“‘Editing is often not gentle,’ but if there’s an inherent (perhaps essential) violence in editing, it’s largely hidden from the reader,” says Colin Dickey, speaking of ‘The Insect Dialogues’. The book, reviewed on Slate, is a conversation between a writer and his editor.
In a previous position, I was a content director. My job was to lead the content team and edit. However, I’ve been a writer much longer, and after years of working with freelancers, I realized I wanted to be on their side of the transaction. None of this matters except to tell you I am both a writer and and an editor. I have experienced this complex relationship from both sides.
Writer-editor relationships walk a fine line between familiar and professional. They’re built on mutual respect. They’re transactional but also, because they involve something as subjective as writing, deeply personal. The writer must trust the editor’s fresh eyes and insight. The editor must trust the writer’s voice on a deadline.
Communication is frequent but not so frequent it’s annoying. Exchanges are friendly but also direct. An editor must find the “essential violence” needed to make a piece great, and then translate it to useful feedback so as to avoid sending the writer to go cry in their car. The writer must have thick skin.
Like any marriage, there seems to be ample nuances. Here are some tips about how to build and maintain the delicate but essential writer-editor relationship — which starts the moment an editor decides to hire a writer.
Rules for writers
1. Be intentional with communication.
Sometimes editors come in on Monday morning to find 10 emails in their inbox… from the same person. If you have many questions or follow-ups for your editor, send a bulleted list at the end of the day. Consolidate and don’t ask questions you can easily find the answer to on your own.
2. Say thanks.
Your editor could have sent that assignment to anyone. They chose you. Thank them for the opportunity. The best way to do this is by turning in your assignment on time. Check out ClearVoice’s freelance jobs.
3. Don’t fight about revisions.
Every writer from Ernest Hemingway to Maggie Haberman needs an editor. An editor is often the person who must ensure a brand’s voice shows through, which means 99 percent of their feedback is non-negotiable (because the client’s the one paying). Be flexible. Fight for only what is morally or ethically wrong, not about oxford commas.
4. Be your own fact-checker (and proofreader).
Spell everyone’s name correctly. Double-check your facts. Verify your quotes. Some magazines and newspapers still staff fact-checkers, but this responsibility falls largely on the writer these days. There’s a big difference between a proofreader and a managing editor, and although these jobs get jumbled, turn in clean copy on the first draft.
5. Don’t take advantage.
An editor is constantly catching and punting, rearranging and slotting pieces into dates on the editorial calendar. Part of the job is moving stuff around, and they’re prepared to deal with unpredictable writers; be predictable. Be the writer who turns in quality articles on time. If you’re this kind of writer, an editor won’t think twice about granting you an occasional extension.
Rules for editors
1. Be reasonable.
Be conscientious of time. Don’t punish a writer with a rewrite because the client wasn’t clear enough on directions. Advocate for the writer and represent the client. It’s a tall order to do both.
2. Pay on time.
Freelance writing income isn’t quite as consistent as the bi-weekly salary of an editor. Even if writers invoice at the end of a job, they’re often still waiting 30 days before getting paid (unless they work via ClearVoice and get paid upon approval). Consider this before you let invoices sit. Paying promptly is likely to earn some good rapport, which may come in handy when you’re in a pinch and need a writer for a last-minute project.
3. Answer questions (and follow-ups) promptly.
If there’s confusion in the assignment directions, it’s up to the editor to fix it. Writer can’t open the brand guidelines? Troubleshoot with them. Be resourceful. The success of an editor depends on a writer following directions, so editors shouldn’t sit on questions. Answer promptly so a writer can get on with the assignment.
Also, writers absolutely hate following up with their editors about stories, payments, etc. They’re only doing it because they’re pretty sure you’ve forgotten them in your email inbox. See it as a friendly reminder, not a nag.
4. Don’t expect to get out of revisions.
Every piece, no matter how well written needs some changes. Consider a well-rehearsed performer who goes out on stage. Before she steps out there, she has someone helping her behind the curtain — straightening her tie, hair spraying the flyaways and telling her she has lipstick on her teeth. It’s your job to point this stuff out, even in a really good piece.
Be kind to each other
Just like business partners have falling-outs and couples get divorced, writer-editor relationships aren’t always a confetti party. Be kind to each other. Remember you both have a unique job to do and that the relationship is beneficial to both of you.