Although I see myself primarily as a writer (13 books, numerous articles and blogs), I’ve also worked 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.
While my experience as scribe and editrix has been a good one, any relationship can become fraught with tension. The following advice will help you forge a strong, amicable, and productive partnership — whatever side of the margin you are on.
Writer Tip: 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.
Editor Tip: Ask for a sneak peek
Ask the writer to submit several chapter drafts well before the deadline. This will save you both time in the long run, and prevent moved release dates if you think the writer is heading in the wrong direction.
Writer Tip: 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 give them a shout out on the acknowledgment page of your book.
Editor Tip: 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.
Writer Tip: 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.
Editor Tip: 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 after the scheduled 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.
Writer Tip: Make your deadline
If you see that you’re not going to make your deadline, let the editor know at least a month in advance. 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.
Editor Tip: 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 can be delayed.
Whatever the terms, editors should advocate for their writers and make sure the writer is paid in a timely fashion. Paying promptly is likely to earn you some goodwill, which may come in handy the next time you need a writer for a last-minute project.
Writer Tip: 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.
Editor Tip: 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 editor-in-chief, compensate the writer for doing the extra work.
The bottom line is a relationship between writer and editor should never be like an episode of the Housewives. Keep your egos in check when conflicts arise, always be respectful, and remember that you’re teammates, not adversaries.