Try these tactics for coping with horrible editors

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
that vortex.

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.
    See one
    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
least twice:

  • 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.
    Happy ending.
  • 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

Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing coach. A version of this post first appeared on

Publication Coach

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