Remember “Lou Grant,” the TV show in which actor Ed Asner played a gruff, unsmiling newspaper editor? Well, that TV character isn’t totally made up. In fact, he has a lot in common with real-life newspaper and magazine editors.
I’ve worked both as a writer and editor, so I know what it’s like to sit on both sides of the desk. One lesson I’ve learned is that publishing isn’t a democracy. The sooner writers (including me) accept that fact, the happier—or at least less annoyed—we’ll be.
But wait a minute, you may ask. Aren’t editors standing on the shoulders of writers? Without writers, wouldn’t editors be out of a job? Well, maybe. But that doesn’t mean the writer is in charge. Who’s in charge? The editor, of course—the rude, caustic, short-tempered, abrupt person who “deals with” your copy to make it “fit to print.”*
So what is the writer’s job? To make her editor smile, or at least not growl, by following these rules:
1. Never miss a deadline. As a writer, you have a deadline with your editor but that’s not the end of the story. Your editor has deadlines, too—to pass the edited copy along to the next person, whether it’s a copy editor, designer or whoever. If one person is late with copy, it affects everyone down the road. Who wants to work with someone who’s consistently late? No one. And chances are, you’re not the only writer your editor is working with.
Think of your deadline an immovable object that doesn’t care if your cat slept on your printer or you need to catch a bus to use the free Wi-Fi at the brewpub. (Yes, writers have offered both those excuses to me for submitting late copy.)
The relationship between a writer and editor is based on trust. If she can’t count on you to make your deadlines, she’ll find someone else.
2. Woman up: Deliver the bad news. If for any reason you must miss a deadline, let your editor know as soon as possible. Don’t put off telling her because of a possible negative response. It’s your job to let the editor know so she can make any necessary changes in assignments.
3. Don’t pitch on deadline. The minute after you submit your copy is not the best time to send your editor an idea for your next article. Wait a few days at least.
4. If in doubt, email. Most editors I know hate the phone. Why? Because, too often, it rings at the wrong time, in contrast with emails, which are easier to respond to when it’s convenient. Save phone calls for emergencies.
5. Stick to the point. Don’t dump several topics into one email. Include only what your editor needs to know about your most immediate project.
6. Recap. Don’t force your editor to recall what article you’re working on. Never send her an email that requires her to find an earlier email or assume she can quickly and easily remember all the issues and players involved in your story. Instead, if you’re communicating by email, include a short recap. For example:
Subject: Snowmobile article
Hi, Andy – As you know, the angle on the topic is safety. John Wilson, the owner of SnoGo, whom I interviewed yesterday, suggested I go to Big Business Lobby for comments about safety concerns. I was thinking Association of Outdoor Enthusiasts might be a better choice. What do you think? Sam
7. Provide print-ready answers. When an editor emails you a follow-up question about your article, don’t expect her to write your revised copy for you. Instead, provide copy she can paste into the article. For example:
Emailed question from editor:
Sam – In your snowmobile article you said “SnoGo is the oldest snowmobile company in the area.” How old is the company and what area are you referring to? Andy
Instead of responding like this:
Sorry, Andy. I should have made that clearer. My bad. J SnoGo is 20 years old. By “area” I meant the Seattle vicinity. Sam
Respond like this:
Andy – Use this: SnoGo, founded in 1976, is the oldest snowmobile company in the Seattle area. Sam
8. Spell it right. Double- and triple-check spellings of names, especially names of people and businesses. People often intentionally spell things in unusual ways.
9. Provide complete photo captions. In addition to an article, you may also be asked to provide photos and captions.
This does not count as a photo caption:
The guy in the red hat is Frank Jones. Next to him is his daughter Sarah. They’re standing in front of their store. I took the photo.
Instead, write this:
(left to right) Sarah Jones and her father, Frank Jones, stand in front of the Jones Family Grocery Store. (Photo by Terry Camden)
*“All the news that’s Fit to Print” is the motto of the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/