(Author often responds with “I did give him a reason to rob the bank” and ignores the suggestion.)

Clear arguments that explain the why of your recommendations typically result in more effective revision.

5. Do clients come back for more and refer their friends? If you have a lot of repeat clients and if you get a lot of work from referral, you’re doing something right! Conversely, if clients don’t come back and few clients ever arrive in your inbox because someone referred them, you almost certainly have a problem.

Sometimes this is because you’re not asking for referrals (“I appreciate referrals! If you hear of anyone who needs an editor, please send them my way!”). Clients don’t automatically think in terms of making referrals, so sometimes they have to be prompted. But other times they are unsatisfied with your work, they’re just not saying so to your face.

How you can tell the difference is by asking! (See #3.) It may be that your editing isn’t to blame, it’s something else, often something that can easily be surmounted: “You take only PayPal and a lot of my friends don’t use PayPal.” Sometimes it can’t be so easily surmounted: “I know you’re editing around your day job but I just wanted someone who could do my edit faster.” In either case, the problem isn’t your editing, which is good news.

When it is your editing (“I felt like you didn’t understand what I was trying to do and some of your recommendations felt really off the mark”) try first to salvage the relationship with the client before taking other steps. Ask, “Tell me more about that” followed by some sort of solution: “If I rewrote the revision letter now that I have a better understanding of what you’re trying to achieve, do you think that would help?”

Whatever the answer is, you’ll have learned some helpful information to reflect on as you continue your editing career.

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