The Truth About Editors

Cartoon from "What I Am Not Supposed to Say About Literary Journals Until I am Famous"
Cartoon from “What I Am Not Supposed to Say About Literary Journals Until I am Famous”

Every aspiring writer knows that an unspeakable horror tempers the triumph of getting published. Like a monster crouching at the other end of your inbox, the Editor is waiting to disembowel your work and publish it with the blood still seeping from your amputated sentences, the bones of your paragraphs broken and reset.

But after working with close to thirty different editors in the past six years, I know the truth: working with editors doesn’t have to be a lifelong march to the chopping block. It should be an indispensable meeting of the minds.

Of course, just as with any field, you have your bad eggs. A mentor of mine in the communications realm recently helped me understand one reason that some editors are better than others. In our field, the natural-seeming career progression is not necessarily to get better at writing and write for more prestigious venues, but to go from writing to editing.

While writing and editing are similar in many ways, editing requires its own set of skills: just because you can write doesn’t mean you can be a good editor.

Many writers know that terrible moment when your words have been well and truly butchered by someone without taste, apparent grammatical skills or attention to the facts. But because we obsess over the bad moments rather than the good ones, an army of excellent editors goes unsung because of the tyrannies of a few.

Not counting pieces on this blog or pieces written for copywriting clients, I have published well over 100 articles so far this year, and most of those were markedly improved by my editors. I almost always say a little prayer of thanks for how well the editor has tightened flabby sentences, cut out extraneous information and reorganized things for a better flow.

That doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer (many of these judgments are highly subjective). It just means that writing for publication is not a solitary pursuit. Plus, repeat after me: you cannot proofread your own work with a 100% success rate. (Granted, a lot of editors can’t proofread perfectly either, but between the two of you, things come out ok.)

In my experience, the best editors have a crucial combination of talents, many of which have nothing to do with language skills.

They understand that to edit can be to take someone else’s ego (or his or her trembling heart) in their hands. At this point in my career, I never mind hearing that a piece needs edits (a better lede, an extra source, a different focus, etc), as long as an editor can properly communicate the need for revisions.

But I bristle when editors ask for changes with comments that are indistinct, dismissive or disparaging, instead of speaking with clarity and courtesy. It’s also annoying when editors fail to communicate problems in an honest and timely fashion.

Once, an editor asked me for a rewrite of an assigned magazine feature, then decided to kill the piece (not publish it) after I worked hard on a second draft. But the editor didn’t inform me of that decision until several weeks later, when I followed up to ask if the revisions had met her needs.

Nobody likes having a piece killed, but in this case, what really got my goat was the editor’s awkward silence.  This is not just matter of ego, but a matter of my bottom line: now, instead of getting paid for the article, I would be paid only a kill fee, and I hadn’t known a thing about it.

Good editors also know that editing is not rewriting: it’s the art of making the writer’s voice as good as it can be. Maybe other writers are more easygoing, but I can’t abide editors who add allusions, descriptions or references to my work to reflect their own style and experiences over mine.

For example, I had an editor once who would drop his own adjectives into my reviews. How did he know what I was trying to describe—was he there? Another would add outdated cultural, political or historical references to the work that altered the intended ethos. The allusions he chose were often outside of my own cultural lexicon—so how could I have written them?

Another sign of an editor you don’t want is unsolicited conversations that go beyond the quality of the writing and into your personal life—like comments about how your age, sex or marital status reflect on your work. I once published an essay about marriage, only to have my editor say afterward that maybe I shouldn’t have written the piece in the first place, because he’ll laugh if I ever end up divorced.

But vexing as they are, none of these situations are going to sink your career. And I’d much rather reflect on the remarkable ways that some editors cope in the 21st-century world—all while keeping their sense of humor intact.

I know I said that being a good writer does not necessarily make you a good editor, but I should add that some of the best editors have been freelance writers themselves, which means they understand the life. They know what it’s like when your payments are late. They understand that the piece you happen to be writing for them is not your only project, since you work with multiple publications or clients to stay afloat. They enact fair policies about republication rights. In return, I strive to give them high-quality work on deadline every time.

My career didn’t begin until 2006, so the digital-dominated freelance world that everyone blames for the death of journalism is all I know. But I bet editors of the past didn’t have to cope with everything that editors today have to.

