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From the Editors' Association of Canada

Six Measures of a Good (Great) Editor

By Anita Jenkins

1. An editor doesn't take over
The editor's function is to provide suggestions and advice, but that advice has to fall within some fairly strict boundaries. Specifically, the editor:

· respects the author's voice

· understands the purpose of the manuscript - what the author and publisher are trying to achieve

· has a good understanding of the intended audience and always keeps that audience in mind

· remains objective and to some extent disinterested. For example, if a manuscript is about dogs, the fact that the editor loves cats and hates dogs should not have a discernible effect on his or her work.

· is prepared to negotiate and compromise regarding style, provided the end product remains clear, accurate and accessible to readers.

A good editor is flexible, perceptive, intelligent and responsive.

2. An editor takes over
The editor has to say, "If you don't want me to edit this, don't give it to me."

Since the editor's first loyalty is to the reader, the editor tells the author or publisher - in no uncertain terms - when the manuscript lacks focus, when whole sections must be chopped, when structural changes need to be made and so on. The editor also watches for material that could be libelous or that might require reprint permission and notifies the author or publisher accordingly.

A good editor is tactful but firm - and confident.

3. An editor has a strong work ethic
By the time a manuscript is ready to be edited, time and money are at stake.

Therefore, an editor should:

· accept only projects she or he can handle

· be prepared to fulfill contracts and honour agreements

· keep the author and publisher on track and focused regarding deadlines, decisions about style and so on

· meet deadlines, without fail

· be available to meet with the author and publisher, and show up for appointments.

A good editor has what the Conference Board of Canada calls "employability skills."

4. An editor is a good human being
An editor's job is to assess the manuscript and provide honest and objective feedback. Only a good human being can handle this delicate task effectively. After all, writing entails a significant amount of sweat and tears. Also, since writing is intensely personal - whether it's fiction or non-fiction - publishing one's writing involves a great emotional risk.

If an editor has to give a bad report card, the message must be delivered in the gentlest and most humane way possible.

A good editor is ethical, caring, warm and approachable.

5. An editor knows the English language and the publishing process
I have deliberately placed knowledge of English towards the end of my list although many would expect it to come first. It goes without saying that an editor understands all aspects of grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and the nuances of communication and clear expression.

6. An editor knows when to stop editing*
Some reasons for stopping are practical:

· There's no more time, money and/or energy.

· Only a certain amount of effort is justifiable because the piece has a limited shelf life and/or audience. (A community newspaper isn't the same as a novel that has the potential to win a Governor General's award.)

Other reasons are more subtle:

· The author's voice will be lost if anyone, including the author, plays with the manuscript any more.

· Both the editor and the author are past caring.

A good editor knows that there's no such thing as a perfect book.

* Lenore d'Anjou suggested this sixth measure. Lenore, an award-winning editor from Toronto, is an honorary life member of the Editors' Association of Canada.

Anita Jenkins, a freelance editor and writer in Edmonton, is co-editor of Active Voice, the national newsletter of the Editor's Association of Canada.

This article originally appeared in Sources #41, Winter 1998.

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