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The Writer-Editor Relationship

How can you light fires under editors? In this excerpt from The Craft & Business of Writing, learn why it's a businesslike, professional, and distanced attitude that will first give you perspective on the problems you're encountering, and then will allow you to handle problems without placing a self-destructive fire under yourself.

I can roughly translate many of the questions I field from writers into a single question: How can I light fires under editors?

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The need for such editorial ignition stems from a variety of problems: the editors (or agents) in question are slow to respond, to take notice, and even to pay. The writers who encounter procrastinating, inefficient, or uncaring editors want responses to their queries and especially payment within a reasonable time. They also want to be given the courtesy they deserve as working professionals and the ability to have control over their situations.

There are a variety of ways to solve these problems, to gain control, to light fires. Some of them involve specific negotiation tactics, which I’ll describe in a moment. Most, however, involve a general attitude you must employ in dealing with editors. It’s a businesslike, professional and distanced attitude that will first give you perspective on the problems you’re encountering, and will next allow you to handle the problems without placing a self-destructive fire under yourself.

The Writer-Editor Debt
The first step in approaching problems with editors is to identify which situations warrant fire starting and which don’t. Sometimes you’re far better off ignoring a “problem” (because it isn’t one, or isn’t one worth correcting), shrugging it off, or dealing with it in a more constructive way. To make that identification, remember that there are two types of responses an editor gives you:

  • those the editor owes you, and
  • those the editor does not owe you.

For example, an editor does not, in any sense of binding obligation, owe you a response to an unsolicited query. And here I’m not talking matters of courtesy. Professional courtesy does indeed dictate that the editor respond to you, as quickly as possible. But the editor does not owe you a response. You have approached him, without being asked, with a business proposition. If the editor isn’t interested, that’s the end of it. Nor does the editor owe you immediate response to unsolicited material. With all the proofreading, business meetings, budget work, correspondence with writers on assignment, personnel work, and everything else an editor does to get a magazine to press or a book in the stores, unsolicited material often must be given low priority.

If an editor is slow to respond or doesn’t respond at all, take professional umbrage at the lack of courtesy, then calmly and systematically move on to the next editor. Don’t berate the editor for his apparent lackadaisicalness. Don’t try to light fires. In this case, you’re only heating up tempers.

If the material was solicited, on the other hand, the editor does indeed owe you an answer. By asking you to send it, the editor has made an implicit commitment to consider the work and to let you know what he thinks of it—within a reasonable amount of time. Here’s where you can and should bring out the matches if you feel you’re not being treated well.

Therefore, when you have a problem with an editor, first determine whether it’s a problem you can do anything about in the first place. To do that, translate the situation into something closer to home—at your doorstep, to be more precise: the traveling salesperson.

Assume you’re not a writer, but someone selling magazine subscriptions door to door. Assume the editor is a customer behind one of those doors. Then ask what the editor should be required to do when the magazine salesperson comes a-knockin’. Ask yourself what you would do in that particular situation.

  • If the salesperson leaves a flyer at your door detailing the magazines available, would you be obligated to specifically inform the salesperson if you’re not interested?
  • If you turn down the magazine offer, are you obligated to tell the salesperson exactly why you’re saying no?
  • If you buy the magazine and pay for it, would you be offended if the salesperson tried to dictate how soon you read it?
  • If you buy the magazine but don’t pay for it right away, does the salesperson have the right to demand payment?

The answers vary. But phrasing the questions in this way gives you some perspective on the writer-editor relationship, and helps you determine a reasonable course of action.

Problem Solving
I must stress that we aren’t speaking matters of courtesy here; we’re speaking obligations. You can’t ignite courtesy. It just won’t happen. “Be courteous to me,” you shout, shaking your fist. You can guess the response to that. You can ignite fulfillment of obligations, however.
To do that, take these steps:

  1. Inquire politely about the problem. Don’t place blame—in fact, you might want to deflect potential confrontation by shifting blame elsewhere. The post office, for instance, is a common scapegoat. “I haven’t heard from you, and I wondered if you even received my query.”
  2. Inquire more firmly. “It’s been some weeks since I mailed the manuscript, and I haven’t received a response. What is its status?”
  3. Call or e-mail. Sometimes problems can be solved quickly and easily on the phone; sometimes not. Sometimes a situation prompts immediate action (it’s harder to dodge things in conversation than through correspondence); sometimes it only aggravates the problem, especially when the editor fields several nagging phone calls he doesn’t think are justified. It’s this very chanciness of using the phone that makes it inappropriate as a first step.
  4. Determine if you want to pursue the matter further. If not, withdraw the manuscript or query, or back away from the situation as appropriate (obviously you don’t want to do that if money is involved). If so, make your third mail inquiry the firmest. “I still haven’t received a response, and though I’d like to work with you, I need to know if you’ll be buying my manuscript or if I should market it elsewhere.”
  5. Look to others for help: Might a letter to the editor’s boss prompt some action? Go over someone’s head only as a last resort, however. Such a fire under an editor can burn a tender place, and he will blame you for it. It could mean the end of a relationship. Would someone with less authority (and perhaps a less demanding schedule) be able to check into things for you? For example, a managing editor—who monitors production schedules—might be able to answer your questions. Would an invoice to the accounting department spur payment? This is often an effective way of securing overdue payment. Would a letter from your lawyer open some eyes? The lawyer might not be able to do anything specifically, but no one, including an editor, wants to get into legal squabbles. Would a trip to small claims court be appropriate? Not if you’re seeking the contributor copies the editor promised, but perhaps if that payment check has been months slow in coming.

