Apart from excessive drinking, composing emails that say, “Where is my check?” and swinging between humiliating self-hatred and even more humiliating self-regard, the most important part of any writer’s job is dealing with editors.
Editors edit, but before they even get to that point, they gatekeep—it’s their decision to accept your pitch or not, and their decision (along with unseen others) to ultimately publish a piece. It can be hard not to resent people who hold your fate in their hands.
Alas, they will not change for you. You must adapt yourself to them. It’s your job. And if you ever think that your job sucks, rest assured being an editor can suck too.
There are many different kinds of editors, but not that many. A basic understanding of the nine listed below should just about cover it.
1. The editor who loves you a lot, but pays very little
You send her a 3,000-word essay about how you love iced tea that’s amusing, but could also have easily never existed. She writes back within 24 hours. “LOL u r a rockstar! (I know you hate that word!) It’s going up today! I took out the last sentence because your second to last one was effing genius.”
She tweets your article: “Sarah Miller talking about ice tea for seven hours is the best thing you’ll ever read.” When in a month you’ve received your money from this publication, enough to pay your phone bill and possibly buy a bottle of rye, feel #gratitude.
These people might never make you rich, but if you squint, their appreciation looks like money.
2. The editor who just doesn’t quit
Say your dream is to write for a prestigious food and lifestyle publication and you’re willing to start out at its smaller, partner website that shares its name. After unsuccessfully pitching some ideas of your own, you finally agree to one of theirs, an investigation of home cooks who have cut off their own fingers with immersion blenders. The contract for $400 lists the title as “Blood Soup.”
You produce a graceful and nuanced account of what it’s like to be disabled, in addition to being damned eternally to blend vichyssoise batch by batch in a Vitamix. It’s a very good piece—people will read and share the sh*t out of it. But this editor thinks it’s a little “top heavy.” She wants you to “Say more about this,” even though you’ve said enough. Despite having all her fingers, she repeatedly writes “Disagree” alongside passages recounting the experiences of people who do not.
Just when you finally think it’s over and you’ve earned your fee a thousand times over, she’s back at you with “Please explain why hand blending soups is more convenient/results in more delicious soup/healthier TK TK TK. ”
So what do you do? Tough one. Some of these relationships go somewhere. Most don’t.
3. The editor who just prints whatever you send (good!), complete with mistakes (bad)
Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, you could have included the phrase “the the cat” in a submission, and a wise dinosaur would have frowned over the top of his dinosaur glasses and crossed out one “the.” Now, it’s up to you.
Since it’s pretty much impossible to copy edit your own work, set up a system where you copy edit for a friend and a friend does it for you. Or connect with that person from college who keeps gleeful tally of your mistakes on Facebook—she’ll be amazing..
4. The editor who wants your stuff to be good, but understands that print hours mean print dollars and web hours mean web dollars
He will send back the piece you really shouldn’t have spent more than two, possibly three (and maybe four if you were enjoying yourself) hours on back to you, and say, “Switch your third and five paragraph and explain in paragraph four why person X is important” and/or “End needs kicker.”
This should take you an hour or less, which is the amount of time you should spend reworking an article that’s going to maybe pay two months of your car insurance (if you’re the world’s best driver).
This editor is a treasure to be prized in today’s market: He combines rigor with a healthy understanding of the fact that writers have to write a lot more words than they used to. He respects the craft, but he also respects you. If you can find two of these editors, consider yourself #blessed.
5. The editor who doesn’t seem to be all that good with words
His edits have more errors than your original copy. His love for adverbs is rivaled only by his love of the passive voice. You asked him once what he liked to read and he seemed to find this question confusing. Your face still bears traces of the astonishment you experienced upon learning that he went to journalism school. When you picture him at his desk you imagine him lying on his back kicking at a mobile of puffy felt airplanes.
You have tried to figure out why he does what he does, and all you can come up with is that his high school history teacher showed his class All The President’s Men and some hot girl told him he would look good in a corduroy jacket. But you will never know why. You will only know that you suffer, and that you’re banking some great anecdotes.
6. The hard-ass editor
“PLEASE CLARIFY” is the nicest comment on your entire piece, ranking slightly above “YAWN,” “MAKE FUNNIER,” and “NOC,” short for “NO ONE CARES.” She circles one sentence that has almost nothing to do with anything you’ve discussed elsewhere and says, “THIS IS YOUR STORY.”
She is often right, and that’s wonderful, but the crying—all on your end—is not. There are many 6 p.m. emails reading, “I’ll need this [major rewrite] back in the morning” after you’ve heard nothing for days.
That said, she generally works for the sort of organization that pays well. Plus, once in a while she says something nice and you feel like you can go on another day. So suck it up.
7. The editor who never, ever gets back to you—ever
You met this person on an elevator once. He looked through you like you were glass. Still, you dove in. You pitched him on cheese made in a cave in a town in France only you have visited. You pitched him about an Irish Setter who became a high school history teacher and coaches a softball team. You sent him your firsthand account of randomly befriending Jimmy Chin in a Lahore café and your impromptu expedition to the caves of Pakistan that ended with the two of you repelling down Ayman al-Zawahiri’s glasses in a snowstorm. Nothing.
Meanwhile, you could quite reasonably assume he were dead if he weren’t always tweeting things like: “So cool to edit this brilliant essay from Broham Brohistam on how skiing freshie freshie pow-pow helped him finally let go of his unfinished dissertation on Frank O’Hara.”
What’s your next move? Befuddlement. Move on. As Raymond Chandler once said, “My life wasn’t worth much, but it was worth that much.”
8. The editor who gets back to you right away, but never assigns you anything
He got in touch with you. He said you were talented. He listened. He said everything you said was “GREAT!” Then you started pitching him.
“Not for us,” he says. “Keep trying,” he says. “Must have been so cool to see Ayman al-Zawahiri’s eyes through his glasses,” he says.
This guy meets with everyone. It is a numbers game. Right now this guy is having lunch with the editor who never, ever, gets back to you, ever, and they’re talking about you—not by name, of course. One of them just held out the olive from his martini and said, “This is her head,” and then he ate you and they laughed. Don’t be the olive.
9. The perfect editor
She speaks the English language better than you do. She understands story structure and can tell a poetic aside from a narcissistic meandering. Once, you wrote a joke that was pretty good, but she made it hilarious, and even coaxed from it a soupçon of poignancy. She makes your work better, excises all your crap, yet never belittles you. She gives you enough work to pay about two-thirds of your bills.
At Christmas, she gives you a gift basket from Kiehl’s and… Oh, I’m sorry. I thought it was 1999. This person exists, but only if you’re really famous. So get really famous. You can do that, right?