Today, my favorite editors help me to develop my ideas and then sharpen my text afterward, keep track of all my assignments as well as those for twenty other freelancers, check facts, maintain sprawling CMS’s, handle social media, keep an eye on online comment threads, write their own content when needed, answer all my calls and e-mails, stay a step ahead of the news cycle, and manage the invoicing that gets their writers paid more or less on time.  And all that is just what I know from my side of the fence.

I bet any editor worth his or her salt would probably tell you that the job is about managing people as much as it is managing content. And the ones who fail at the former, even though they may be brilliant writers themselves, are the ones who traumatize the rest of us. So I’ll raise a glass to the hard-working, multi-talented editors who make my career possible.

What do you think? Are you an editor who has tips for writers? Or a writer who has tips for editors? Let’s hear your stories in the comments.

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11 Comments

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  1. I love the first paragraph with the amputated sentences description. I think editors fall into two categories: those who can edit the mechanics of a piece and live with red pens in their heads, and those who can edit for content. Someone with both of these skills and an added dash of kindness in conveying editorial improvements would be the best.
    The funniest editor story I ever heard was about a writer who was obsessed about her editor’s actions. Every time her work was being critiqued, he took out a little piece of paper from his suit pocket and looked at it. Finally one day he left his coat on his chair and she snuck into his office and checked the pocket. The paper said…
    “i” before “e” except after “c”. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the insightful post. I agree that a knowledgeable and candid editor is crucial to a writer’s success.

  3. What a timely post for me! I just “auditioned” an editor (they test-edited the first three chapters of a novel I’m working on) and I was appalled at the extent to which they over-edited. I mean, there wasn’t a single sentence in the entire ms that they didn’t rewrite in some way, and they made suggestions for changes that showed they clearly didn’t understand the premise of the story. I’ve never had that experience before. Up until this point the editors I’ve worked with have been thoughtful in their criticism, knowledgeable in their corrections, and right about every change they suggested, but without feeling the need to reword my prose. This editor not only rewrote, many of the rewrites were in direct contradiction of everything I’ve learned about the craft of writing: they added -ly adverbs, combined sentences to the point where there was too much action in one sentence, broke up sentences where I had written them for deliberate pacing reasons. It was a red-pen nightmare! So I thanked them very much for their time, but let them know we weren’t a good match to work together.

    It all makes me grateful that, as a novelist and an indie writer at that, I can choose an editor that “gets” me and my style and who trusts my writing enough to edit without rewriting. I don’t know how you can stand being stuck with editors who don’t know what they’re doing without the option of saying no!

    • Yes, to a writer, there are few things more painful than an editor who mistakes rewriting for editing. If an editor wants to work with me, I assume he or she likes something about my voice, style or content. So why then would the editor butcher the qualities that make the piece mine? Fortunately, as a freelancer who never relies too much on one income stream, I’m not stuck with editors who don’t “get” me. When I run into trouble that I decide is not worth it, I can politely bow out in favor of other gigs. To get to that point does take a lot of work on the ol’ career, and it’s always scary to the freelancer to let go of any source of income, but it’s worth it if the editorial relationship (or lack thereof) is really stressing you out.

      Sorry about your bad experience with the novel draft. I hope you can get an editor who’s a better fit for your book!

  4. Having been on both sides of the fence, I think that every editor should have to be a freelancer at least once. If I ever go back to being an editor, I’d be a lot more conscientious about answering pitches in a timely fashion. If you’re not going to use it, thank the writer so he or she can move on with their lives (and pitch). There’s nothing worse than sitting on a query because you haven’t heard from an editor. (ESPECIALLY true if it’s a kill scenario. That stinks.)

    • Great point about the pitches. It’s so irritating when you go to the trouble of making a good pitch, and an editor lets it fall off the radar. If you don’t want the story, that’s fine; somebody else might. But tell me one way or the other, especially if I already have written for you and we have that relationship. Thanks for weighing in! [Note to readers: Lindsay is one of my former editors.]

  5. I, too, have had some awful experiences, but right now I’m lucky enough to be working with some great editors. Hope my current run of luck lasts.

  6. can an editor afford to be a critic

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