How to Be a Great Editor & Other Revising Wisdom

It’s extremely important for those of us who are writers and those of us who read other people’s pieces in order to provide constructive criticism, to be mindful of what it really means to be a good editor.

All of us who want to write for a living dream of being published one day. The road to a published work is long, hard and bumpy. It requires a lot of patience, determination, a thick hide, and most importantly: a lot of editing.

One of the core facets of editing is having a critique partner (editor) who will revise your work and is really committed to helping you develop your story into its best incarnation.

Being a critique partner is not easy. You need to not only be knowledgeable about grammar, plot, characterization, etc,  but also be willing to reel in your own way of doing things, because at the end of the day the story is not yours. You need to help the author make the story better without changing his or her vision.

I’m going to give those of you who would like to become better editors some guidelines to follow in order to help yourself and your author partner.

checkmarkBefore you read anything, make sure you and the writer are on the same page concerning what you are looking for in their work.

  • Do they want you to focus on plot, characterization, flow? You need to know this so that you can better help the writer meet their goals.


While you read, think about what the writer’s project may be.

  • Why are they writing this story?
  • What is the ultimate goal?

Once you’re done reading, you can formulate an answer and talk to the writer about it. If you’re right, they’ve done a good job of conveying it. If you’re wrong, they’ll know that their project isn’t quite clear and they should work on making it clearer. When they tell you what their project really is, you should be able to give some ideas about how to make it clearer.

This process wouldn’t work if you know the project from the beginning, so try to hold off from asking (and to the writer: from telling) before you read the story.

(By the way, I feel that a writer should always have a project. A “project” is the reason you’re writing something, what you want to accomplish with your piece. Having a project helps you stay more focused. That’s not to say it needs to be fully developed when you start writing, but having a point of view will always make your story stronger.)

checkmarkWhen you start reading, remember that you are reading something written by someone else and this other person will have their own style. Just because a sentence isn’t written the way you would write it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means it’s different.

checkmarkThinking about this last point, do your best to help the author bring out their own voice. You will inevitably have a different style and opinion, be conscious of that and careful of making suggestions that are not in line with the writer’s own vision. Making suggestions that don’t fit with the writer’s style is a hindrance rather than a help.

checkmarkIf the piece is in the early stages, don’t focus on spelling or grammar. These are things that can be fixed easily. The more important thing in the early stages is the story and larger structure, not small specific things. If you are spending time correcting something that a spell checker can pick up, clearly you’re wasting time that can be used focusing on things only a human can detect.

checkmarkDo not, I repeat: do not cross things out or rewrite things yourself. It makes you look like you’re taking over the writer’s job and overstepping your bounds. Plus, you don’t know if that was deliberate on the part of the writer. If you find words missing, awkward sentences, misspellings, or words used incorrectly, highlight them or underline them to call attention to them and add a comment if necessary. You can give advice on how to fix it, but don’t just assume that the writer will want to fix it in the way you would.

Now for specifics on things to look for or think about while you’re revising something:

