While I see myself primarily as a writer (13 books, hundreds of articles and blogs), I also work as an editor and writing coach. As an editor, I rewrite and polish other people’s prose. Like a caring parent, I develop manuscripts from conception to publication and nurture fragile egos. As a writer, I’ve worked with editors who’ve been my trusted word Sherpas. They reorganize, rephrase, and query for additional information.
My experience as scribe and editrix has been a good one, but any relationship can become fraught with tension. The following advice will help you forge a strong, amicable, and productive partnership (with bonus tips for editors, should you ever find yourself on the other side of the margin).
Tip #1: Ask for an editorial letter
You’ve landed the assignment, which puts you at the starting gate. But before you sprint to your laptop, make sure you and your editor are on the same page. Don’t guess based on your pitch or the conversation you had when the editor contacted you. Get it in writing, which includes word count or page length, tone, title (working or otherwise), content, and deadline.
For books, make sure your editor is okay with you following the chapter outline from your proposal, or if she wants to brainstorm other ideas. I can’t tell you how many times my finished book morphed into something different than my original idea, including title changes. The more you hash out and agree on in the beginning, the fewer rewrites you will have to do in the end.
Tip #2: Be nice
An editor’s inbox is filled with pitches, and most have a large stable of writers. If this is your first time with an editor, you’re more likely to get repeat assignments if you are easy to work with. Thank the editors for their notes, even if you don’t agree with all of them, and if you’re working on a book, give them a shout out on the acknowledgment page.
Tip #3: Spellcheck, proofread, reference
My eyes have been known to auto-correct typos when proofreading my own work. To compensate I ask someone to look over my copy before submitting it to the editor. Print out the article or manuscript, because it’s easier to proofread on the page than on the screen. Don’t forget to spell check and go over the suggested changes; AI is fallible, and it can’t correct unusually spelled names.
Verify your quotes. Include references. Double-check your facts. Some publications have fact-checkers, but this responsibility falls largely on the writer nowadays. The more work you do for the editor, the more you will be appreciated. Plus, submitting sloppy drafts is unprofessional.
Tip #4: Make your deadline
If you see that you’re not going to make your deadline, let the editor know as early as possible. This way the publisher can adjust issue or release dates. Missing deadlines is one of the deadly sins of journalism. Fiction writers get more of a pass, but you don’t want to be thought of as flaky or unreliable.
Tip #5: Develop a thick skin
Writing is editing, a credo that I tell my clients and students. Every piece, no matter how well written, requires some changes. This is where the writer and editor should have a meeting of the minds. Both want the best possible finished product, so don’t take it personally or whine when you’re asked to rewrite. Ideally you should have the number of revisions you are willing to do in the contract or agreement, after which you will get additional money.
Bonus Editor Tips
The writer-editor relationship is a two-way street. If you’re like me and also do some editing, these tips will help you build a roster of writers you can depend upon.
- Be nice. It’s frustrating to get copy from a writer that is confusing or ungrammatical. Take a deep breath and try not to vent by saying things like: “This is not an English sentence.” Always start with the positive. “I like your description here, and I see where you were going, but I think this could be tighter and stronger.” Be clear with your criticism, not cruel.
- Set reasonable deadlines. The dirty little secret about deadlines, especially for magazines, is that they’re not always carved in stone. Stuff happens and holes in the schedule need to be filled. If you are editing an “evergreen” article, which means it’s not seasonal or newsworthy (service pieces like this one, for example), give the writer some wiggle room.
Don’t ask for a quick turnaround and then hold the piece long for long after the initial issue date. I had one magazine editor ask for a three-week rush on a 5,000-word article, for which I gave up other paying jobs, only to wait 10 months before the article appeared.
- Pay on time. I can’t stress this one enough. Staffers who get regular paychecks don’t always understand freelance writers can’t eat their words.Many live on the fees they get from assignments or book advances. This is why “payment on acceptance” is far better than the dreaded “payment on publication,” especially when publication dates are delayed.
Whatever the terms, editors should advocate for their writers and make sure the writer is paid in a timely fashion.
- Pay the writer for extra work. Writers are expected to make revisions, but when the article or manuscript is in its fourth rewrite due to arbitrary concept changes from the top of the masthead, compensate the writer for doing the extra work.
- Get a sneak peek. For book editors: Ask the writer to submit several chapter drafts well before the deadline. This will save time in the long run, and prevent moved release dates if you think the writer is heading in the wrong direction
The bottom line is a relationship between writer and editor should never be like an episode of the Real Housewives. Keep your ego in check when conflicts arise, always be respectful, and remember that you’re teammates, not adversaries.