Both Sides of the Fence: What I Learned about Writing by Being an Editor

By Dawn Allcot

I just submitted a story to a trade magazine. This is nothing unusual for a freelance writer. It’s even less unusual since I regularly contribute to this publication.

Seconds later, in my mailbox, a manuscript appears. Not mine, thankfully. (Getting your manuscripts returned, even via e-mail—especially via e-mail—is bad.) This is an unsolicited story from a talented writer who hopes to be published in my magazine.

Call it “editor karma.” Here’s how it works: I submit my story, hopefully making my editor’s morning as she crosses one more story off her editorial map. I get a nice, 1,500-word story that fills a hole I thought I was going to go to sleep worrying about.

Such is the life of a magazine editor by day, freelance writer at night.

Sometimes, I get jealous of my freelancers. I spend eight hours a day cleaning up their run-on sentences, grammatical faux pas, and sloppy fact-checking while their names go in the magazine and I get nothing but a bi-weekly paycheck for my toils.

Sure, I’m “the editor-in-chief.” That just means when something goes wrong, I get to field the nasty phone calls.

Erika-Marie Geiss, editor-in-chief of theWAHMmagazine, straddles the editor-writer fence, too. “Wearing both hats—that of one who reviews submissions and queries and that of one who sends them—gives me a new appreciation for an editor’s job,” she says. “I know from the post-acceptance point-of-view that presenting well-organized copy is crucial!”

Geiss, who is far less cynical than I am about editing, highlights the importance of following writers’ guidelines, just one of many lessons of freelancing hammered home by her experience as an editor.

“As a freelancer, I’ve always known it is good etiquette to do so,” she says. “In developing theWAHMmagazine, I discovered first-hand that editors have some very specific reasons for why they want to receive submissions in a certain way. Paying attention to guidelines is very important. When someone writes something that is ‘spot on,’ but they didn’t follow the basic rules, the editor is faced with a tough decision. Do I accept the submission anyway, or do I not consider it because this person can’t follow directions?”

What Editors Want

Editors can be picky, but we have good reasons for it. We are not simply intoxicated with the power of doling out rejections and assignments; editors want the best content for our publication. We determine pay rates not by whimsy, but with a desperate desire to stay within our budgets. When we request a specific slant for an article or set a word length, we have our motivations.

And when we send a friendly e-mail asking, “How’s the story coming?” we are hoping that you plan to submit it any second—probably because we have an anxious art department asking us the same question!

I learned all this as an editor, before I started making anything close to a living as a freelance writer. Here are some other trade secrets:

Longer is better than shorter—unless the editor says it’s not.

Concerned that I was consistently submitting stories 100 to 300 words over the assigned word length for one publication, I asked one of my editors if this was a problem. “We’re more concerned about the writers who turn in 800 words for a 1,200 word piece, and you can tell they didn’t put the necessary work into the article,” he said.

Speaking from experience, it’s easier to tighten a story of 1,200 words down to a 1,000-word article, drop a photo, or even stretch the story to an additional page than it is to fill a page when a story falls short of the projected length.

Freelance writers and editors agree that “on target” is best—within about 10 percent of the expected length—and that writers should do everything they can to hit that target. But when you can’t (especially with magazines, which are a bit more flexible with space than newspapers), longer is better than shorter.

Give editors what they want—not (necessarily) the story you want to write.

Editors get paid to come up with ideas. We know our audience, and we know what’s been covered in the recent past, as well as the angles our competitors have covered. If an editor gives you an assignment, use the sources recommended and cover the points the editor has asked you to cover.

You may have a different angle in mind or a similar idea that you think is better, but—at least for now—the editor wants to print the story he assigned you to write. That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative in your execution of the article, but make sure you’re giving the editor what he asked for. The article might be scheduled to appear in a special themed issue, or it could have been a story requested by several readers, or even a topic tailored toward advertising interests.

If you find a compelling reason not to follow the editor’s suggestions for an article, tell the editor as soon as possible. Your idea may very well be better, but the editor doesn’t want to find out the day before deadline that you are not submitting the piece he expected. You can pitch your idea as a follow up, but an assignment is an assignment for a reason.

