What an editor looks for before taking on a project

I love finding a great story, even if it isn’t written well—yet.

DSC_9949 - Version 2 (1)I cannot speak for other editors, but I can tell you quite clearly what I’m looking for as an editor when you submit your work to me.

Let me start by saying, I am not partial to any genre. Everyone asks me “What genres do you edit?”

All of them (except for one).*

I have my personal favorites, but as an editor, I am more interested in what it is you have to say.  You get to pick how you want to say it. Fantasy romance? Great!  Suspenseful thriller? Awesome!  Narrative non-fiction? Excellent!  Workshop curriculum? Outstanding! You choose what to write, and I help you sculpt your prose so it is clear and compelling for your reader.

In other words: edit and proofread what you write so your story or message is not just understood by your reader but also connects with him/her in a compelling way.

Let’s pause for a moment and look at what compelling really means.  Many tend to interchange this term with interesting or exciting or moving.

To compel is to “drive or urge forcefully or irresistibly.”

Are you satisfied if your reader is merely interested in what you have to say? Or would you rather your work be so irresistible that your reader is driven to literal emotion, change, or action? Keep this in mind as you read through this article…

What I look for in fiction works:

1) The story. It doesn’t even have to be a good story because if it isn’t good, then we’ll work on it until it is outstanding. That is what editing is about! However, I should be able to find the story. Within the first 10-20 pages I should have a general idea of what the book is about and who the main players are. Preferably, I’d like to be invested in the characters too, but this element isn’t required as we can work together in developing/defining your characters.

2) Your purpose. I won’t necessarily find this until I reach the end of your work (if I make it that far); however, when we first meet to talk about your story, you should be able to articulate to me why you have poured your heart into this work. What this tells me is that you have written your piece because you have something to say as opposed to written this piece because you want to say something… so you can be published.

Don’t write because you want to be published. Write because you have something to say.

3) Your passion.  You need to believe in your story and its central themes so deeply you cannot help but share them with the world. When you are moved then your reader will also be moved. This starts with me as your editor.  I need to see, hear, and feel your passion when I interact with both you and your prose in order to accept your project. This lets me know that you will work hard, listen to my commentary and advice (doesn’t mean you have to take it, but it means you’ll hear me out and engage in discussion), and be willing learn how to write better.

What I look for in non-fiction:

1) The message. Whether it’s web content, marketing materials, student curriculum, sales letters, a business e-book, a narrative non-fiction, blog post, query letter, synopsis, resume, cover letter, etc., I need to know what it is you need your reader (the customer, the volunteer, the agent, the publisher, the client, the potential client, the student, etc.) to know. I should be able to determine and articulate back to you what your message is for your audience. Again, even if it isn’t written well, help me help you by having a clear idea of what it is you are trying to say.

2) Your purpose. What do you want your reader to do as a result of your message and why? Your message needs to coincide with your desired result. And your audience–starting with me–needs to understand why it is so important they participate in achieving the result. Why does it matter that your reader click on your link? Why should they sign up for your newsletter, service, or volunteer opportunity? Why should your reader consider a new perspective based upon what they learn in your autobiography? Know the “why” behind your message.

3) Your passion.  As I mentioned above, you need to believe in what you are saying to your audience. If you don’t really care, then you cannot expect your audience to care either. Heck, you can’t even expect to build an audience, period. You have to be able to tell me why your message matters so much to you in order to get me on board. I cannot help you share a message that’s driven by ambivalence. If you want your readers to feel compelled to action or change, then you need to feel passionate about what you’re saying.

In both fiction and non-fiction I need to be certain of all three elements in your work before I’m willing to take on your project.

Editing can be an excruciating process wrestling with grammar, developing, rewriting, expanding, cutting, and rearranging, but it won’t feel this way if you:

  • Know what you are saying
  • Understand why you need to say it
  • Have the drive to work the process so you say it well

Everything I do in my work as your editor is anchored in these three elements. It all starts with you. You need to be compelled to write well in order to craft compelling work. If your story or message isn’t good yet, I want to help you craft it to excellence if you are feeling passionate and driven to make it so.  Remember, compelling is a type of verb, friends. It is action-packed!

*Note about fictional genres: The only genre I will not accept is pornography. Erotica? Yes, but the work had better include all the elements of good fiction (characters navigating the twists and turns of story lines, making their way through settings and plots and conflicts and finally ending at some sort of resolution and/or achieving a goal). The sexual tensions and physical sexual encounters should merely enhance the emotional intensity of the story and the dynamics between characters.

Related articles:
Why I am an editor
The Difference between Editing and Proofreading

6 thoughts on “What an editor looks for before taking on a project

  1. andrew

    What great information, I really liked how you organized bullet points for both fiction and non fiction work. You went into depth within each category, and the organization made this normally difficult subject to explain a smooth read. Thank you for taking your time to help your fellow writers!


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