10 Characteristics of a Good Editor

Critical Roles Played by Editors

You don't have to work for a magazine or newspaper to benefit from the help of a good editor, but responding to your editor in the right spirit should help you to improve your writing. Even when you are faced with nit-picky line edits, remember that the editor is on your side.

A good editor addresses your writing style and creative content, among many other details. Perhaps one of the most important things to remember, however, is that a good editor will never forget that it is your masterpiece.

Editing styles will vary, so find an editor that gives you the safe space to be creative and make mistakes simultaneously. 

The Editor and the Writer

Carl Sessions Stepp, author of "Editing for Today's Newsroom," believes editors should practice restraint and refrain from immediately reshaping the content in their own images. He has advised editors to "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." 

Jill Geisler of The Poynter Institute says a writer must be able to trust that an editor respects the writer's "ownership" of a story and can "resist the temptation" to completely write a new and improved version. Says Geisler, "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."

Gardner Botsford of The New Yorker magazine says that "a good editor is a mechanic, or craftsman, while a good writer is an artist," adding that that the less competent the writer, the louder the protests over editing.

Editor As Critical Thinker

Editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina says editors must be organized, able to see structure where it does not exist and "able to identify the missing pieces or gaps in logic" that bring the writing together.

"[M]ore than being good writers, editors must be good critical thinkers who can recognize and evaluate good writing [or who] can figure out how to make the most of not-so-good writing. ... [A] good editor needs a sharp eye for detail," writes DiChristina. 

A Quiet Conscience

The legendary, "shy, strong-willed editor" of The New Yorker, William Shawn, wrote that "it is one of the comic burdens of [an] editor not to be able to explain to anyone else exactly what he does." An editor, writes Shawn, must only counsel when the writer requests it, "acting on occasion as a conscience" and "helping the writer in any way possible to say what he wants to say." Shawn writes that 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."

A Goal-Setter

Writer and editor Evelynne Kramer says the best editor is patient and always keeps in mind the "long-term goals" with the writer and not just what they see on the screen. Says Kramer, "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."

A Partner

Editor-in-chief Sally Lee says the "ideal editor brings out the best in a writer" and allows a writer's  voice to shine through.

A good editor makes a writer feel challenged, enthusiastic and valuable. An editor is only as good as her writers," says Lee.

An Enemy of Cliches

Media columnist and reporter David Carr says the best editors are the enemies of "clichés and tropes, but not the overburdened writer who occasionally resorts to them." Carr states that the perfect traits of a good editor are good judgment, an appropriate bedside manner and an "ability to conjure occasional magic in the space between writer and editor."