How to work with difficult editors

difficult editors

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We don’t always get rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes we have to work with people who aren’t very good at their jobs. Here’s a primer on how to work with difficult editors….

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 bad 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 such dysfunction.

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 your difficult editor’s deplorable behaviour. 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 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
  • 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 bad editors. I was fortunate that my difficult 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 editors you dislike 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.

When to say no….

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, I hear, is now a grumpy 80-year-old.

Have you ever had to cope with a difficult editor? How did you handle it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. And congratulations to SJ, the winner of this month’s book prize, On Writing Well by William Zinsser for an Oct. 18/17 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/17 will be put into a draw for a copy of Metaphorically Selling by Anne Miller. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted November 7th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • Fred


    Thanks for sharing this information about working with dysfunctional editors. One of my psychology professors once told me that the best clinical estimates are that 1 in every 20 people on the street have some degree of some diagnosable mental problem — a sobering thought. Not an editor, but I did have a boss once that suffered a breakdown and needed a six month leave of absence. Maybe your old editor should have taken one or more of those.
    Thanks, too, to for letter of agreement language. I realize I have not been adding “what is NOT included” and this will be a good addition.


    • 1 in 20 people. Wow! That is indeed a sobering thought. And, yes, it’s a very good idea to add “what is NOT included” in any contract.

  • Wendy Kalman

    Not a difficult editor, but a difficult boss. Luckily I wasn’t a direct report to him, but he handled annual review/raise discussions. We all heard it was his goal to force everyone to either yell at him or cry, during those annual one-on-ones. And everyone walked out in one state or the other. I cried, but tried to hold it in until after I left his office…and still got the significant raise I had requested.

    • I find people who try to make others yell or cry to be incredibly offensive. Good for you for getting the raise, Wendy!

  • Rickey Gold

    I just wrote a draft for my company’s newsletter on when to say no to a prospective client. Unfortunately, we get them from time to time. Pretty much like the chance of finding yourself working with an unreasonable editor. Toxic people lurk everywhere. Can I link to this blog post for dealing with difficult people? Loved your examples! And loved the picture of Mr. Grant!

    • Rickey, yes of course you’re welcome to link to this post. Glad you liked the photo of Lou Grant (Ed Asner.) I wasn’t sure how many people would still recognize him!

      • Rickey Gold

        Thanks, Daphne. Yes, only those of us of a certain age will know who he is 😉

  • caseyhibbard

    Wow, Daphne! I’m impressed at how Zen you were in that interview, and you must have really dug deep to maintain that Zen for 5 years. That’s one of the best pieces of advice I got from my mom, be the opposite in the face of someone difficult. “Kill them with kindness.” It really throws people for a loop!

    • Like you, Casey, I learned my attitude from one of my parents, but for an entirely different reason… My father was also a bully (he died 18 years ago) and we always suspected he had undiagnosed mental health problems, likely narcissistic personality disorder. In any case, I had many years of observing him and learning how to react in ways that would minimize problems for me. That history proved very useful in this job interview!