• Advice

On editors, good, bad and otherwise

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I've been writing professionally now for over two decades, and have written for dozens of editors. They have the toughest job in the communications business, are often criminally underpaid, and have to work with "difficult people" who can be insecure, arrogant, defensive, egotistical, and all varieties of neurotic (I mean writers here, of course).

I wouldn't want to become an editor myself, but I've come to deeply admire a few of the great ones I've been fortunate enough to work with. They shall remain nameless, but they know who they are.

Good and bad editors##

That said, editors can be a mixed bag. While a few of them have become personal heroes of mine over the years, others have left much to be desired -- I've met editors who tried to bully me, who ignored me, who don't respect my boundaries, and who are utterly incompetent. One editor used to call me on the phone when I worked a day-job at a bank, asking me to go over revision requests on the spot, even if I was helping a bank customer at the moment. Another would yell at me on the phone if I challenged her judgment. A third took me through eight rounds of revision requests, asking me to undo some of the earlier changes she'd requested, and finally killing the piece because it "didn't quite fit the tone of our publication." Others made large-scale changes to my work without telling me, making my work unrecognizable to me upon publication.

The job of an editor is to represent the publication's needs and the reader's needs. They do this by working with writers, who can be famously difficult. To call editing a thankless job would be understating things. A good editor is part wordsmith, part psychoanalyst, part diplomat, and part priest(ess). A bad editor is far less than worthless: they diminish the writer's function and can even crush a writer's soul.

Yes, editing is a tough job, and many editors have earned my trust and deep respect by doing the job so well and with so much good cheer. On the other hand, some editors, like some writers, are almost impossible to deal with. In my experience, the worst editors don't know the voice or tone they want the writer to achieve, and are just hoping the writer will produce it. When the writer does not, they say something like "this was a good effort, but doesn't quite fit the tone we're looking for. Can you try again?" Every writer will have come across this message and this nightmarish editor at least once. When you do, my advice is to run for the hills.

Good editors

The good editor knows what tone she wants AND can help the writer get there, offering instructions in how to move the story from Point A (wrong tone) to Point B (right tone). The editor who cannot offer clear, actionable directions to the writer, the one who says "this ain't it, please try (and fail) again," is NOT a real editor, in my opinion.

I've worked with the "I don't know what my publication/readers want, but your submission ain't it" editor a few times, and I just end up pulling my hair out, trying to get closer to whatever they might want (they don't know, really). In order to help the publication and reader, an editor must be able to HELP the writer.

Bad editors

The editor who can't help is just someone who assigns work and hopes for the best. I don't want to work with these editors, and when I do find myself working with them, I work my butt off to finish the story and then don't work with them again. They will make your life miserable. Maybe these editors are inexperienced, learning the job, well-intentioned, nice people, etc., but I don't want to work with someone who asks me to do MY job and THEIR job. "Not fair and so sad!," as our tweet-mad president might say.

Writers have responsibility too

The writer-editor relationship is the ultimate two way street. I've heard quite a few writers complaining about editors for daring to suggest revisions to their work. I have no sympathy for these kind of writers, usually telling them some version of "that's the editor's job, and it's YOUR job to work with your editor to serve the reader." You need a thick skin to receive and respond appropriately to editorial requests for revision. Good editors invest tremendous energy in being diplomatic, wording their revision requests in such a way that the writer won't take it personally. The writer who takes it personally isn't doing their job well.

Forcing your editor to tippy-toe around your "amazing" writing makes you a lousy writer. Editors will offer you help, but you need to accept it in the good faith it's given. The writer-editorial relationship is a minefield fraught with danger, but good editors and writers know how to navigate around the mines. When a good editors offers me useful, actionable feedback couched in a diplomatic way, I don't take it personally. I usually send them an email thanking them for all they've done to make the article better -- writers and editors can, and really must, show appreciation for the challenges for the other's job. I also give these good editors my best ideas and my best self, because they allow me to do so. They give me the trust and the space I need to work, and I return the favor. Ultimately, both parties want and need collaboration.

Help good editors help you

When I find a good editor, I try to help develop that person's career. I'll recognize their strengths in email messages and in the respectful way I interact with them. These relationships are profoundly important to good writers, and to good editors too. I've written many recommendations for editors over the years.

A good editor will be promoted, will move to better-paying outlets, and (if the writer invests in the relationship) will often ask the writers if they'd like to come along with them (yes, I would). I've "moved up" the ranks as my editors have moved up. We need to help each other grow, and invest in each other's career development too.

Just as editors don't want to work with writers who don't collaborate well, no matter how skilled they are as wordsmiths, no good writer will want to work with a bad editor, one who's not responsive, who views the writer as a tool and not a person, and who can't help the writer do the job. I suspect that for every writer kvetching about a horrible editor, there's an editor kvetching about a bad writer. I try not to complain about bad editors -- I simply try not to work with them.

Editors can make a writer's life a happy one or a dreary one, but thank goodness we can choose who we want to work with. I've been lucky enough to work for some amazing editors over the last 22 years. They are unsung heroes, knowledgeable, patient, and determined, and I wanted to let them know that writers (the good ones, anyway) really do recognize and appreciate their hard, often thankless work. A good editor is a blessing and a bad one's a curse. I imagine that editors feel the same about us writers.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is a business writer and brand storyteller for B2B brands such as General Electric, ADP, Office Depot, Cintas, the National Center for the Middle Market, and many more. He's also been published in print publications such as the Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle.