Five Tips for Editors on How to Work Well With Writers

By Bill O’Sullivan

Earlier this week I posted “Five Tips for Writers on How to Work Well With Editors,” informed both by my job as senior managing editor of the Washingtonian and by my years teaching at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Here’s some of what I’ve learned about how editors can work well with writers.

1. Don’t ask permission to do your job. If you’re stumped about how to fix something in a piece of writing, ask the author to take a crack at it. But if you know how to fix the problem, just fix it. Think a sentence would be better without half the words? Cut them. If the writer doesn’t like what you’ve done, he or she will say so. (Writers should always have the chance to sign off on an edit.) Requesting permission for every change or asking the author to rewrite something when you know perfectly well how to do it just drags out the process and makes you look wishy-washy. Be polite, respectful, and friendly. But an editor can’t get anything done without establishing authority. The way to do that is by being an editor.

2. A compliment goes a long way. After a session of questions, suggestions, and proposed fixes, an editor might expect to hear the writer say, “I’ll get right on it.” But at least as often the response is “Was there anything you liked about the piece?” It’s amazing how well “nice job” can grease the wheels—better yet, pick out something more specific: maybe the writer’s knack for catchy subheads or an overall strong structure. I’ve received heartfelt thank-you notes for something as simple as that. And because it’s easy to forget, I always make sure to lead with the compliment.

3. Leaving in one distinctive word of the author’s can make all your other edits go down more easily. Writers want to recognize what they wrote. They want to be comfortable having their byline on it. Sometimes just a single word choice or a particular phrase of theirs is enough to keep them happy—and they may not even notice the rest of what you did. When doing a lot of editing on a problem piece, I make sure to keep intact small elements of the writer’s voice—characteristics that makes the article “theirs”—wherever I can. If it’s a clunky, inaccurate, or otherwise inappropriate word, I’ll change it, but if I can live with it, I keep it—and concentrate on the important stuff.

4. Every writer deserves a reply. Answer each unsolicited query or manuscript—even if what you send is a one-sentence e-mail, even if you farm the task out to an assistant. As a sometime writer myself, I’ve been on the other side. I once called an editor I didn’t know at a major newspaper to check on the status of a piece I’d sent him. While telling me he couldn’t use it, he admitted—not sheepishly enough—that he never responded to unsolicited manuscripts unless he was accepting them. When he learned I was related to a colleague of his, he said, “You should have told me that when you sent it.” I probably should have. But I shouldn’t have had to.

5. It’s not always a bad thing if people are a little afraid of you. Very early in my career, a writer I edited and was friendly with told me (half jokingly—but only half) that I was “too nice.” In those days, I tended to recede into the wall as I asked when I could expect to see a draft; I started a lot of sentences with “If it’s not too much trouble . . .” A couple of years ago, nearly three decades in, another colleague—with access to office gossip—said I was “feared.” At first my reaction was: Me? Then I thought: Good. Maybe I finally know what I’m doing.

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