Five Tips for Writers on How to Work Well With Editors

By Bill O’Sullivan

In addition to my day job as senior managing editor of the Washingtonian, I’ve been teaching the personal essay at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, for more than 20 years. I always say that being an editor makes me a better teacher, and being a teacher makes me a better editor. Because of my magazine job, I can talk with students about the realities of the marketplace along with the best way to tell their personal stories. My teaching, in turn, has made me more sensitive to writers’ attachment to their work and more aware of how I communicate with them. In a future post, I’ll offer thoughts on how editors can best work with writers. First, here are suggestions for writers on how to work well with editors.

1. Editors love to discover new writers. My students who are new to the publishing world are often afraid to send their work out: What are the odds that editors would look at anything from a nobody? Editors toss everything into the circular file; they’re jaded. At the magazine, we do get a lot of junk over the transom—or just stories we’ve read before or have published ourselves—but we’re always eager to hear from good writers. There’s nothing like coming across a fresh, incisive, moving, funny, or beautiful piece by a complete unknown. That’s one of the joys of being an editor. We live for those moments.

2. Follow up on your queries or submissions, but be mindful of the editor’s time and workload. And be prepared that the response might be “Sorry, I haven’t gotten to it yet.” That’s not the same as the receptionist telling you the person you’re calling is “in a meeting.” It usually means the editor hasn’t gotten to it yet. So be patient. Or take the story elsewhere. Which brings up a related topic students always ask me about: simultaneous submissions. I have no problem with them. Writing is your livelihood—why shouldn’t you shop a piece to more than one place at the same time? Just don’t send a query to a Washingtonian editor and say you’d like to write for the Washington Post Magazine. I’ve been on the receiving end of that blunder surprisingly often.

3. Take the assigned word count seriously. A little over is okay. But a lot over? Not okay. Yes, editors are there to edit, but most of them have many projects going, just as you probably do. Turning in a 5,000-word assignment at 11,000 words isn’t smart. As I tell my students, self-editing is a useful skill to acquire. The situation is slightly different once the editing process gets going: To answer an editor’s questions, adding words (or paragraphs) is often necessary—to clarify, to give examples, to flesh out a description, to bolster the reporting. In cases when important elements are missing, I tell the writer not to obsess about length; I’d rather have too much than not enough. With too much, you can always pick what the story needs. You can’t do anything with not enough.

4. When it comes to your story in this particular issue of this particular publication, the editor knows best. He knows what his needs are this month or this week or today—how much space there is (which is often out of his hands), how long the article’s sections should be, or that, say, because a headline on another story in the same issue ends with a question mark, your question-mark title has to change. (Editors get to write the headlines anyway; they just do.) The editor also has to juggle many concerns: the story itself, the audience, style and grammar, the boss. Not all of these may align with the author’s personal preferences. A flexible writer is a working writer.

5. Everyone needs an editor. In a book chat that I hosted, author and Washington Post writer Hank Stuever said: “Editing really is surgery, and it really does make the patient better.” Editors don’t get a lot of acknowledgment—it’s an inherently anonymous job—so it’s nice to hear that a writer as good as Stuever gets it. I taped his quote to my office wall. That’s my kind of daily affirmation.

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