Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tip for the Day: Working with an Editor

My friend Darrell Laurant, a newly-minted novelist and veteran journalist, asked me the other day to contribute suggestions on how to work with a magazine (or other publications) editor for a piece he is writing. Actually, he asked for me to list the things that piss me off. But I didn't want to do it that way, so I simply constructed 10 rules for working effectively with an editor.

Any of you out there who have anything to add or who disagree with any of these, let me know. I'd love to hear about it. Here they are:

Rule No. 1 for writers: There is not an "editor." There are "editors." They are as different from each other as writers or truck drivers or stock brokers or lawyers or waiters are. Each has a personality, a philosophy and a publication that harnesses her personal and professional skills to meet specific goals of the company.

Editors don't usually mangle your copy because they are rotten people. They do what the company requires and what their experience tells them is best for their publications. I was an editor for 30 years before getting out of the management/ownership end of the magazine business and becoming a freelance writer again. I found a world that was unfamiliar and a little scary. I had forgotten what I knew: some editors and publications are difficult. I had to adjust. To each one.

The 10 tips: 1.

Turn in clean, correct copy. Typos and incorrect information will get you sent to the woodshed. People's names MUST BE SPELLED CORRECTLY. There simply no acceptable excuses for a misspelled name.

2. Turn your work in on time. Early is good, but I have discovered that you can be too early (I tend to work fast and that has been a problem). If you are 20 percent early, depending on the publication, you're on the money and the editor will remember that when assigning again.

3. Be certain the assignment is clear up front because you will have to re-write, otherwise. If you can get the assignment in writing (I always did that as an editor), all the better. I often have a back-and-forth with the editor if something is not clear. Sometimes the editor doesn't know what she wants--or doesn't want--until she gets it. That can be maddening and creates extra work. If you are secure with that publication, tack on a surcharge if there is extra work.

4. Offer opinions and options if you have special expertise in a topic. Editors are generalists and, as such, are pretty smart. But they can't be expert in everything they assign. Your help is welcome to a good editor and it will put you in good stead.

5. Suggest, but do not argue. Editors often get instructions from executive offices to have a story done a certain way. If your suggestion countermands that, she will reject it. The rejection is not personal.
6. Be certain you know the publication's style before you decide that your personal style is acceptable. You need to be able to write the same story several different ways. Find the one that works best for the specific publication. That means you have to be familiar with the publication. For example, if you are asked to write a personal profile, see how that has been formatted and published in the past and replicate it.

7. Editors are busy--so busy sometimes that they miss important information, ignore important questions, fail to return phone calls and e-mails. Don't let those failures interfere with the quality of your story. Call or e-mail until you reach the editor if you have a question that will affect the accuracy or quality of your story. That is essential and if she's too busy, call her anyway. But don't call/e-mail for every little detail. You're being paid to make decisions. Make them.

8. When you turn your copy in, it is no longer yours. Accept that and let it go. Some editors will mangle it; others will treat it with great respect. Determine what your limit is on changes and make your decision on whom you want to work for based on that limit. It doesn't do anybody any good for you to pitch a fit over changes, though it is required that you stand up for the facts and that you fight to keep the editor from making your journalism a piece of shill for an advertiser.

9. Be certain that you get writers guidelines if the publication offers them. If not, ask what the publication's policy is on pre-press review. Having the subject of a piece read it before publication is standard procedure for some publications, is absolutely forbidden by others and sometimes it is inconsistently applied. Get it clear. Some subjects will not talk to you unless you agree to a review before publication. Tell your editor that and let her deal with it. She will make the decision and you will be in the clear.

10. Remember always that you are representing the publication that is paying you for your work. Dress well, be respectful and write your story with truth, not just with fact. If you are having trouble finding the truth, talk to the editor and get some guidance. Whenever you have an important question about anything having to do with a specific work, talk to the editor. She makes the decisions. Accept that, embrace it and get to writing.

(Photos: Getty Images,,,

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