Six things a good editor can do for you, and three things they can’t


Red Pen by Jenny Kaczorowski

A professional editor can do wonders for a piece of writing – but they aren’t miracle workers. While all editors have different areas of specialism and their skill sets vary, most editors worth their salt should be able to help you with the following six tasks. If on the other hand you’re hoping for help with items on the second list, you might have to adjust your expectations.

A good editor can:

1. Correct errors.

This is the most widely held interpretation of the editor’s role. Even very experienced writers make mistakes and need to have their grammar, punctuation and spelling looked over by an experienced pair of eyes. Don’t underestimate the importance of this function, even if your own skills are very good. Detailed word-by-word cleanup of the text is called copy editing.

2. Improve the flow of ideas.

In conversation, we often speak in circles and reiterate points for emphasis, but doing this in your writing will muddy the clarity of your arguments. An editor can strip out redundancies and organize your points so that each one builds on the last to give your writing the greatest possible impact.

3. Help structure your book.

In developmental editing, the entire document is looked at as a whole. When you’ve got a multitude of complex ideas jostling around in a piece of long-form writing, the structural options can become overwhelming. Is it better to start with the problem or the solution? Should you go in sequential order or rotate among the main topics? Whose perspective are you writing from? Should you use breakout boxes, lists or appendices? And how will the reader want to use the book? These questions and many others can be answered with the help of a good developmental editor.

4. Identify blind spots.

Editors are trained to sniff out issues in your text that could undermine your credibility, such as unsupported statements of fact or vague or outlandish claims. Even worse are politically incorrect or potentially libelous statements, which can land you in serious hot water if allowed to creep into your published work unchallenged.

5. Smooth out your tone.

In life, our conversational tone is affected by our mood. Sometimes we are silly; sometimes we are somber, tentative or brash. And because you’re not always in the same mood every time you sit down to write, it’s natural that some of those variances in tone will be reflected in your work. Don’t allow it to stick. The effect is jarring for the reader and leaves an impression of inconsistency and lack of focus. An editor can help you to identify the most appropriate tone for the work and bring the rest of the manuscript into line.

6. Make sure the work is audience-appropriate.

Yes, this could mean not swearing in children’s books, but I’m referring more to the complexity of your language and the use of jargon. A highly technical book that’s being written for a specialist readership can get away with much more arcane terminology than one written for a general audience. You may be too close to the material to be able to tell which is which, and may struggle to find laymen’s terms that are both approachable and accurate.

But don’t expect them to:

1. Write the content from scratch for you.

If you need someone to write original content on your behalf, you are looking for a ghostwriter.

2. Make a stale idea sound unique.

Your value as an author is in the originality and strength of your concepts. Technical language skills are far less important, especially for non-fiction work. With the right support your book can be a great success if it is based on compelling ideas. If those aren’t present, it may not be a book worth writing.

3. Assign you a unique writing voice.

Although an editor can help you to identify your authentic voice and learn to trust it as you write, they cannot change the writing voice you have – and you wouldn’t want them to!

Maggie Langrick

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