Don’t Poke the Editor: Six Deadly Don’ts (and Dos) for Dealing with Editors
Writing to an editor is intimidating. Editors are these daunting, mysterious figures who work in the shadows, wielding the red pens of judgment, and witnessing the godlike works of Really Good Writers ™ almost daily. They can also say some really hard things to swallow! But your relationship with your editor is one of the most important relationships you will have—right after your relationship with your cat and right before your relationship with chocolate. And it’s in your power to make that relationship a delight and a joy—or a soul-sucking trial of infinite madness. (Guess which one is better for your book?)
Luckily, it’s not that hard to start things off on the right foot. Just being aware of how your words and your pen-side manner impact your professional image is a fantastic baseline. But for those of you who want to go further than that, those of you who want to be one of those authors editors dream about working with, I’ve collected a few of the cardinal dos and don’ts to help you on your way.
DO Be Nice
It makes such a difference. The author who is nice? I can’t wait to open emails from them. I smile when I see their name on caller id. I respond to them faster. And I fantasize about working with them again. Not to mention, if an author misses a deadline, or is having some trouble in some other area, it makes me want to work extra hard to help them overcome their obstacles.
It’s not that hard to be nice. You don’t have to stop being honest, or sacrifice bits of your story to the insatiable pain-thirst of the editor gods, or anything like that. Just—be nice. Be that pleasure to deal with, and more people will want to deal with you.
DON’T Be Dishonest
Don’t let the “Be Nice” commandment keep you from being honest! Nice authors are great, but if you are secretly dying inside, super uncomfortable, or even just unhappy with the direction, let your editor know. Editors want their authors to be happy, and most will work very hard to help keep their authors happy—but they cannot help you unless you let them know how you need to be helped. And even if they can’t help, most editors will prove a sympathetic ear. Even just the simple fact of being honest with your editor can help take some of the stress off. (Of course, if you get rejected, this does not mean email back telling them exactly how you feel. It goes without saying that you are hurt and disappointed, and the editor likely feels terrible about it. So try to be gracious in rejection, and move on.)
Being honest with your editor builds trust, and allows you to work together to make a better book. If you just accept every change, even if you’re unhappy with it, instead of working out fixes with which you’re happy, your editor will likely worry that you’re sacrificing too much just to be nice. Even editors aren’t perfect, and you’re the expert on your story—she’s merely trying to help you sharpen it. Besides, when it comes down to it, it’s your book, and she wants it to be something of which you can both be proud.
DO Be Reliable
Authors who reliably hit their deadlines are awesome. Most editors juggle a large number of active authors, all with books in various phases of the process, and with publication dates ranging up to four years in the future. So, it stands to reason that most editors have tightly packed schedules. Being that author the editor doesn’t have to worry about? Is priceless. (An Ancient Editor Blessing: “May you be blessed with a host of reliable and talented authors, all of whom are nice and communicate freely in an honest and respectful manner . . .” True story.)
Of course, being reliable doesn’t mean you can’t need more time for your book. It just means that when you do, you communicate it early, giving your editor time to work around it. What it does mean is that you don’t blow by your deadline by weeks and months without a call or email to your editor.
DON’T Be Uncommunicative
Uncommunicative authors are scary. They go dark as one deadline or another is fast approaching, dropping off the radar like stealth bombers, and you have no idea what’s going on or what fun surprises they’re going to drop. Are they angry and refusing to work? Are they running late and banning communication devices in a last ditch effort to keep from procrastinating? Or are they lost somewhere in the wilds of Narnia after an accident involving a wardrobe, and in desperate need of help (please, oh please, I would love to help)? There’s just no telling!
Of course, many editor emails require some unpacking, so there’s nothing wrong with wanting some time to respond. But when you get an email, try to at least send a note back that you’ve received her email and will get back to her by X date. Even if your news is bad, communicating with your editor is key to not only your editor’s happiness but also your book’s success. Your editor has your back—that’s part of what she’s there for!—and if you let her know that you’re struggling with something, or need more time, or that your dog ate your draft (for reals), it gives her the time she needs to communicate your book’s changing needs with the other teams involved in making your book a reality. (Of course, this does not mean communicate every day how much you are looking forward to her response to your query—trust me, she knows.)
DO Be Respectful
True fact: authors who are respectful of editors are more likely to be respected in turn! It’s true, a little respect goes a long way. But what do I mean by respect? Mainly three things: respect her person, her work, and her time. By her person, I mean that your editor likely never complains about you, talks disrespectfully about you, or points out your mistakes in public—even if you only sent her a manuscript she rejected—so don’t make it hard for her by throwing her under the bus! Otherwise, that grinding sound that is her teeth biting back comments may give her away.
By respect her work, I mean to respond professionally—rather than lashing out—to comments, questions, suggestions, and even rejection. You want your book to be edited by someone who loves it—not someone who was browbeaten and guilted into accepting it. And if your book has been accepted and these are just her edits, ask for more explanation if you can’t see how her comments could be anything but offensive. I doubt she means to ruin your book after you and she both put so much effort into it, and getting her to explain may illuminate things enough for you to figure out where she’s coming from.
And finally, by respect her time, I mean that remember that she handles a number of authors, and try not to monopolize her every waking moment. It’s awesome to ask questions or to talk something through with your editor, and I always feel delighted when an author decides to include me in that part of the process. However, if it’s more than a quick question, set up a time to talk to them or give them a few days to get back to your email before you ping them again. Editors have deadlines too, ones they’re—like you—perpetually racing to meet, so being respectful of their time goes a long way. (Of course, if you’re one of their authors in an author-crisis, every editor I’ve met wants to hear from you regardless of their schedule!)
DON’T Be Too Rigid
It seems to happen to every author eventually: you’re checking through your editor’s suggestions and questions, and you find one that just horrifies you. I mean, that she could even suggest it makes you nauseated. How could she get the impression that her suggestion would do anything but ruin, destroy, burn and salt and scatter the ashes of your carefully crafted book?
So, anyway, when that happens, try to remember: she’s not suggesting the change because she’s an ineffable being of unspeakable evil who feasts on the pain and suffering of authors (even if she is; that’s unrelated). It just means there’s a problem there that led her to believe that her change would help you say what you want to say more clearly. You don’t have to make the horrifying change—in fact, most editors would prefer you figure out how to fix holes in your manuscript your way! But you should by no means ignore it. Instead, work with her to figure out what tripped her up and rework your manuscript to address it. And that, you really want to do, because above all, an editor is an extraordinary reader—it’s what they do for a living!—so if they are confused by something, chances are, your audience will be as well.
Always Be Professional
Remember: every relationship starts with that first, fateful email! So try practicing being nice, communicative, reliable, flexible, honest, and respectful from your very first queries. It sets a beautiful basis for a rock-solid relationship. And if it doesn’t work out? Then chances are, the editors you email will be in awe of your awesome social skills, and will happily look at your next manuscript, hoping that it fits their needs and that they will have the opportunity to work with such a gracious and professional author.