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.

Have a question about editor relationships? Leave it in the comments below.


  1. Dwayne Phillips

    Yes, editors do like to talk with writers. And editors even like to meet writers in person at conferences. One more thing, sometimes editors are wrong, and editors know that sometimes they are wrong – just like everyone else.

    • Michelle Rafter

      Good point Dwayne, sometimes editors are wrong. They were in a rush when they edited your copy and didn’t catch something – or worse, edited in an error. The good ones own up to it.

      Speaking of owning up to things, my apologies for taking so long to check out these comments – between deadlines, presenting at a writer’s conference and the blogathon I run every May, it’s been crazy.


  2. Anne Wayman

    Michelle, well said. Editors are human, and there is a much variation between editors as between writers. Writers do best when they approach editors as fellow human beings.

  3. Misti

    I don’t care for phones, myself, but then my experience is as a proofreader and copyeditor, not as project editor.

    I’ve also had clients I ask if I knew any other writers who could help on a project. When I’m asked that, I don’t think of writers I’ve worked with as a fellow writer—I think of writers whose work I’ve copyedited/proofread, and recommend ones I know can proofread their own work okay and hit deadlines.

  4. Linda

    I had to laugh at # 7. I’m not writing for a couple of editors that I used to supervise as reporters. I think this is more common than you’d think since many freelancers are folks who decided to leave corporate journalism.

    Great tips — and true. I get lazy about sending suggested headlines. I think I need to start doing that again!


    • Linda

      Darn there’s a typo up there! I mean I AM writing for former reporters. Everyone needs and editor, even former editors!

      • Michelle Rafter

        Even if your editor doesn’t use the headline or deck you suggested, I’d bet money on the fact that they probably used it as a jumping off point for brainstorming what they eventually came up with.


  5. Barbara McDowell Whitt

    Michelle, what should I have done when an editor (or editors) condensed what I wrote for a university publication, in answer to the question, “What famous person
    have you met and what were the circumstances?” A mistake was made in the condensing. The result stated “After the lecture….” when I had written that Carl Sagan had given four lectures on my undergraduate campus. It appeared that the other contributions were published in their entirety.

    • Carol Tice

      I don’t know if Michelle saw this…but if you have a question about something an editor did…you need to ask it, or you’ll never know why.

      I’ve had the experience of editors inserting errors more than once. You have to decide whether to let it go or ask for a correction or what.

      I get from your tone you feel singled out…but likely it was just a space issue and the editor found a place to cut. I would ask if you want to know more about why…when I was a new writer I often did, so I could learn from it.

      • Michelle Rafter

        Carol gives great advice. If the editor created a factual mistake you should – in a non-threatening way – point it out to them so they can make the correction.


  6. Miss Britt

    This is great advice – especially about editors wanting to say yes. It’s a nice reminder that they aren’t worrying about being bothered, they want good content!

    And double and triple yes on the short emails. I send those as well because I’m busy!!

  7. Irene

    Great article, Micelle. Nice meeting you at ASJA~

    • Michelle Rafter

      Irene, it was great meeting you too!


  8. Wendy

    Great article. Thanks for the info–as a seasoned freelancer, I need to be reminded not to take everything personally. Thanks again!

  9. Pinar Tarhan

    Michelle, thanks!!!!

    Many writers typically know that they need to get the angle right, and that they should make the editors’ lives easier, but they do have the tendency to think of edtiors as people who don’t understand writers at all. Unfortunately, I am one of them. I also didn’t use to believe they would bend editorial policy for any story, no matter how great. So thanks for motivating me to be have more guts, and to give the editors a break 🙂

  10. Karen Lange

    Thanks for this info. The perspective on one side of the fence is better when the other is taken into consideration. Have a great week!

  11. Anthony StClair

    Editors are people too, after all. This reminds me of recent presentation an agent gave. She was going over do’s and don’t’s of submission. As you can imagine, 90% of the game is not being an eejit. Editors want to be wowed, sure, but they also want someone who delivers to spec, in a reasonable timeframe, and who makes their life and work easier.

    • Michelle Rafter

      So true. If the past 18 months has taught me anything it’s that writers come in all flavors: some are good writers but lazy about finding sources, some are better reporters than they are writers; some are disorganized, others always late. One of my editors once told me that great freelancers – on spec, on time, great reporters & great writers – are like snow leopards, an endangered species.


  12. Anne

    Not necessarily true about the phone – some hate it especially as they are super busy. When I worked on staff some freelancers drove me to tears of frustration because they would ring with questions (fine, except they could have emailed that one quick query) and then keep talking and want to chat when I needed them to go away and let me do my job. I would say get the measure of your editor. Some like the phone. Some hate it. Incessant phoners tended not to get repeat work from me as they drove me nuts.


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