Every editor, like every writer, is a unique and beautiful flower whose scent won’t appeal to everyone. Your personality will be one editor’s ideal but another’s work-a-day nightmare. Same with your writing style. Same with your agent, your email signature, your seething hatred of/undying love for Father John Misty.
My point is: the quality of the editor/writer relationship will largely be subject to the personalities involved. To writers, editors often seem to have all the power in the world to make or break your freelance writing career; in reality, editors are often dealing with more constraints and variables than you might imagine, so your relationship with them will likely never eclipse an ironclad budget’s bottom line or the fact that their boss is still in love with that genre your story so brilliantly subverts.
Currying favor likely won’t get you any big breaks—but failing to behave like a professional will cost you opportunities, so here’re a few easy things you can do (or not do) that will only help keep those contracts coming your way.
Meet your due dates—just do it. And if you can’t, let your editor know well in advance. Editorial schedules are rigid—and missed due dates are often passed down the production line, forcing everyone to either work more hours or pass the buck, until those poor designers at the end of the cycle have to pick up the slack. Think of the designers—the ever-condescended-to and put-upon designers! (Seriously. Think it’s hard being creative with a looming deadline? Try having to be creative AND sell that creativity to people with zero design experience after your time’s been cut in half by a writer who submitted the content late.)
Don’t make excuses. Embroiling your editor in an emotional narrative about a sick pet, a dead or dying relative, or bills that are piling up may get you some breathing room once or twice—especially if it’s true—but patterns are patterns, and editors have seen and heard it all before. Be professional. Own it. Things happen—but part of being a freelancer is managing your time effectively. Possibly the biggest part.
Don’t compare your piece to a work of classic fiction. If you disagree with an editorial comment or revision request, by all means make your case. Editors miss important stuff alllllll the time. But be specific, be objective, and no, you can’t do that one thing in your book just because Roald Dahl got away with it.
Let your editor know when something helped or hurt. I can honestly say that the best thing about my job is when something I did or said made a writer feel inspired or better able to do their jobs. And I can honestly say that the worst thing about my job is when a writer feels let down by or disappointed with my feedback (even when they’re being unreasonable). Let us know. But remember: most editors have feelings, too.
Prepare, research, and absorb. Review the publisher’s book offerings, pore over any source materials or documentation they provide you, and ask pointed questions to clarify anything that doesn’t make sense to you. The best writers I’ve ever worked with all share at least one quality: They take the time to understand the project.
Assume your editor knows things about the market and situation that you don’t. Editorial considerations are often born of an unholy union between Rosemary’s Marketing Baby and The Business Owner’s Nephew Who Writes Tweets for the Publisher. If an editor says something HAS to be a certain way, but they can’t go into details about WHY, it’s likely they are bound by an NDA, legal requirements, or a significant and uncompromising inability to operate under the obscene expectations leveled upon them by seven different executives who are so far beyond and removed from the actual product that they’ll never even read the summary but will have opinions so specific and subjective that incoherent pillow-screaming becomes your editor’s favorite pastime when they aren’t getting death threats from writers who feel wronged because you changed the name of the cat in chapter 2 and—
Ahem! In seriousness, while an editor’s life is often difficult, the freelance writer’s job is hardest of all. Harder than the designer’s job, even, because you’re not getting health insurance, you don’t have control over the fate of your creative efforts, and you can’t rely on regular work and income outside of the contracts that do come your way, when they come, nor how the publisher sells the book and the associated royalties you may or may not collect as a direct result of those efforts (or lack thereof).
But business is business, and it flattens anyone and everyone who isn’t on board. My advice for dealing with this? Keep your heart-novel close to your heart and prioritize it over all else whenever possible. Because the terrible thing about writing for money is that the best freelancers are very far removed from the reason they got into writing in the first place; without those closely loved projects of your own, WFH writing will kill your passion to write. Just don’t confuse the two.
Sean Tulien has been editing kidlit in various capacities for ten years. He hates writing but loves having written.