  1. How does the story read?
    • Are there any sentences that are confusing?
    • Are there any points where you get lost/bored/apathetic? There are many reasons for this, try to identify it and convey it to the writer.
  2. Do you get a good sense of the setting? Is there too much detail? Not enough?
  3. Do you get a good sense of the characters? If the work is a long piece, don’t be impatient to get a full physical description right away. Focus on the whole picture, like personality, emotions, and movement, along with physical traits.
    • Does the character seem like he or she could be a real person?
    • Most importantly, think about the character over the whole story. Does their behavior stay true to their character?
    • When it doesn’t, do you get a clear sense of growth or change? Also, when it doesn’t, is it believable?
  4. Is it clear who you should be focusing on in the chapter?
    • Can you clearly identify the main character?
    • If there are multiple main characters, does the story get too cluttered?
    • Think about who you’re emotionally attached to, sometimes having more than one main focus, especially at the beginning, can end up making the reader not truly care about anyone.
  5. What is happening in the chapter/story? Can you give a clear, concise summary? If you can’t, maybe it means there’s too much going on at a given time.
  6. Many times writers want to be subtle (I know I do), however, there is a danger of being too subtle and leaving your reader totally in the dark. The converse is also true, is the writer revealing too much and ruining any potential mystery?
  7. Do you have a clear sense of time?
    • What is the fictional time of the story?
    • Which things are the past and which are the present?
    • If there are flashbacks or flashforwards, are the transitions between temporal switches clear? If they’re not, is there a good reason?
  8. Research is an integral part of many genres of fiction. Has the writer done their research well? Unbelievable scenarios can ruin a story. Imagine if they’re writing about guns and ammo, and their details are completely off, if a reader who knows about guns and ammo reads the story the writer will lose credibility. If you suspect something is off, make a note of it and talk it out. The best stories are the ones that are well researched.
  9. At the end of the chapter or story, do you want to read more?
  10. Are there plausible reasons for the events that are transpiring? Nobody wants to read a story where the things that happen feel convenient.
  11. Think about showing vs. telling.
    • Does the writer show you that the character is mean by having him or her steal candy from a baby, or do they tell you that the character is mean with nothing to back it up? (This is a really simplified example just to give you an idea of what I mean.)
  12. Pay attention to the dialogue.
    • Do you feel like someone would say something like that in real life?
    • What does the dialogue say about the character?
    • Is it in line with the way the character has been described so far?
    • Does it add something to their description? If so, does this new thing fit and enhance your view of the character, or does it seem out of place?
  13. What is the conflict, crisis and resolution of this chapter or story?
  14. What is the point of view used in the story?
    • Possible points of view are: first person, second person (seldom used, but a possibility), third person limited and third person omniscient.
    • What does the chosen point of view do for the story?
    • Does the point of view stay consistent? If it doesn’t, is there a good reason for this?
  15. What were the strongest images in the chapter/story? Which images could be made stronger or removed altogether?

Always remember when suggesting to remove or change things that this is not your story. Suggestions to remove or change should be made in order to make the story clearer and better because they are truly needed, not because you would personally do it differently. I really cannot stress this enough.

You have to think in terms of the goals of the writer, not your own preferences.

Also remember that the writer is free to accept or reject your suggestions. If what you suggest is not in line with where the author wants to go, don’t be offended if they decide to stay with what they have or do something else. If you’re not sure whether a suggestion is in line with the goals of the writer, ask them to clear up what they want to convey so you can better help them.

Lastly, here are some suggestions for making revision easier:

  1. Think about how you work best. Do you like having paper in front of you to mark up? Do you prefer to edit on the computer?
  2. Read the story in its entirety once, before you start commenting or making suggestions. Making comments right off the bat can backfire when you get to the end of the story and realize something could have been intentional.
  3. Find a consistent way to edit. If you’re going to comment with bubbles on the side, always do your comments that way. If you’re going to call attention to a word/sentence by highlighting it, always do it this way.
  4. Keep an open mind and your ego in check.

Remember that there are no hard and fast rules in fiction writing. Creativity is a beautiful thing because it is molded by individuality. No two writers will write a story the same way, and if a writer is violating “the rules” they may very well have a good reason for it, and it may work just fine. Don’t just automatically assume something is wrong. A closed-minded editor is a terrible editor.

I hope this post was helpful and clear. If you have questions feel free to leave them in the comments.

Happy revising!


If a couple of posts per week is not enough for you and you want to see what I have to say more often, follow me on Twitter: @ZulyTweets

1 thought on “How to Be a Great Editor & Other Revising Wisdom

  1. Dalano

    You have a lot of good points & are detailed with them too. 1st thing I thought while reading though this was, “I would bet she would have a field day writing essays in an English class.”
    Thumbs up on the Beyond Tells trailer too (for having it posted).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s