Ten Tips for Working with Your Editor

copyright 2005 by Shirley Jump


Even if you haven’t sold anything yet to a publisher—or even if you’ve sold a hundred things—it’s handy to keep a few tips in mind when working with your editor and publisher. I’m a writer, just like you are, and I know that we all tend to get excited sometimes and we forget, particularly in a business when we’re working with our own personal words on the page, to treat this like a business. What that means is we sometimes mess up. These tips are designed to hopefully help you head off those mistakes before you make them.

HAVE A PLAN OF ACTION: You should have a plan of action for every phone call, e-mail and meeting. Maybe that sounds overdone, but it can come in handy. When I am chatting with my editor, I have a list of things I want to go over. That way, nothing gets forgotten, I make sure I stay on task, and she can see that I’m not there for a purely social call. I have business to conduct. I have gone into the meeting (whether it’s a phone call or e-mail or in-person meeting) with a purpose.
START AND END WELL: While small talk is all well and good, don’t go overboard. Your editor and your publisher really don’t want to hear an hour’s worth of stories about your kid learning to walk. I know, you have the most adorable children on the planet (next to mine of course ) but truly, keep the chit-chat to a minimum. Their time is valuable—show them that you recognize that. At the end of the meeting, thank them for their time and get out of Dodge without lingering overly long. Same goes for those phone calls.
DON’T BE A PEST: I know how hard it is to be patient in this business. Ask any of my friends—my middle name is Impatient. But calling your editor on a daily basis to check on a proposal or to see if he has read your latest masterpiece is not a way to make him like you more. If anything, it’s a way to get labeled as T-R-O-U-B-L-E. And once you’ve got the big T label, it’s hard to shake. Try to be patient, realize publishing works in its own time zone and be smart: GET TO WORK ON SOMETHING ELSE.
MEET YOUR DEADLINES: This sounds basic, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t do this one basic thing. Deadlines are critical in publishing. Miss one and you can throw an entire production schedule into a tizzy. In the book world, it can topple other deadlines for other people’s books like dominoes. Unless you have lost a limb or an immediate family member, you rarely have an excuse to miss your deadline.
GET THE LITTLE THINGS RIGHT: This, again, seems like a basic, but it’s an important one. Go over your work with a fine-toothed comb. Look for those spelling errors, those dangling participles, those paragraphs that just don’t work. The more perfect you can make your work, the less work your editor has to do and the happier she is. You may think your editor exists solely to proof your work but the reality in publishing today is that editors work EXTREMELY hard for very little money and are often juggling dozens and dozens of deadlines, reading hundreds of manuscripts, and trying to keep their heads above water every day. Whatever you can do to make her life easier is appreciated, believe me.
TO THAT END, SHOW HIM APPRECIATION: Thank your editor from time to time. Send a card at Christmas, or a small gift (nothing too extravagant). Thank the copyeditor who does a great job on your manuscript, thank the art department that creates a killer cover for you. Thank the marketing department when they provide great publisher support. And it never hurts to tell your editor’s boss (the senior editor) that your editor is doing a good job. This is a business fraught with complaints so a few kudos from time to time are appreciated
THINK OF YOUR EDITOR AS A HELP ALONG YOUR CAREER: Your editor wants to see you succeed. If she has authors who become big names, it makes her look good too. Every few months (or at least once a year) sit down with your editor and map out a strategy for the coming months/year. Where do you and she see your career heading? What other books or materials could you be writing that you haven’t explored yet? How can you complement the job she is doing and vice versa?
IF YOU HAVE A BAD EDITOR…DON’T MAKE IT WORSE: Not every editor is a dream editor. Some are just plain difficult to work with, for one reason or another. It can be a personality clash, a work styles clash or simply the editor is bad at her job. And sometimes, it’s YOU that’s the problem (be honest with yourself and take a good look at where you might be contributing to the friction). When you have a bad editor, or a bad relationship with an editor, DO NOT make it worse by digging your heels in and refusing to cooperate. Publishing is a small industry and you’d be surprised where your editor will end up tomorrow…or how a door that seems closed today might open tomorrow.
INCLUDE YOUR EDITOR IN YOUR GOOD NEWS: When you get a good review, final in a contest, receive a nomination for an award, send those kudos along to your editor (but draw the line at every little piece of fan mail—reserve this for the occasional great event that can be used as a PR tool for your career at the publishing house). Number one, it’s nice to let your editor bask in the glow, since he worked on the book with you, and two, it’s also a way to show the publishing house that the book is doing well and getting noticed…a good thing to keep uppermost in their minds as you go to contract on the next one.
10.FINALLY, ASK WHERE YOU CAN IMPROVE: At least once a year, you should have this difficult conversation with your editor: What am I doing well with my writing and where can I improve? This is a tough question to ask—trust me, I know, because I’ve asked it myself several times. No one wants to hear what they are doing wrong. However, you will learn an INVALUABLE amount from this and show your editor that you are committed to improving your craft, making her job easier and making the final product—the book—better every time. A win-win for everyone.

Learning to work well with your editor is key to making your writing career move forward. A great editor can be a tremendous help to your career, so be sure you are doing everything you can to make your editor/author relationship the best it can be. And if it isn’t the best, try to do something today to improve it. In the end, you both have the same goal: to produce wonderful books. By working together, you’ll achieve exactly that!

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