Five tips for a good editorial relationship, by Deborah Jenkins
|Probably a last resort with editors particularly if they're publishing your novel. But never say never...|
This year, I've been working with four different editors and thought it might be helpful to share some tips I've picked up along the way. Please don't be impressed. These are not editors for four different novels I've been writing (I wish). One works for an educational magazine. Two are at different publishers of text books. The fourth is a Christian publishing company for whom I write devotionals.
But the things I've learned would pretty much apply to any of them.
In the beginning, I naively thought that working from home would be much easier in terms of relating to colleagues - avoiding misunderstandings, making assumptions, managing power play (both mine and other people's but mainly other people's naturally!) Actually, it's much harder. Remote relationships - by email etc - need to be nurtured and worked at even more, in my opinion, because facial expressions, voice tone etc are not there to ease communication. So it's worth taking time to get the relationship with your editor off to a good start.
Here are my top five tips: -
1. Be clear
For shorter pieces such as the educational articles I write, there is no contract. The contract is effectively your email so it's important you are really clear about what you think you are being asked to do and what the terms are. Editors are (obviously) busy people with lots of projects on the go and they might think they've told you something obvious when they haven't. Ask lots of questions to find out exactly what the project involves so you are sure you have the skills and the time for it.
Also, remember to ask for clarification about things like word count and payment. I know we Brits find this latter one hard but it's part of being business-like and avoids misunderstandings. I once assumed the educational magazine would pay me their usual sum for a blog post. However, I failed to clarify this beforehand and found out later there was a standard payment of £50 for blog posts, much less than I had been getting. It taught me a lesson.
I always ask this question towards the end of my email convo with a commissioning editor (I don't want them to think I'm in it for the money!) saying something like, "May I please ask what the word count and payment would be for this?"
With longer jobs, such as the textbooks and devotionals, I have signed contracts. A lot of people recommend joining the Society of Authors so they cam help you check these. I think this is a good idea although I must admit I haven't got round to it. But I've always had my contracts checked by someone who knows what she's doing. This is important. I am about to sign a new contract which had two quite significant errors in it and has to be rewritten.
So you've been commissioned. You have the brief. How do you continue this exciting new relationship?
2. Be friendly
Sometimes the commissioning editor continues to work with you. Sometimes someone else takes over. Whoever it is, your editor is your new boss but you may not physically meet. I have only been to three actual meetings with editors in fourteen years of free-lancing but I correspond a lot with them by email, and occasionally take part in conference calls. Although we may never meet personally, I still need to work at building a relationship.
Some editors want to preface their emails by chatting a bit about life in general. Some are business-like but reserved and get to the point quickly. Take the lead from your editor. This may seem obvious but if they conclude with 'Best wishes' generally reply with something similar. (One Christian editor always finished with 'In His Loving Grip'. Apologies if anyone does this but it didn't work for me!). If we've been having an email conversation on and off all day and the editor has progressed to one or two liners without a Dear Deborah and a Best, I do the same.
3. Be assertive
In the early days I was so grateful to be commissioned for anything, that I saw editors as a little less than gods (all-knowing, all-seeing and infinitely wise). I was far too nervous to chase them up if I was promised something by a certain time and it didn't arrive. But if I am to do my job properly - write my bit by the agreed deadline and to the accepted brief - I need my editor to do his/hers.
If I have been promised the draft manuscript back by Tuesday with edited comments and questions for me to respond to, I have a right to expect it back on that day. I may have put aside Wednesday and Thursday to do the work so if not, it's fine to politely remind my editor she said I would have it by then. If writers don't complete their work to the agreed standard or format, editors will hold them to account so it's not unreasonable to expect them to keep their side of things too (and most do).
Think of it this way - in a sense, you are partners, working together to get a project off the ground. You need each other.
4. Be polite
Some years ago, I fell out with an editor about an article. The brief had been quite complicated and a bit obscure so I was required to do a lot of research. It was also a difficult time personally with a stressful teaching job, teens sitting exams and a husband training for a new career (to say nothing of the menopause). I worked hard on the first draft, putting in way more hours than I should have done, and sent it in. It came back a few days later with so many changes requested that it was practically a different article. I was furious, but gritted my teeth (while comfort eating and ranting at anyone who would listen) and reworked it.
After about a week, it came back again with more changes required. The changes effectively meant it would be only marginally different from the first draft I'd sent in. I had had a terrible day at school and was apoplectic. I wrote the editor an icy email with copied and pasted chunks from both the original brief and the changed one, annotated in furious red and in the scariest font I could find (Arial Black or something).
Nothing for about a week. Then, I received an apologetic email from my editor. It turned out the article was being sponsored and it was the sponsor who kept changing its mind. Also the editor had just had a baby and had been away at a funeral in Spain. I felt terrible. Not that it was wrong to email her my concerns, with copies of the brief, and she could have let me know what was going on.
But the point is I could have been nicer. It reminds me of that saying Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind always.
I am supposed to carry God's light after all. I apologised. We are now good friends.
5. Be communicative
It goes without saying that you should absolutely meet deadlines, reply promptly to emails (or send a holding one) and be ready for conference calls on time (unless there's a good reason not to be). But I've learned it's important to keep in touch, let editors know how things are going and ask them how it's going their end. We all appreciate being kept in the picture.
Generally, I would rather stab myself in the eye than miss a deadline but I've learned that life does not always respect my eyesight. Most editors I've worked with say they are happy to discuss extending deadlines if they are given enough notice. What they hate is when someone springs it on them at the last minute. However, sometimes this is unavoidable. My father died earlier this year so I had to email one editor and explain, at very short notice, that I would not be able to meet my deadline. He was, of course, understanding and extended it.
Editors should keep in touch too and if they don't, I've learned to check up on them as well. One long-term project I was involved in, along with another writer, appeared to go dead. We'd sent in some of our work but the editor made no contact for about six months. We were both busy with other projects so we left it. The project went over deadline and we still heard nothing.
Then suddenly we received emails wanting workbooks written and sent in over a period of about three weeks. This kind of thing is not acceptable. I and my co author wrote in (politely but firmly) and said so. Fortunately, the situation was resolved without rancour. But it taught me a lesson - when I don't hear from an editor on an on-going project, I need to email and ask where things are at. When should I expect to hear from him? When is the new deadline? What is the new time-frame for finishing the whole project?
If you have anything to add regarding the editorial relationship - as a writer or an editor - please do below. I wish I'd known earlier what I know now. It would have saved me a lot of pain.
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