As you grow as a content creator, your projects (and the editors attached to them) will rise and fall in priority. The longer you work on the best ones, the more familiar you’ll become with each editor—and the more vital it is to nurture that relationship. Speaking as an editor, I’m well-positioned to give you a bit of career advice: How you approach and nurture relationships with your editors does, in fact, affect how much work you receive.
Much like we tend to guide and grow writers with the intention of building a group we can count on for our content needs, you need to find reliable editors who help you get your bills paid. In short, we need you just as much as you need us. This symbiosis makes the content world go ’round.
As you embark on any new editor-writer relationship, remember these four characteristics of a good editor:
Freelance writing is a tough gig. It’s solitary and requires some motivation hacks, as the Content Standard writer Emma Siemasko describes in a recent story. As such, you want to find an editor who serves as a lifeline, a source of happiness whose name you don’t mind seeing in your inbox. “I look for someone who communicates quickly and is a great wordsmith, but is also a ‘people person’ online,” writer Stephanie Dube Dwilson explains. “Someone who keeps me updated if a story was rejected and helps me continually improve as a writer and for my client. Maintaining a good working relationship is all about communication.”
Freelance writer Krista Viar agrees. “I look for a good, honest editor who is firm, but kind in their criticism and is willing to work with me to achieve good content,” she says. “I also appreciate one who is communicative, explains things thoroughly, and gets back to me in a timely manner, especially if I have questions that are preventing me from moving forward in my work. It helps if they’re friendly and understanding when I’m having difficulty with my writing.”
“Editors who communicate well make my job more productive and fulfilling,” adds Angela Tague. That about sums it up.
When I mentioned to Siemasko that I felt sad about the story she told in the aforementioned article, which describes an editor who made her cry, she wrote back: “That is why you are a good editor. Being a good editor requires a ton of empathy.” (She also suggested I write this blog post—and here we are, my friends.)
Empathy is the ability to understand and share in other people’s feelings. Writing is a very personal endeavor, especially when it asks the writer to tell honest, tough stories. In this piece for Hello Humankindness, Dwilson describes how her husband used to sleep on the floor next to their sick kitten. A skilled editor goes into a story like this—one that discusses life and death, particularly regarding a living being the writer loves—knowing there’s a heavy burden of responsibility: How much should she change, if anything? If the piece needs revisions, how can she approach it in such a way that the writer understands that the story isn’t at fault?
Freelance writer Carolyn Heneghan was kind enough to shed some light on this for me: “The ideal editor is someone who balances constructive criticism with positive feedback and who honestly wants to help you be a better writer,” she said. “Constructive criticism shows an editor cares about me as a writer rather than just the words I produce, and it is always a great pick-me-up when an editor takes a moment just to say a quick thanks or give a thumbs up to something I’ve written.”
There’s some solid career advice for you: Look for an editor who appreciates your work and never has a harsh word to say, even when you mess up. (We all mess up.)
Good editors understand that no matter who or what you’re writing for, the words, tone, and story are particular to you. The best editors know how to balance those elements with what they or their client is looking for.
“The first step for a writer is getting ego out of the way and understanding when the editor makes their work stronger. This means not arguing, assuming the editor doesn’t understand their intent in putting things a certain way, and so on,” explains veteran freelance writer Evan Wade. “The good editors have good enough taste and a strong enough sense of voice to clean the writer’s work up without leaving their own style on top of it.”
In the end, you are writing for someone else’s publication. You have to understand that just as much as your editor does. “Respecting that basic idea and understanding that the end product’s quality trumps individual wishes is key in both finding a good editor and keeping them around once you’ve got one,” Wade concludes.
To that end, though, the burden is also on your editor to accurately explain the content goals. They have to have a solid understanding of the publication’s audience, voice, style, and any other particulars that make the brand what it is.
“I look for editors who are clear about their intentions for every piece of writing,” explains Elizabeth Wellington. “If editors can’t articulate their end goals, it’s much harder (or impossible) for me to hit the target as a writer. I always ask for a style guide—it’s usually a sign that an editor has thought through their approach to content from both editorial and strategic perspectives.”
An established content program should already have a style guide or some other set of guidelines, so feel free to ask. If the editor is still working on it, she’ll at least know you’re eager to get started, and she’ll be sure to send it your way once she’s finished.
Don’t be afraid to make friends. Yes, the editor-writer relationship is professional at its core, but a people-person editor is more likely to want to help you find more work if she enjoys hearing from you. I love reading the work of every writer I’ve quoted here, and when any of their names pops up in my inbox, I’m quick to read and respond. That’s simply the type of working relationship we’ve established, and it seems to work for us.
“I try to show that I’m interested in the editor as a person, rather than just a means to an end,” says Viar. “If you get along, it can make it easier to forgive when one of you made a mistake, and encourages communication if something isn’t working out. A good writer-editor relationship leaves both parties satisfied by the end result of their hard work.”
You got it, sister. Now let’s get down to business.
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