10 Characteristics of a Good Editor

The Critical Roles Played by Editors, Teachers, Colleagues, and Moms

The work of a good editor, like the work of a good teacher, does not reveal itself directly; it is reflected in the accomplishments of others.
(William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker from 1952 until 1987)

You don't have to work for a magazine or newspaper to benefit from the help of a good editor. A teacher, a colleague, or even your overworked mom may be willing to assume that critical role. Regardless of who offers you thoughtful criticism, responding to it in the right spirit should help you improve your writing.

But how do you know if your editor is a good one and if the advice you're getting is sound? Try evaluating your editor (or teacher, colleague, or mom) according to the qualities identified by these ten professionals.

  1. A Hick
    "Our best editors have always been at least partly hick--everything is new and fresh and possible for them; they take nothing for granted."
    (David Halberstam, The Powers That Be. Knopf, 1979)
  2. A Reader
    "The bad editor loves to plunge right into the copy, making immediate marks that brand the copy as part his or hers. A better way: Before lifting a pencil or depressing the keyboard, read an article all the way through, open your mind to the logic of the [writer's] approach, and offer at least minimal courtesy to the professional who has dripped blood for it."
    (Carl Sessions Stepp, Editing for Today's Newsroom. Routledge, 1989)
  3. A Writing Coach
    "Writers need to know you respect their ownership of a story. Resist the temptation to start writing an improved version. That's fixing--not coaching. . . . When you 'fix' stories by doing instant rewrites, there may be a thrill in showing off your skill. By coaching writers you discover better ways to craft copy."
    (Jill Geisler, quoted by Foster Davis and Karen F. Dunlap in The Effective Editor. Poynter Institute, 2000)
  1. A Mechanic
    "Good editing can turn a gumbo of a piece into a tolerable example of good reporting, not of good writing. Good writing exists beyond the ministrations of any editor. That's why a good editor is a mechanic, or craftsman, while a good writer is an artist."
    (Gardner Botsford, A Life of Privilege, Mostly. St. Martin's Press, 2003)
  1. A Counselor
    "Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, 'How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?' and avoid 'How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?'"
    (James Thurber, quoted in The New York Times Book Review, December 4, 1988)
  2. A Critical Thinker
    "[M]ore than being good writers, editors must be good critical thinkers who can recognize and evaluate good writing--or can figure out how to make the most of not-so-good writing. . . . [A] good editor needs a sharp eye for detail. We need to be organized, able to envision a structure for an article when one does not yet exist, or to identify the missing pieces or gaps in logic that are needed to make everything hang together."
    (Mariette DiChristina, "Science Editing," in A Field Guide for Science Writers, ed. by Deborah Blum et al. Oxford University Press, 2006)
  3. A Quiet Conscience
    "It is one of the comic burdens of [an] editor not to be able to explain to anyone else exactly what he does. As he works with a writer over a manuscript or a proof, placing his technical and aesthetic judgment at the writer's service, giving counsel when counsel is asked for, lending an objective eye, acting on occasion as a conscience, helping the writer in any way possible to say what he wants to say, only the editor and the writer can know what passes between them. The work of a good editor, like the work of a good teacher, does not reveal itself directly; it is reflected in the accomplishments of others."
    (William Shawn, obituary for associate editor Robert S. Gerdy, quoted by Brendan Gill in Here at the New Yorker. Random House, 1973)
  1. A Trial Horse
    "[E]ditors are important. For one thing, an editor is a good trial horse; the writer can use him to see if a story and its various elements register as he or she thinks they register. An author is very likely to suffer a loss of viewpoint (due to nearness to the subject) before he gets through with a story and finish up with something more or less out of focus."
    (Harold Ross, letter to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, November 30, 1945, in Letters From the Editor: The New Yorker's Harold Ross. Modern Library, 2000)
  2. A Goal-Setter
    "I think editing requires patience and that editors need to think about long-term goals with a writer--not just working with the story that's on the screen. We can all get better at what we do, but improvement sometimes takes a lot of time and more often than not, in fits and starts."
    (Evelynne Kramer, quoted by Donald M. Murray in Writing to Deadline. Heinemann, 2000)
  1. A Partner
    "The ideal editor brings out the best in a writer. Lets the writer's voice shine through. . . . A good editor makes a writer feel challenged, enthusiastic, and valuable. An editor is only as good as her writers."
    (Sally Lee, quoted by Ronald P. Lovell in Free-Lancing: A Guide to Writing for Magazines and Other Markets. Waveland Press, 1994)

What do you think are the most important roles played by a good editor? To let us know, go to What Is a Good Editor? and click on "comments."