Editors – how to tell the good from the bad

You know the feeling. You took the car to the mechanic, they said they fixed that odd knocking noise, then said a lot of incomprehensible things and took a load of money. But, as you drive away, there’s that nagging feeling: did they really do what they said? The knocking noise is gone but should it really have cost all that?

People have this feeling because they have just purchased a credence good – something with qualities that cannot be observed by the consumer after purchase, making it difficult to assess its utility.

I was introduced to the term by Canadian editor Letitia Henville – who says that editing is a credence service.

And of course it is!

As Letitia says,

Our clients don’t understand our work well enough to be able to assess the quality of one editor or another, nor do they always know why a particular edit makes their text more readable, clear, or effective.

She has good advice for editors on how this insight affects our marketing efforts – notably that a marketing approach that depends on hustling (imposing urgency, implying scarcity, pushing a sell) doesn’t help clients to understand or trust their individual editor or the editing industry at large.

So how to tell if an editor is any good?

I’ve been thinking though: what are the ways that clients can tell if an editor has done a good job, and that they haven’t been cheated? Here’s what I’ve come with:

1. Does the editor belong to any professional associations? What qualifications do they have? What editing work have they done before? If you can’t see this right away in their marketing material, ask them!

2. Do they ask questions about the kind of editing you want? If you don’t understand those questions, are they prepared to answer them?

3. Has the editor given you a timeline, and a date when you can expect the work to be done?

4. Have they given you a proper quote, which you understand and which clearly sets out what you will end up paying?

5. Also: Are they really cheap? If you can, aim for someone who charges a bit more – that indicates that the editor has some experience.

6. Do you feel comfortable talking to your editor? If they make you feel as if you know less than they do, or if you feel as though your work is being destroyed with a teacher’s red pen, then walk way. A good editor can get the job done without judgement.

7. Has the editor set clear boundaries? For instance, have they said how many revisions of the work they are prepared to do? This might sound like a bad thing from the point of view of the customer, but an editor with clear boundaries is likely to be an experienced editor. And that’s what you want.

And when the work is being done:

1. Has the editor asked you anything about the text? Editing jargon for this is “raising queries”. Polite queries and comments are a sign that the editor is engaging with your work, and that they are treating it (and you) respectfully.

2. Has the text actually been changed in ways that make things clearer? Small and subtle changes can be hard to see but a good editor will supply you with ways of seeing what they have done – most often a Word document in which you can see the “Track changes”. If they don’t offer this, be worried (and if you don’t know how Track Changes work, ask them).

3. Has the document been changed so much that you don’t recognise it any more? That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the editor should be able to explain why they changed it so much.

Do I do all of these things? I do. Talk to me if you’d like a quote: Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media).

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Main picture: Mika Baumeister, Unsplash

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