Why Editors are Not the Enemy

By Mridu Khullar

Editors can be mean, unethical and downright unprofessional. But not all editors fit that bill. In fact, most editors would rather give you money than take it, would rather make no changes than rewrite whole pieces two hours before deadline, and would rather accept a piece than start their mornings sending out rejection slips. But step into an editor’s shoes, and you’ll know why that’s not only hard, it’s just plain impossible!

Here are the most common complaints writers have, and why editors aren’t always guilty of them.

Completely Changing Your Work

An editor I frequently work with was in distress. One of her regulars had just written to complain about his perfectly brilliant beginning being chopped off. “They sometimes don’t get our style,” she told me over lunch. “We need more quotes, we put them in. We need a stronger beginning; we change it. There’s nothing much I can do about it. It’s the way we work.“ But while this editor was very forthcoming about her reasons, and gave the writer an explanation, you’ll usually get no further correspondence. That doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the anguish you go through. But editors have word limits, voice and style limitations, and a dozen other factors to keep in mind. Editors simply don’t have the time to offer explanations to each writer.

Paying Less or Not Paying At All

Most writers believe (or are led to believe) that editors just don’t want to dish out the cash. Sure, if they’re running a small business from home and can hardly pay their bills, they probably won’t. But editors in big offices don’t really care whether you earn $100 or $1,000. After all, they’re not the ones paying from their pockets!

I was in a publisher-editor meeting the other day, and one common concern was raised — why weren’t suppliers (including freelancers) paid on time? A complaint unanimously raised by . . . editors!

An important thing to remember is that while it may appear so to us, editors aren’t really the ones calling the shots all the time. That’s the publisher’s job. So hating the editor’s guts won’t get you anywhere. While some editors may be creeps, most of them are on your side! So, if you want more money, just ask for it. Chances are the editor is the only one who can help you get it.

Not Responding

Editors would love to respond to every query, you know. But there’s only so much they can do. And while each e-mail you send will determine where your next paycheck comes from, an editor will get paid regardless of the number of queries rejected. Their job is putting together quality content. No one’s going to promote them for being nice to freelancers. It’s a simple matter of priorities. And when the choice is between finishing up the issue and answering yet another freelancer’s query, get real — editors will finish up and go home.

Killing Articles

We tossed a coin. The losing editor would have to tell the freelance writer that his article had been killed. That, too, after we asked him to send us a dozen writing samples, come up with a dozen off-beat ideas, get a feel of our style, and send us a 600-word piece. We’d even negotiated the price. It would have taken him at least a day’s work, if not more. We felt cruel, but decided that the guy had potential for future assignments.

I lost the toss and sat down to draft the e-mail. I explained at length how our policies had changed, told him that we’d be willing to give more assignments, and even added a touch of humor. But the writer was obviously blinded. He thought of me as the devil. And by doing so, he’d just lost a perfectly good opportunity for more assignments.

Editors aren’t out to take advantage of freelancers or make their lives miserable. In fact, if you get to know them a little, you’ll find that they’re often a very friendly bunch. Stop looking at your editor as the enemy, and you might just find a friend.

Mridu Khulla Relph is based in London and New Delhi. She has written for  The New York Times, TIME, CNN, ABC News, The Independent, Forbes, The CS Monitor, Ms., Elle, Marie Claire, Vogue, Glamour, Cosmo, and more. She has a website, a blog, and has written several books.

The Editor Speaks: I Like This! Have You Thought About Changing It?

By Selina McLemore

“Karyn?”

I bet she thinks I sound young. Really young.

“I’m Selina and I’m going to be your editor on this project.”

I love calling debut authors. I feel like I can really relate to the rush of excitement a new author feels. She’s worked so hard on her manuscript, rewritten it countless times, and finally she’s found someone who also sees all the great qualities it has. And with just a few more changes, it will be perfect.

For a lot of authors, new and experienced, hearing that their work — their baby — still needs tweaking is tough. And to be honest it took me a while to understand why. From my perspective, revisions are a natural part of the process, and to be expected. And after all, I don’t acquire an author if I don’t enjoy his or her work, so why would hearing about ideas to improve it be considered criticism?

But that’s how a lot of new writers view the revision discussion. Suddenly the warm, fuzzy feelings of making your first sale fade and are replaced by doubt: first, Will I really be able to do this? soon to be followed by, Does my editor really know what she’s talking about?

The answer to both questions, by the way, is yes.

I’m not saying editors are beyond error, but our goal is to make your manuscript as strong as we possibly can. And remember, we have some advantages you don’t. For one thing, an editor comes to the book with fresh eyes, just like the reader does. The most common problem I see in debut novels is a lapse in logic that the author, due to her familiarity with the work, can’t see. So a revision I often request is for an author to go back and add in explanation.

In my experience, most authors don’t have a problem when you ask them to write more. Go figure. What they are usually less receptive to is my second most common request, the request I made of Karyn: cut this.

Sometimes it’s a paragraph or a few lines here and there, sometimes it’s a whole character or an entire subplot —  whatever it is, no one likes losing material she’s worked hard on. But the request to cut is not just about making page count. It’s about rhythm, pacing, flow. It’s about making sure descriptive passages don’t dominate the book, taking away from the action. Think of every page as valuable real estate. There’s only so much, so you want to be sure you’re using it in the best way possible.

But if there’s one type of revision that’s even more difficult to discuss than cutting, it’s something I call the audience factor. Publishing is a business, and part of being successful in that business is knowing your audience, what they expect, what they’re looking for, what they’re missing. The audience factor comes in to play a lot when I request revisions to a character. It’s wonderful to have a main character who raises questions and calls on readers to really think about what’s before them. But the catch is that the reader still has to like her. If a reader doesn’t finish the book because the heroine is too abrasive, then her transformation at the end is lost. And if, because that reader didn’t finish the book, she doesn’t recommend it to a friend, you’ve lost another potential fan. Sometimes to get the message across, you have to soften the messenger.

So the lesson is: whatever revisions your editor requests you should immediately do? No. Of course not. But I am saying, pick your battles. Thinking you can avoid any revisions is unrealistic, but if you’re strongly against making a change, say so. No one agrees all the time, and Karyn and I are no exception. But when you keep an open dialogue and trust your editor, the fun of the first call can last through all those to follow —  like when we talk about your copyedits and cover art and publicity plans and galleys and quotes and option material.

Currently an assistant editor at Avon Books, Selina McLemore has worked in women’s fiction for three years. In addition to contemporary romance titles like A Personal Matter, Selina also works with authors who write historical romance and chick lit.

Last month, Karyn Langhorne Folan, the author of A Personal Matter, offered her perspective on working with Selina.

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