How To Work With An Editor

I’ve had a lot of really, really good editors in my career. The student news editor at my high school newspaper—not my English teacher!—taught me grammar. My first pro newspaper editor showed me the ropes and guided me away from dozens upon dozens of stupid errors. The fiction editors I’ve worked with recently have strengthened my novels and stories immeasurably; they’re generally always better at pacing and structure than I am. Editors have often been my last, best line of defense against improperly-attributed quotes, wonky sentences, and improper science. One caught a plot hole that would have completely destroyed a thoroughline in my story, even though the story had already been through eight beta-readers. Another saved my journalism career by noting I’d misattributed a quote by accident.

I wouldn’t be where I am without them—but it took a little while to be able to take critique without feeling like I was simply the worst writer in the room, if not in the history of the world. (I wasn’t. You’re not, either.)

Here are my top few pieces of advice for working with an editor.

Your editor is on your team—even if sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. Don’t take critique personally.

Your editor’s name doesn’t go in the byline, but whether you’re writing a short article or a long novel, their reputation is still on the line. Sloppy work reflects not only on the writer, but on the editor, and in some industries, that reflects a lot on raises and promotions. It might feel adversarial when they sit you down and tell you exactly what you did wrong—usually, when another human does that, they don’t like you, right?—but that couldn’t be further from the case.

It takes a little while to learn how to take critique without feeling like you’re the worst writer in the room, but if you see the editor as part of your strategy for success—as part of your street team—you’ll find it easier to take that critique. Your editor wants you to succeed as much as you do, so buckle up, put a lid on your pride, and take notes when she’s telling you the scene you labored on for a week might need to go. S

Sometimes, it’s fine can to no to an editor’s suggestions.

You can absolutely speak up if you think an editor is off-base. An editor isn’t an all-knowing deity, after all, and they’ve spent zero time in your head. However, before you put your foot down, consider that an editor haring off to the left when you were heading to the right is a sign of a passage that isn’t clear enough, or a theory or thesis that doesn’t have enough data. Instead of going straight to “you’re wrong,” ask the editor why they made that suggestion. You might learn something that turns your whole story around.

If you really feel that the editor isn’t getting it, bring it up to your editor, politely. Make it a conversation between equals, not an accusation—you never know what kind of new things you’ll discover about your project while the two of you hash it out.

In journalism, it might feel different—your editor is your direct boss, so she’s more likely to be in a position where she could affect your job. That’s all right. You should still stand up for your work, especially when reputations are on the line.

Be prepared to do more work.

While it’s always awesome to get a gold star, praise is about 5% of the editor’s job. Push away the rubber stamp and expect rewrites. Some people see rewrites as demoralizing, but I choose to see rewrites as opportunities for magic to enter the room—feedback is your friend! If you’re already prepared for the emotional onslaught that is being told you’re not done with something you’ve labored over for months or perhaps years, that’s half the battle. You can nod, sit down, and start leveling up.

Ask questions and communicate.

Many of us are from cultures where it’s a mortal sin to inconvenience people. We don’t want to bother others with our questions, our emotions, our physical illnesses, our cares—so we keep it all inside.

This is the wrong way to approach a relationship with your editor. Like I said before, your editor has spent zero time in your head. Your editor wants—and expects—you to ask questions when you’re confused and ask for guidance when you’re stuck. It’s much worse of a bother for your editor to deal with a final product that isn’t up to par rather than a few “silly” questions up front. Sometimes an editor might not be clear themselves; sometimes you might need to have them explain something they told you. Whether it’s an e-mail, a phone call, or in-line comments, never be afraid to “bother” your editor with questions and concerns.

Finally, be professional—hit your deadlines.

You are not your editor’s only client. If you miss your deadline, you’re going to mess up your editor’s schedule—they might have to work late, or over a weekend, or they might need to juggle other projects to fit yours in. Not fun. Not only will you throw a crowbar into your editor’s schedule, you’ll severely inconvenience others who are expecting to work on your project, like the marketing and publicity people, and people you don’t even know—your editor’s other authors. That’s no way to win friends and influence people.

If you have trouble hitting your deadlines for whatever reason, giving the editor a heads-up as early as possible is very much appreciated. Before you begin, set expectations that work for everyone.

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Karen Osborne

KAREN OSBORNE is a writer, visual storyteller and violinist. Her short fiction appears in Escape Pod, Robot Dinosaurs, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny and Fireside. She is a member of the DC/MD-based Homespun Ceilidh Band, emcees the Charm City Spec reading series, and once won a major event filmmaking award for taping a Klingon wedding. Her debut novel, Architects of Memory, is forthcoming in 2020 from Tor Books.

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