How to work with difficult editors

Reading time: About 5 minutes

Need to work with difficult editors, whether they’re annoying, angry or thoroughly inept? Here’s a primer on how to accomplish that challenging task….

I once worked for a difficult editor at the daily newspaper where I cut my teeth. He started screaming at me in my first job interview, and I was so shocked by his aggression that I reacted by being icy cool. Regrettably, this impressed him. When he asked me if I was married, I knew he had crossed a legal line but I doubled-down on my Zen-like attitude. And when he concluded, “so we bring you in here, we train you, and you get knocked up,” I shrugged, literally. At that point, I knew I had landed the job.

But the abuse (not Harvey Weinstein type of stuff, fortunately) continued for the five years I remained in the newsroom. The man was a bully.

The world is filled with difficult editors. Here’s how to deal with them:

If the issue is their personality…

You’ll want to minimize your contact with toxic personalities, as I ultimately did with my difficult boss. Steer clear of their tsunami of negativity and talk to them as little as possible. Many of them are attention-seeking narcissists and if they ever seek to belittle you in front of other people (as my boss tried on many occasions) politely move the meeting to a private office as quickly as possible. Otherwise, find ways to delay or postpone meetings, so you spend as little time as possible with difficult editors.

If you need direction, email your editor politely and neutrally. And if they send you hostile emails — as they will — wait as long as you can before replying. It’s hard not to respond to angry emails with even more anger. Don’t get sucked into that vortex! If you can’t stop yourself from replying right away, at least don’t send the email immediately. Instead, let it “marinate” overnight and review it the next morning when you are calmer. Then you can edit a more thoughtful reply that should aim to de-escalate the conflict.

Most of all, train yourself not to respond in kind to the deplorable behaviour of difficult editors. It’s bad enough that the person you work for is aggressive, insulting or demeaning. Don’t let the contagion infect you.

If the issue is they’re incompetent editors…

Some difficult editors (like some writers) are nice enough people but they’re not very good at their jobs. Here are the signs of a bad editor:

  • They always leave their work until the very last minute
  • They complain but never praise
  • They never edit face-to-face but simply send you marked-up documents
  • They rewrite instead of edit (this may be a sign that they’re a frustrated writer)
  • They always think they know more than you (or your subjects) on the topic you’re writing about
  • They give you unrealistic assignments

It’s tough dealing with difficult editors. I was fortunate that my bad editor was supremely competent at his job (otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed at the newspaper for more than two weeks). But I’ve also worked with my share of incompetence over the years. Here’s what I recommend:

Don’t freak out over every edit. Instead, pick your battles. If an editor has changed the meaning of your work (or worse, tried to change quotes from your sources), or inserted inaccurate material, speak up quickly and firmly. Be polite and thorough and propose ways of fixing the errors your editor has created. (It will be easy for them to cut and paste your suggested changes.)

Accept the majority of edits as graciously as possible — even if you disagree with them — and move on. If the editor is spectacularly inept, you might want to alert your writing friends, quietly, but it won’t make you look good to tweet or post on Facebook about your bad experience.  That will only make other editors suspect that you may be the problem.

If you’re a freelancer, rather than an employee, never accept a job without a contract. The contract doesn’t need to be super formal and written in legal mumbo-jumbo. Instead, it can be a letter that spells out the details of your assignment, your terms, your expected payment, the timeline for your payment and your deadline. Some operations have a standard contract, but you can also offer your own. See one here, but be sure to customize it for your own country.

Most of all, always think about specifying a “kill fee.” This fee is what the client will need to pay you if they change their mind about publishing what you write. Typically, kill fees are 50% of the money you’d get if the article were published. Also, be aware that you should always negotiate the timeframe for your payment (on receipt of the article? On publication? 30 days after publication?) I once had a publisher delay paying me for more than six months. I was young and stupid enough not to have had a contract. I never made that mistake again.

If the issue is a personality conflict…

Not all difficult editors are necessarily bad or incompetent. Sometimes the two of you are both fine human beings, but you’re a bad match. If this is the case for you — and you still want to accept the work — then be squeaky clean and be sure to do an exemplary job writing. Check out my 10 tips on how to appear shockingly smart to any editor.

How do you FIND a good editor?

People often ask me how to go about finding a good editor. (I no longer edit books myself although I do take on smaller editing jobs). Here is my advice:

Create a list of possibilities. Here are databases containing the names and contact info for editors in both the US and Canada. (I assume similar links exist for other countries; if you can’t find one try contacting a local authors’ association.)

Look for someone who specializes in your genre: fiction or non-fiction. Generally, you don’t need to get much more specific than that but certain sub-genres, such as self-help or romance, might benefit from an editor who has experience in that area.

Be clear about whether you want a developmental editor or a copy editor. (Or a proofreader or an indexer.) If you don’t know the difference between these jobs, read here.

Check their references, following up with at least three of their previous clients. (Pretend you’re hiring a subcontractor to do work on your house.) You want to find out how pleasant the editor was to deal with and whether they were able to meet their deadlines.

Then, DON’T hire the person for a big editing job right away. Don’t commit to marriage to someone you haven’t even dated yet.  Instead, hire them for a small task. Get them to edit a blog post, an article or a report. You want something that’s small and low-risk for you.

If, after that trial, you would be happy to invite them to your house for dinner, then you will likely have a good editor for your book or major project.

I know this might sound like a lot of effort, but remember that you’ll be working with this person for at least several months and you want to like and respect them.

When you should say no to certain editors….

Your answer to an offer of work should not always be yes. Sometimes it makes more sense to say no. I can recall using that two-letter word at least twice:

  • An editor once asked me to interview 10 people and write a 600-word story. I stopped myself from laughing aloud, but the idea was so ridiculous — 60 words per person?! I told the editor I couldn’t do it. When she asked why and I explained the problem she hired me for another story. Happy ending.
  • I had pitched a national magazine on a story and, three years later (!) the editor finally called to accept. Too bad for me she wanted the story in just three weeks. I had a back injury at the time and knew that I couldn’t do the work. I said a polite no and told her she was free to use another writer to do the story. Also, a happy ending practically, if not financially.

I didn’t say no to my first terrible boss because I was desperate for a job at that newspaper. But I left the newsroom as soon as I could, ultimately accepting a job in management at the parent company. That bad boss left a couple of years after I did and now, I hear, is a grumpy 80+-year-old….

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Nov. 7/17.

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Want to create a rough draft so you have something to submit to an editor?  Consider applying to my Get It Done program. I’ll be holding a no charge intro webinar about it on March 20/20 and all you need to do is email me to hold a spot. If you already know you want to apply, go here, scroll to the very end and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.

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Have you ever had to cope with a difficult editor? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/20 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!