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An Editor Reveals 7 Secrets Every Writer Needs to Know

Carol Tice

by Michelle Rafter

There’s something about editors that writers don’t get:

They’re not the know-it-all, don’t-have-time-for-you, I’ll rewrite-this-because-I-can people you think they are.

When it comes to editors, it’s easy to default to that kind of attitude if you’ve been on the receiving end of too many rejection letters or rewrites.

But if you can see past the “Thanks but no thanks” emails and the sometimes off-putting behavior, you’ll realize it’s not always about you. You’ll discover editors – most of them anyway – are just trying to get their jobs done and looking for people who can help them do that. You could be one of them.

Many editors work as writers before trading places, and a lot still do both. I fall into that category. Since late 2009, I’ve worked as the freelance editor of a finance website, where I set the editorial calendar and manage about 10 freelance writers, and also as a writer and blogger for a handful of business and consumer publications.

Based on my experience on the other side of the desk, here are some secrets about editors you need to know:

1. Deadlines aren’t as immutable as they seem. Editors build wiggle room into due dates to accommodate problems with stories or other unexpected situations, vacations and holidays, etc. That doesn’t mean you should regularly turn in copy late, especially if you work for an online news organization that cranks out stories 24/7. But if you’re working for a monthly or weekly and or just need a couple extra hours or days, go ahead and ask. The answer might surprise you.

2. Editors will break policy for a great story. No editor in his right mind would turn away a new-to-them writer with a hot story because the publication currently only works with their existing freelance pool. A scoop takes precedent over policies and procedures any day. That said, if you’ve got a story you know is perfect for your dream publication, you better be 110 percent sure, not only of the subject, angle and fit for the market but also of your ability to pull it off. If an editor is willing to take a chance on you, you better be able to deliver.

3. Editors like talking to writers on the phone. It’s common to hear writers worry about a situation with an editor when they could easily rectify things by picking up the phone. Granted, editors are busy and won’t appreciate getting called every time a writer has a question. But if it’s a biggie or just too complicated for email, by all means call. Better yet, email ahead of time and ask for a couple minutes of phone time. On the flip side, I write for some editors who think nothing of calling out of the blue if they have questions about something. It used to bug me, but now I appreciate it, especially if I can use the opportunity to talk about future assignments.

4. Editors don’t do rewrites for the heck of it. As an editor, if I never have to exorcise passive voice from another writer’s manuscript I’d be a happy woman. Editors do a lot more than read copy — they plan editorial calendars, make assignments, sign contracts, put payments through, appear at conferences or seminars, and go to internal staff meetings. So if they’re taking a red pen or “Track Changes” to your copy, it’s probably for good reason. It could be because the tone or voice of your piece don’t fit what their publication uses. Or you turned in 1,500 words when they asked for 750. Or you wrote a piece in second person when their style is third person, or vice versa. Before turning in copy, look at it from your editor’s POV:

  • Did you double check names, facts and links?
  • Is it on word count?
  • Is there a nut graph?
  • Did you include a headline and deck (editors love that) and source list?
  • Does it cover the material you said it would?

If so, you’re good to go. If not, you may have more to do before hitting “Send.”

5. Editors feel bad saying no. Editors love getting pitched: the more ideas coming in for an issue, the fewer they’ve got to dream up themselves. Editors love great queries. Editors want to love your queries, but they can’t if your queries aren’t aimed at their readers or are too similar to something that’s already run. Before you pitch, read the publication, writers’ guidelines, media kit, what Mediabistro, Writer’s Digest or other writers’ forums say about it. It doesn’t matter what you read, really, as long as you use it to figure out what the editor wants. Then pitch accordingly. Because editors really do want to say yes.

6. A short email message doesn’t mean they’re mad at you. I work with a few editors whose work and feedback I respect and enjoy. But sometimes their replies to my email questions are brusque to the point of being rude. After awhile I realized the tenor of their notes has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them. When they’re on deadline or under pressure, their emails are limited to a few words or less — that’s really all they have time for. When deadlines are off, they’re completely different. Now that I spend a lot of time editing, I notice myself sending the same two- or three-word messages. Don’t take it personally.

7. The editor you write for today could be the writer you edit tomorrow. The only constant in the news business is change, especially as the industry shifts from paper to pixels. People switch jobs, go from staff positions to freelance and back again. Moral of the story: it pays to maintain good relationships with editors because you never know when your paths will cross again. In the past 18 months, I’ve worked with three freelance writers who in previous years had been my editors at other publications.


Michelle V. Rafter is a Portland, Oregon, business journalist, editor, and proprietor of the blog, WordCount: Freelancing in the Digital Age. Rafter also hosts the 2011 WordCount Blogathon, a NaNoWriMo-style event that starts May 1 and challenges writers with blogs to post every day in May.

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