Perhaps one of the best ways of lighting fires is to have them burning from the very start of your working relationship with an editor. Give the editor every reason to want to work with you efficiently and responsibly, to respond and pay quickly, to treat you with courtesy. To do that, be a professional. Professionals want to work with—and are generally far more responsive to—other professionals. Here’s how to get editors to want to work with you, and to keep you happy:

  • Though courtesy can’t be ignited, it can be bred—with courtesy. Certainly don’t genuflect before editors, but do treat them with the respect you’d accord to anyone with whom you have business dealings.
  • Try to eliminate possible problems early on. If the editor hasn’t said when or how much you will be paid, ask, and get the answer on paper. If you want to see the prepublication galleys, negotiate for that right before you finalize the assignment. If the article you’re submitting is timely, request an answer within a specified time so the manuscript won’t go stale.
  • Learn as much as you can about the business so you’ll know what to expect. What ways of handling things are standard operating procedures? What ways vary from situation to situation? What ways are unusual? Much of this education simply comes with time and experience; more comes from doing a little reading.
  • Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) in all postal correspondence. The SASE not only invites response, but also instills in your correspondent a feeling of obligation to respond.
  •  Don’t whine, gnash teeth, moan, or scream during negotiations or even when complaining. State your case clearly and vigorously, but unemotionally. Remember that you’re two businesspeople at this point, not two temperamental geniuses locking creative horns.
  • Don’t go in with the attitude that the editor is trying to rip you off. Sure, some disreputable editors are out there. Some disreputable writers are out there, too. But not many, and not enough to worry about. Paranoia about having your work stolen only gives off the wrong signals to the people you’re working with, and wastes your time.
  • Don’t insult the editor by trying to trick or manipulate him. I once heard of a writer who submitted manuscripts single-spaced, typed to every margin, not because the writer didn’t understand the conventions of basic manuscript preparation, but because the writer wanted to preclude editing by not giving the editor space in which to make editing marks. Trickery and manipulation always backfire. As clever or as compelling as you think you’re being—from inserting a page upside down to see if the editor has read the manuscript to threatening to cancel your subscription if the editor doesn’t buy the piece—the editor has likely seen it all before.

Taking Control
There are also ways to gain control that don’t depend on the editor. For example:

  • Some writers complain of editors who lose or damage manuscripts. The solution: Don’t depend on the editor to send your manuscript back. Keep the original, and send a photocopy, one that, if lost or damaged, you can replace.
  • Some writers worry about editors changing the titles of their manuscripts without consulting them. The solution: Give the editor a choice of titles. Better yet, write a title that is very much in the style of the magazine you’re selling to. (You might also negotiate for the right to approve the title before you finalize the magazine assignment or before you sign the book contract.)
  • Some writers want to conduct business with great speed. The solution: Set a deadline for a response from an editor. But don’t force the deadline on the editor unless nothing else has worked and you’re ready to go into your “or-else” mode (“I need a response by the 15th or else I’ll be forced to withdraw the manuscript”). In your own mind, set a deadline. If you don’t hear from the editor by that date, assume the editor isn’t interested and move on to the next. If the editor eventually says no, you haven’t wasted any time waiting for the answer. If the editor says yes, you have the choice of working with that editor or with an editor you moved on to who said yes.
  • Some writers get peeved by a lack of editorial courtesy. The solution: Just don’t get peeved. Decide on a list of things you Won’t Worry About. Sure, it’s aggravating when you send first-class postage for the return of your manuscript and it comes back fourth class. But why worry about it? You’re out a few cents, maybe a couple of bucks. Consider it a part of the business, and worry about something more important. That and supposedly filched paper clips and the like are inconsequential. This is related to the concept of knowing what editors do and don’t owe you. Yes, on an absolute bottom-line basis, they owe you that postage and those paper clips. But is worrying about it, fretting over it, complaining about it going to gain you anything?

In other words, sometimes putting a fire under the editor doesn’t solve anything. In the long run, the most important thing is for you to take charge, in a professional way, of your own writing career.

Excerpted from The Craft & Business of Writing, from the editors of Writer's Digest Books.



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