I once worked for a difficult editor at the daily newspaper where I cut my
He started screaming at me in my first job interview, and I was so
shocked by his aggression that I reacted by being icy cool. Regrettably,
this impressed him. When he asked me if I was married, I knew he had
crossed a legal line, but I doubled down on my Zen-like attitude. When he
concluded, “So we bring you in here, we train you, and you get knocked up,”
I shrugged, literally.
At that point, I knew I had landed the job, but the abuse (not
Harvey Weinstein-type stuff, fortunately) continued for the five years I remained in the
newsroom. The man was a bully.
The world is filled with bad editors. Here’s how to deal with them:
If the issue is their personality…
You’ll want to minimize contact with toxic
personalities, as I ultimately did with my difficult boss. Steer clear of
their tsunami of negativity, and talk to them as little as possible. Many
of them are attention-seeking narcissists. If they ever seek to belittle
you in front of other people (as my boss tried on many occasions), politely
move the meeting to a private office as quickly as possible. Otherwise,
find ways to delay or postpone meetings, so you spend as little time as
possible with such dysfunction.
If you need direction, email your editor politely and neutrally. If they
send you hostile emails, wait as long as you can before replying. It’s hard
not to respond to angry emails with even more anger. Don’t get sucked into
Try not to send a response email immediately. Instead, let it “marinate”
overnight, and review it the next morning when you are calmer. Then you can
edit a more thoughtful reply that should aim to soften the conflict.
Most of all, train yourself not to respond in kind to your difficult
editor’s deplorable behavior. It’s bad enough that the person you work for
is aggressive, insulting or demeaning. Don’t let the contagion infect you.
If the issue is incompetence…
Some editors (like some writers) are nice enough people, but they’re not
very good at their jobs. Here are the signs of a bad editor:
- They always leave their work until the very last minute.
- They complain but never praise.
- They never edit face to face, but rather send you marked-up documents.
- They rewrite instead of edit.
- They always think they know more than you (or your subjects) on the topic
you’re writing about.
- They give you unrealistic assignments.
It’s tough dealing with bad editors. I was fortunate that my difficult
editor was supremely competent at his job (otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed
at the newspaper for more than two weeks). I’ve also encountered my share
of incompetence over the years.
Here’s what I recommend:
Don’t freak out over every edit. Instead, pick your battles.
If an editor has changed the meaning of your work (or worse, tried to
change quotes from your sources) or has inserted inaccurate material,
speak up quickly and firmly. Be polite and thorough, and propose ways
of fixing the errors your editor has created. It will be easy for them
to cut and paste your suggested changes.
- Accept most edits as graciously as possible—even if you disagree with
them— and move on. If the editor is spectacularly inept, you might want to
alert your writing friends, quietly, but it won’t make you look good to
tweet or post on Facebook about your bad experience. That will only make
other editors suspect that you might be the problem.
If you’re a freelancer, never accept a job without a contract.
The contract doesn’t have to be formal or fancy. It can simply be a
letter that spells out the details of your assignment, your terms, your
expected payment, the timeline for your payment and your deadline. Some
operations have a standard contract, but you can also offer your own.
here, but customize it for your own country.
- Most of all, always consider specifying a “kill fee.” This fee is what
the client will need to pay you if they change their mind about publishing
what you write. Typically, kill fees are 50 percent of the money you’d get
if the article were published. Also, be aware that you should always
negotiate the time frame for your payment (On receipt of the article? On
publication? Thirty days after publication?). I once had a publisher delay
paying me for more than six months. I was young and stupid enough not to
have had a contract. I never made that mistake again.
If the issue is a personality conflict…
Not all editors you dislike are bad or incompetent.
Sometimes you are both fine human beings, but you’re a bad match. If this
is the case—and you still want to accept the work—then be squeaky clean and
be sure to do an exemplary job writing.
[FREE GUIDE: 10 ways to improve your writing today]
When to say no
Your answer to an offer of work should not always be yes. Sometimes it
makes more sense to say no. I can recall using that two-letter word at
- An editor once asked me to interview 10 people and write a 600-word
story. I stopped myself from laughing aloud, but the idea was so
ridiculous—60 words per person? I told the editor I couldn’t do it. After
she asked why and I explained the problem, she hired me for another story.
- I had pitched a national magazine on a story, and three years later the editor called to accept. Too bad for me she
wanted the story in just three weeks. I had a back injury at the time and
knew that I couldn’t do the work. I said a polite “no” and told her she was
free to use another writer.
I didn’t say no to my first terrible boss, because I was desperate for a
job at that newspaper. However, I left the newsroom as soon as I could,
ultimately accepting a job in management at the parent company. That bad
boss left a couple of years after I did and, I hear, is now a grumpy