Do the legwork.

If you’ve agreed to provide photos for a piece, do so (in the format the editor requested).

If an editor wants a list of sources, provide it.

“Legwork” also includes fact-checking your article. If anything seems unusual but you have confirmed it is correct, point it out to the editor. You’ll save the editor some time, and she will look kindly on you when it comes to doling out assignments for the next issue.

You are not the only contributor.

This realization manifests in many ways: patience after submitting an article, politeness when following up, and providing as many identifying details as you can when approaching an editor you’ve only worked with a few times.

“Patience is a virtue,” Geiss advises. “Don’t fret if you don’t get an immediate response. It takes time to read submissions and make decisions.”

If you’re a freelancer following up on a submission after a reasonable amount of time, give the editor as much information as you can to make it easy for her to remember your submission. An e-mail asking: “Did you get my submission? Signed, Joe” can frustrate an editor on deadline.

Include the name of the article, date submitted, and your first and last name. Editors assign dozens of stories a month; don’t be offended if we don’t immediately remember which article we assigned to you.

Always include your contact information on submissions, too. I don’t care how well I know you. The office gets crazy around deadline time, and the less information I have to look up or double-check, the easier my job is. Editors love (and hire) writers who make our jobs easier.

Learn, learn, learn

I often find myself correcting the same mistakes—in style or formatting—from the same writers, time after time.

When your article hits the newsstands, take a few moments to bask in the glory of seeing your byline and story in print. Call your friends. Do the happy dance.

Then read the published version and compare it to your submitted piece. Analyze any changes the editor made, and think about why he may have made those changes. Each publication has its own style and voice, and the better you can adopt that voice in your articles, the more assignments you’ll earn from that magazine. Editors are at the mercy of the accounting department, too.

The editor is your first point-of-contact when it comes to payment issues. But very rarely does the editor actually cut your check. In fact, they probably have as little control as you do over when the accounting department decides to settle invoices.

If a magazine is late with your payment, inquire politely. The editor may direct you to the accounting department, or she may decide to take care of the situation herself. Either way, angry, accusing e-mails won’t accomplish anything. The editor might be as frustrated as you are with the situation!

Yes, writers deserve to be paid fairly and promptly. Yes, you have every right to try and collect payment. But editors switch jobs, and the editor you alienated because your check was late may just wind up at a publication that pays their bills on time. Too bad she’ll forget the good work you did in the past and just remember you as “the writer with a bad temper.”

I don’t want to pass the buck here (so to speak), but if you’re going to yell at anyone, yell at the accounting department. Although, before you do that, it may be wise to remember that old phrase about bees, honey, and vinegar.

Say thank you.

Editors are people, too. Really. We are. When you find an editor who prints your work, treats you well, and pays promptly (aren’t those the traits that make up the perfect editor?), take time to say thank you! Editors are busy—everyone’s busy these days—but no one is ever too busy to read a note of appreciation.

Not to toot our own horns, but editors who moonlight as writers often make the best clients for freelancers. We understand how writers pour their hearts into every submission; we know how they toil over word choices; we realize that prompt payments can mean the difference between living on Ramen or buying a roast.

“When it comes to responding to queries, I try to respond in ways I’d like to be treated by editors—despite being busy,” Geiss says. “I don’t think that being a busy editor gives someone license to be disrespectful or “holier-than-thou.’”

While editors who write tend to treat our freelancers well, it also means we set high standards. We expect to be treated by our writers the same way we treat our own editors. Editors and writers, really, are not that different, after all.

Dawn Allcot is a full-time freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of RECON, the Magazine of Woods Paintball. Her blog, It Had to Be Said, covers her life as a writer and her rants as a New Yorker. Dawn lives on Long Island with her husband and four cats. You can find her at Alcott Media.

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.

This is Your Editor Calling

By Karyn Langhorne

“Karyn?”

She sounded young. Really young. I took a deep breath, and answered, hoping I didn’t sound old. Really old.

“I’m Selina . . . and I’m going to be your editor on this project. First let me tell how much I loved your book.’

