When Writers Talk About What They Want From Editors

At an annual meeting of magazine editors, I sat in on discussion that asked writers to talk about what editors can do to help them do their best work. It was surprising 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.”

“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.”

“At some publications what the story’s art is going to be comes first. At New York magazine, what’s the headline comes first.”

“I’d love to see psychiatric profiles of the top editors.”
Some editor 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. (“Sorry, the editor isn’t available.”)

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 dropped it off.

Two kinds of stories are easy for an editor to handle: the really good and bad. Maybe 10 percent of what I got was really good and I quickly told the writer. Another 75 percent was either bad or I knew we weren’t going to run it and we quickly said no.

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 way too long.


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

    I’ve heard many writers complain about that, especially when the editing is done by a committee of people who contradict each other, don’t understand what the writer was assigned to write, and ask the writer to undo earlier editorial changes. Lots of magazines are notorious for providing this kind of disruptive feedback, and writers know which publications they are.

  2. I welcome good editing–not just to make something different, but to make it snappier and clearer. Jack was a pretty good editor, but the best one I had could change two words and zip up a sentence–then, however, I learned she thought everything she changed was something I had done “wrong.” That put me off her. I had another one who instead of substituting a word would print out the defn of a different word and send that–no comment…very enigmatic. I also had en editor for many years who would comment mysteriously on my queries…”My aunt had something like that happen to her,” for instance. Does that mean this is an assignment? And, of course, the editor who never has any say in payment–this person pops up everywhere…Well, can I call the bookkeeper–no, no, don’t do that. Well, what then? “I will check.” Then: silence. As for the above comment from Jack–I agree–six sets of notes on a piece–nightmare.

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