Back in the day (ahem), editors edited. They guided writers, taught them about language and grammar, illuminated narrative structure for them. The best and wisest understood that the novel was the author’s not theirs and never tried to impose their suggestions for changes on the writing. They were the pair of eyes a writer sorely needed to gain objectivity about what they’d written. Those eyes needed a sharp but compassionate intelligence behind them, with a broad canvas of experience and knowledge. Such editors still exist, but more and more, the most recent generation of editors do very little actual editing, from what I’ve heard from other writers and from editors themselves in published interviews. The newest incarnation of the old-fashioned editor is the freelance editor.
Magazine editors are a different creature entirely. The basics are the same, but the format is shorter, and the turnaround time faster. A really good editor responds with specifics of what he/she needs; and while working with a writer on a piece, makes specific suggestions, focusing in on the parts that need work and those that please the editor. I’ve learned a lot from good editors. I really enjoy working with them. The best respect my writing, my efforts, my time and intelligence, as I respect them. They are not adversaries but allies in the process of publication.
How I wish every editor out there were good! But there is a range, as in any business, of intelligence, competence and ability to communicate to writers what they need from them. There is a range of writers of intelligence and competence, too, but I want to focus on the editor here because more often than not, the focus is on the writer: how a writer needs to work with an editor.
What to do when you encounter a less than stellar editor? The first thing I ask myself is: how badly do I want this gig? Sometimes, publication in the magazine is worth the aggravation of working with a less than stellar editor, depending on which magazine. Sometimes, not. The second thing: How much will I be paid? The money better be good. If not, I would respectfully take my leave. Working with a difficult editor takes patience, clarity of your communication, and fearless but respectful questioning. Beyond a certain point, vague feedback, changes without substantiation regarding the editor’s thinking specific to a sentence or paragraph, or lack of clarity in communication can frustrate me beyond words, especially when the editor becomes frustrated with me because I’m not getting what he/she has said. But I’ve never walked out on a commitment. I do the best I can and chalk it up to my continuing education. Sometimes it’s a genuine relief if the editor kills the piece.
Most editors know what they’re doing, what they want and are able to communicate it well. In the all-important working relationship between editor and writer, the editor has a responsibility to the writer as well as vice versa. We just don’t hear about it as much as what the writer’s responsibility is toward the editor. Both must want to forge the best possible writing between them…..