She might be young, but she was certainly smart. Anyone who loves my book has to be smart. As well as attractive, intuitive, talented, articulate, engaging, educated . . .

For me (and I suspect for most of us), one of the drawbacks of becoming a writer is that I’ve become very familiar with rejection. Before December 2003, I had heard “no” so many times, I’d begun to believe that the whole world hated me and my writing and that the only reason I kept doing it was because I was either too pigheaded, or too stupid to stop. Hearing someone say something NICE about my writing immediately turned me to mush.

When Selina told me she loved my book, I started grinning so wide my daughter could see the gleam of my teeth in the playroom two floors below. And if hearing her praises for A Personal Matter wasn’t enough, Selina, smart woman that she is, followed up her advantage by asking, “Tell me about the new one.”

I’m pretty smart myself (or at least I like to think so), but that question made all of my intelligent questions about what it would be like to work with the publisher, what my new editor expected of me, what I should expect of her—you know, IMPORTANT stuff — go straight out my mental window.

She wanted to hear about the new project. She wanted talk about my writing!

No one ever wants to hear about my writing. No, that’s not exactly true. Friends and family ask, and they don’t mind hearing a short answer like “Fine” or “Working on something new.” But beyond that, their eyes glaze over and they start looking at me with the same look people give computer geeks and the desperately intoxicated. Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about, like you’ve never gotten the look. Until you’re as successful as Nora Roberts, John Grisham or Steven King, every writer gets the look. The look that says: That’s enough already. The look that says: You’re over your limit, bub. No more words on that subject for you.

Of course, if you become a really successful writer, people want to hear you talk about your writing all the time . . . as if you know some magic secret that changes crummy words to great ones, that performs alchemy that converts the worst of ideas into best-selling novels. When you become a best-selling novelist, people will flock to hear you talk about your writing in the hopes that you might share the magic with them and then they too could live the life of fame and fortune —

But I digress.

Selina wanted to hear about my writing. And she actually listened while I tried to explain my new and not quite completed project. She actually asked questions about it. Wow, I thought, still talking a mile a minute about possible directions for the story line, similar novels already on the market, etc. I like her. I like her a lot.

I was so busy talking and liking that I almost missed what she was saying. Which turned out to be something about a revision letter.

“Revision letter?” I repeated, reconciling the words “loved your book” and “revisions” in my brain. “What’s that?”

The revision letter, Selina patiently explained, outlines the changes the publisher feels are necessary. In a week or so, she would send me said letter, along with my complete manuscript. I would make the changes and send them back to her.

“Since we’re on an accelerated schedule,” she told me cheerfully. “You’ll have about thirty days. I’m sure that won’t be a problem,” she adds. “Your work is so strong, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble with the revisions.”

Did you catch that? Did I say Selina is smart?

“Mostly you’ll need to cut it a little,” she continued.

“How much?” I asked, mentally imagining a little tightening here, tinkering there.

“Eighty pages,” she replied with that same bright, youthful energy.

The manuscript as submitted was 487 pages. Eighty pages is like . . . I do some quick math . . . 20% of the book.

“But that won’t be a problem for someone as talented as you, I’m sure,” Selina keeps right on going as if there isn’t a long silence at the other end of the line. And now I’m trapped by my own love of compliments.

“No,” I say, hoping that I sound neither old, nor ignorant, nor scared to death—and feeling every one of them. “That won’t be a problem.”

We hung up shortly after that. Reluctantly, I turned to my computer, opening the file named “A PERSONAL MATTER-final.doc” watching 487 pages load into my word processing program.

Final document? Apparently not.

Next Month: Selina’s Side of the Story. My editor has kindly offered to write next month’s column, sharing with AbsoluteWrite readers what she was looking for, why she chooses the manuscripts she chooses, what I did right in getting her attention (and wrong) and how other writers can put their best foot forward in getting published.

Karyn Langhorne Folan is a “recovering” lawyer and a long time writer, with over 25 books so far. She’s  written for the groundbreaking educational novel series, Bluford High as well as an exciting line of post-apocalyptic fiction called Ashes, Ashes. Karyn Langhorne Folan has a Website.