Weird title, I know. But there's a saying. It may be a saying by yours truly, but a saying nonetheless. "Anyone can be a writer. Not everyone can be an editor."
And it's true. Painfully true. Because if you put in enough effort, you can learn writing craft. But editing takes far more than knowing basic grammar. You have to steer a story in the right direction—without making an author beyond upset.
I, here, want to implement a key difference between editors who are helping an author who is getting started out and editors who are editing a seasoned author. If you're a first-time author and have never received an edit, you may receive one back that has more red marks than usual. Don't panic. This does happen. It's to be expected.
Many editors will operate a heavier hand on someone who doesn't know much about the business. Perhaps an indie author getting started or someone polishing their manuscript to present to an agent.
But what about those editors who edit authors who have been in the game for a few years?
They need a lighter touch. CMoS says so, publishers say so—and if you want a happy author, the author says so. So let's talk about editors who overreach, who don't do the edits they're supposed to do, who try to write the book for you. We'll label each one with a different name to keep them straight.
Bad Editor: The Secret Writer
The number one problem with editors? Many try to write the book how they want. Maybe they didn't like that Prince Charming married Lucinda, so they tell you to have him break off the engagement.
These are the editors who ask you to blow up big sections and change entire chapters.
This is bad editing, and here's why. And editor works within the framework given to them. Even if they don't like where you took the story, they operate within that story anyway.
Especially if a traditional publishing house has accepted a book, we have to believe that the book is mostly there in terms of structure and plot (otherwise it wouldn't have been accepted).
If you want to suggest big changes in a critique group, fine. Go for it! But once a book has been contracted, an editor needs to respect the book as much as possible—even if they don't love everything about it.
Bad Editor: The Lane Jumper
Content editors edit big picture.
Copy editors: grammar, wording, and research.
And let me tell you ... many editors try to be that first one. And it ticks off the author to no end.
Picture this. You've just made a lot of adjustments for your content editor. You're tired. You're excited that from here on out most of the edits will involve word choice or punctuation.
And then you get your next edit back. And the editor decided to play content editor and tried to make you undo a bunch of changes you just made for the last editor.
Good editors know the distinctions between different types of edits. If they don't, they need more training.
Bad Editor: The Blindfolded Editor
By this, I mean that a good editor *gets* your vision for a book. They understand what you're going for, even if you don't do it successfully.
A bad editor doesn't understand what you've attempted to accomplish. And worse, asks you to change what you consider to be non-negotiables in your story.
Bad Editor: The Direct Track Changes Editor
By this, I mean, an editor who directly goes in and changes entire sentences and words without your consent. An editor should never go into a document and change wording unless it's extremely minor, not following Chicago Manual of Style, or a word is missing (such as an a, an, or the).
I've known certain editors who will go in and write everything in their voice. Fine for newspaper writing. Abominable for book publishing.
Some don't even do it in Track Changes, so authors have all sorts of fun "discoveries" in the galleys stage. And yes, I am one of those speaking from experience.
Good Editors are Hard to Find
Editors can charge $40+/hour because they know that it takes far more than just a love of reading to do the job well. Publishers tend to work with editors they know authors love to work with. Because editing for most authors is like going to the dentist—necessary but painful.
So if you want to take up the profession of editing, make sure to make it as painless for the author, publisher, and yourself as possible.