The 11 qualities of highly paid, ultra-valuable editors

Image: Anton Graff via Google Cultural Institute

Some editors get paid $40 per hour. Others charge $400 — and their clients are glad to pay it.

What could an editor possibly do to be worth this much?

An ultra-valuable editor is a writer’s essential partner, enabling writers not just to accomplish their goals, but to become better writers. To be an editor like that, you need to be part therapist, part writing wizard, part polymath, and totally devoted. Here are the 11 essential qualities that make an editor wickedly valuable:

1. Know the exact level at which to apply insight

An editor, faced with a document, must know which problems to work on. Is the main idea flabby? Is the structure wrong? Are the examples ill-chosen or the arguments weak? A good editor can work to solve problems at all of these levels. A great editor can review a document and know just where to apply insight to move the project forward — and where to leave well enough alone.

2. Have a broad and expanding scope of knowledge

Some people can only edit, say, software documentation or medical research. More valuable editors can edit a manuscript on politics, on business strategy, or on tax advice, pulling from a wide variety of experiences to understand the material and the readers. To attain this flexibility, high value editors read widely and review material at the edges of their knowledge to expand their comfort zones. A broadly experienced editor might bring a knowledge of statistics, Asian culture, and mobile technology to a single piece of writing, a rare set of skills that’s worth paying extra for.

3. Understand the psychology of writers

Writers need love, sympathy, honesty, and toughness. A good writer is at any moment both egotistical and insecure. A great editor recognizes and articulates the positive qualities of the writer, not just the writing, and shows the writer how suggested improvements will enable the writing to reach its full and glorious potential.

4. Respect high-value writers

People who pay for the most valuable editors are valuable themselves. That means editors must respect their ideas and their time. Like an executive coach, a great editor demonstrates respect by offering critiques, rather than criticism.

5. Improve writers, not just documents

Normal editors improve documents. A great editor sees, not just the document, but the flaws in the writing technique. Every editing session becomes an opportunity for the writer to become smarter and better, not just in the next draft, but in every subsequent piece of writing.

6. Be fluent with ideas

All editors work with words. Terrific editors work with ideas. They approach writers’ ideas as an ad agency might analyze a client’s business, determining what’s striking and differentiated and how to talk about it. To collaborate at the conceptual level you must bring not just a love of ideas but a quest to find a new perspective on them.

7. Be adept with varied formats

Do you edit books? Instructions? Ad copy? Tweets? A flexible editor knows the subtle ways in which the same concept must shift in response to the container that holds it and the conversations it will generate.

8. Understand the poetry of words

Words make sounds in the reader’s mind. A skilled writer mixes short and long sentences, abstract and palpable words, metaphors and punctuation to create a melody in the mind’s ear. Repetition can be a technique or a mistake, depending on the context. When you can edit for sound, not just for meaning, you’re adding value at a higher level.

9. Know all the rules of language

Copy editors don’t get $400 an hour. But if you’re going to edit words, you have to have an expansive vocabulary and know about Oxford commas, which vs. that, when to use “like” and when to use “such as,” and the relative value of dashes and semicolons. Plus, you really ought to be able to spell. That’s what enables you and your writer to produce clean copy for the copy editor and to fight back when the copy editor makes a persnickety comment that would ruin things. (It also allows you act as a substitute for a copy editor when there’s no time to wait for one.)

10. Preserve the author’s voice

While great editors are great writers, they know better than to turn all writers into copies of themselves. A skilled editor can make authors sound like themselves, only better.

11. Work fast

If you can do all this, you’re valuable. If you can do it all and do it quickly, you’re priceless. Turn ten or twelve pages like this around in a day and you’ll rapidly find writers addicted to working with you.

These are my aspirations

I love working with writers. Most analysts would consider “editor” as a step down. For me, it keeps getting better.

Do you need an editor like this? I’d love to hear from you.



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  1. Early in my graphic design career, I had the pleasure of working in an office with 5 editors. Two of them also wrote, but by and large they identified themselves as editors. To varying degrees, they all reflected the qualities that you mention. I would write my own copy for ads and brochures and give it to the editors for feedback. Every revision, correction and suggestion returned to me always had the effect of making me look like I knew what I was doing. Even though today I still suck at writing, I suck considerably less than I would have had I not been raised by editors.

  2. Great article! I’ve shared it in a couple of forums already. I’m a bit confused by your use of “facile.” Could you clarify your intended meaning?

      1. Then “adept” would have been a better word to use – I’m sure you didn’t mean to say an editor’s approach to ideas and formats should be superficial.

        1. I take both words and connotations very seriously, so I looked into this usage question for facile.

          While there is a definition of facile that reads “used or comprehended with ease,” the connotation of shallow and simplistic is more common. Because of that, anyone reading my post could easily get the wrong impression.

          In other words, you’re right. Everybody needs a good editor, including me. So I’m fixing it.