Good editors and how to spot them

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
A photo of the dictionaries, glossaries, and style guides I use in my writing

If you’ve been reading my book, and it hasn’t made you lose the will to live, you can thank Owen Gregory for that.

At the beginning of the year, Smashing Magazine tasked Owen with turning my filthy rough draft into a proper book. For Owen, that required a forensic examination of every letter in a 47,000 word brain dump. But it also required getting to grips with some very complex subject matter, on the fly, to a point where he could challenge the narrative as opposed to just reading it.

He did all of that with ease.

(That is possibly the last tweet I will ever embed. But let’s not even go there today.)

Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky to have Owen, and other editors with an equally strong commitment to their profession, who have read and reviewed and improved my work.

I’ve also had a few editors who took my work and, well, let’s just say if they ever meet me IRL, they’d better turn around and walk very quickly in the other direction.

So I want to share some quick lessons on what sort of professionals – and people – your editors should be, in order to make your work the best thing that it can be. That’s a positive thought, but it also requires a few warning signs that you’ve been paired with someone you’re going to regret.

What a good editor does

The most important thing to know is this:

A good editor is there to save you from yourself.

Their job is to pull you off a cliff, kill your darlings, terminate your side quests, shut up your rambling, flush entire weeks of your output down the toilet, stomp on your soapbox, and tell you to your (virtual) face that your opinion on something is crap.

Because that’s how a good editor takes a draft you thought was the best thing you’ve ever written and makes it ten times better.

You shouldn’t take that personally, because it isn’t personal.

And after a good editor has helped you to kill your darlings, your thinking becomes sharper, so your writing becomes sharper, so that you don’t go hanging off so many cliffs in the first place.

A bad editor, on the other hand, sees you running towards a rhetorical cliff, tells you to run faster, and has their way with the output.

What results on publication day is a thing which has your name on it but which you do not recognise.

Yes, anyone who does a lot of writing for a living gets used to having their opinions blunted, their words rephrased, and their bons mots replaced with cringeworthy SEO titles. That isn’t what this is.

This is the sickening realisation that your editor has used you to their own end. It is one of the hardest lessons you will learn.

How a good editor does it

Because a good editor is there to make your work better, they bombard you with questions about your facts, assumptions, and conclusions, and challenge you about every footnote and citation and reference – including the ones you forgot to put in.

They’re not doing that to be an arsehole. They’re doing this because they think your work is worth it.

So you need to be prepared to explain yourself, a lot. And you need to be prepared to show your work. If you can’t show that work, or explain yourself, then you both get to work on that part of the narrative until it can stand up on its own.

A bad editor, on the other hand, lovebombs you, telling you that this thing you wrote is great, oh my god, it’s so good, you’re so amazing, etc. And you’re so smitten by their swooning – oh my god, someone is finally listening to me – that you don’t notice that they haven’t actually asked any substantial questions to make your work stronger.

What they do spend a lot of time on is getting you to rewrite and rearrange your work to the point where even you protest that it doesn’t sound like you anymore. Then they hit publish on the hit job.

Because they are an arsehole, and exploiting you was the plan all along.

Yes, this is a thing that is going to happen to you throughout your career until you learn to spot it and head it off at the pass.

How a good editor works

By the time you ship a book-sized draft to your editor, your nerves are shredded and your sanity is clinging on by a thread. Here’s how a good editor, like Owen, sorts all that:

clear, simple communication.

For example: I have three hours this afternoon where I’ll be working on the first half of Part Two.

That lets you carve out some time of your own to follow along, as 120 Google Doc edits ping onto your phone, and you can approve their changes, answer their questions, explain your reasoning, and provide missing sources, almost in real time to the editing process.

What that does is create a tremendous feeling of confident accomplishment: today we ate a chunk out of that book, and damn it was tasty.

A bad editor, on the other hand, is a black hole. They don’t tell you when they’re going to work on your draft, they don’t tell you what part of it they’re reading, and in some cases they don’t communicate, at all, full stop.

That obviously creates a very unhealthy power dynamic. Those are horrible things on any given day. But when you’ve poured your guts into a piece of work and send it into a black hole, you go into that hole too.

They know that. They like that.

A good editor, in other words, stands next to you. A bad editor stands above you.

And none of you will stand so tall, because finally, if you’re me, you know you’ve got the right editor when they recognise all the lyrics you’ve embedded in the text. This is me we’re talking about. That is a lot of song references, people.

Screen grab of a song lyric resulting in an anecdote about seeing the band at a gig

I mean, does it get any better than that? No. Boom. Sorted. Shipped. Published.

Thank you.

Header image by me: my arsenal. As opposed to your arsenal.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.