What Writers Want from Editors

By Jack Limpert

In an earlier post, I asked, “How can editors help writers do their best work?” and suggested 10 things:

1. Pay me enough that I feel rewarded for my best efforts.

2. Give me enough time to do the needed reading, reporting, and thinking.

3. Be helpful but give me the freedom to write the story the way I see it.

4. Be reachable if trouble arises.

5. Protect me from others–fact-checkers, sub-editors, accountants, etc.–who make unreasonable demands.

6. Keep me in the loop if big changes are being made to the story.

7. Keep me in the loop on the story’s headline and the types of photos or illustrations that accompany it.

8. Be willing to back me up if there’s controversy when the story comes out.

9. If the story is good enough, give me some notice in any editor’s notes or promotion of the story.

10. If the story is good enough, suggest that I do another one.
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At a recent meeting of city and regional magazine editors, I sat in on a Sunday morning panel discussion that asked three writers—Jason Fagone, Molly Young, and Joseph Guinto—to talk about what editors can and should do better in dealing with writers.

Surprising was how little they talked about the way editors edit and how much they complained about editors being too distant. Some quotes:

“When they turn down a story, you can’t find out why.”

“Editors are conflict avoiders. They won’t tell you why they don’t like a story.”

“One magazine scores your pitches with metrics and standard deviations.”

“I like it when editors give you examples of stories they liked.”

“Writers dream about sitting down with the top editor and talking stories.”

“I’ve never heard a writer complain about too much feedback from editors.”

“Too much e-mail, not enough verbal contact.”

“E-mail moves things along but there’s no substitute for talking.”

“Halfway through your reporting you may hear what the top editor wanted.”

“Editors don’t have much of a bedside manner.”

“I like it when I can throw out lots of ideas and if one of them is stupid that’s okay.”

“It’s a challenge to manage the political process—the editors above the editor you’re working with. Some editors are good at protecting you from the other editors.”

“I wish they’d give me a faster no.”

“They’re not very understanding when I’m late. I’m late because I’m working on three stories.”

“You can work faster if they trust you.”

“I’ve never been told by an editor how the publication’s payment system works, when I’ll get paid.”

“It’d be great if they’d pay half if the story gets held.”

“I lie a lot about how much I need the money. I want them to think I’m successful.”

“When talking about a story, at some publications what the art’s going to be comes first. At New York magazine, what’s the headline comes first. At the New Yorker, the story comes first.”

“Freelancers wouldn’t be freelancers if they were more grown up.”

“I’d love to see psychiatric profiles of the top editors.”
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Some thoughts:

E-mail has improved editor-writer communication. It wasn’t that long ago when manuscripts came in on paper and most communication was by letters and phone calls.

It was easy for a manuscript to get buried on an editor’s desk, the writer would call asking about it, and editors would walk around asking, “Anyone seen a story by so-and-so?” Now stories come in digitally and are easy to share and find.

Manuscripts on paper did have some charm. I learned early that if a story came in on bond paper and was written on an electric typewriter, the writer was an amateur. Real writers didn’t turn in clean manuscripts—they made changes right up to when they mailed the manuscript or dropped it off.

Two kinds of stories are easy for an editor to handle: the really good and the mostly bad. Maybe 10 percent of what I got was good and I quickly told the writer. Another 75 percent was either bad or I knew it wasn’t going to run and it quickly got sent back. (Remember SASE? If writers wanted their manuscripts back, they had to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope with it.)

Maybe 15 percent had possibilities—I admired the reporting, writing, or thinking and didn’t want to give a quick no. Some of those pieces eventually made it into the magazine, sometimes the writer and I connected on something else. And, giving everyone a headache, sometimes the writer was kept hanging too long.

Keep in mind that while editorial space is relatively fixed in a print publication, an editor is working on three or four issues at once and a magazine needs more stories for an issue than will get published because you never know what may have to be killed near deadline.

About 15 years ago, it became easier for writers and editors to work together. At magazines, some stories that don’t make it into print are published on websites, and lots of stories are written with no print expectations.

But the real money for writers still mostly comes from print. Why? Because print journalism generates a lot more revenue than website journalism. On the revenue side, it’s print dollars and digital nickels and pennies.

Stay tuned: There’s more to say on all this, including psychiatric profiles of a few editors I know.

Comments

  1. “When talking about a story, at some publications what the art’s going to be comes first. At New York magazine, what’s the headline comes first. At the New Yorker, the story comes first.”

    Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to see the movie poster first before agreeing to appear (see autobiography: TOTAL RECALL: MY UNBELIEVABLY TRUE LIFE STORY).

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