There is no end of articles, videos and books advising the submitting writer how to put their best foot forward when interacting with that most feared and terrorizing member of the literary species: the editor. Writers have good reason for wariness and trepidation: Editors hold your professional life and death in their hands. Most of the advice regarding author-to-editor interaction can be summed up as: Be professional. That is to say, submit polished copy. Be courteous. Read the magazine and understand what the editors are looking for. Submit copy in the requested format. Do not resubmit revised copy while the original sub is under consideration. Do not argue rejections or ask for detailed feedback on rejected manuscripts. Do not hound or harry over-worked, underpaid editors for favors outside the scope of their normal work duties.
Fair enough. All very sensible, pertinent advice.
But that is not what this blog post is about. No, this blog post is a writer’s critique/feedback/bitch session-rant concerning some of my problematic experiences with them. And believe-you-me, some of this ilk need a bracing bucket of cold water dumped over their heads to snap them back to some semblance of reality/empathy for the word slaves they task with grinding out endless reams of copy written on spec for sniff-nosed rejections or equally frigid, curt acceptances. Below, please find my 10-point checklist of grievances with editors.
Before we get into the list, however, I would like to single out two editors who have been absolute paragons of professional conduct: John O’Neil (of Black Gate magazine fame) and S. T. Joshi (scholar, editor, weird tales writer). Mr. O’Neil and Mr. Joshi are talented, courteous and direct. Talented: their advice and suggestions improved my work. Both are unfailingly courteous in their interactions with writers, regardless of their status within the industry. (I expected S. T. Joshi—“the nastiest reviewer in the business”—Ellen Datlow—to be an absolute excoriating monster of vituperative contempt and snarling arrogance. In point of fact, I was shocked and mildly disappointed to discover that he is an exemplar of old-world courtesy and correctness in his behind-the-scenes dealings with writers: inexhaustibly polite, wryly funny and self-deprecating, offering the gentlest of gentlemanly criticism. When he puts his finger on a weakness in your work, he lets you solve it without being harshly proscriptive or prescriptive.) Direct: they do not mince words, but neither do they “erupt” at writers, issue vague or confusing communications, or retreat into sullen silence when questioned. I confess to having been spoiled by these two venerable gentlemen. I now expect all editors worth the title to model the O’Neil/Joshi criterions of excellence: succinctness and directness in communication (without being rude or abrupt), genuine talent and demonstrated ability for giving constructive criticism, respect and appreciation for a writer’s voice, fast follow-up and follow-through.
Some others, however. . . . Let’s just say that not all the (censored bleeps) of the literary world inhabit the writers’ camp.
- Competence. You would think—at a bare-minimum—all editors could improve a writer’s work. You would be wrong. I have had editors who mangled my grammar and syntax, reversed the very meaning of what I was trying to say, punched holes in a narrative’s pace and intelligibility (“We couldn’t fit those two paragraphs on the page so we cut them out”), and in one recent head-scratching instance published an entire short story with all italics removed. (No explanation ever given.) And then there is the editor who published my story under another’s name!
- Imperious Behavior/Commandments. “Give us your best work.” I’m not intentionally sending you my worst, pal. I’m actually delusional enough to think that any poem or short story I finish and send out after extensive revision might be worthy of passing note. So what are you paying? “Payment is 2 contributor copies”. Rights? “Acceptance of publication means you sign away all rights . . .” Next!
- Curt Acceptances. Look, I understand curt rejections—but acceptances? The gold needle in the towering shit-stack of a writer’s life of rejection? “Acceptance of the work is your reward.” Of course! But can’t you be a little . . . warmer in conveying that news? “No time.” Nonsense! A simple “congrats!” or “well done!” preceding the “accepted for publication in . . .” would do.
- Confusing/Impossible-to-Follow Directions Upon Acceptance. “Enclosed find attached contract. Sign and return.” Which I can’t do. Because the version you sent does not allow it to be opened and modified by the receiver. Adobe Acrobat, anyone?
- Ghosting/No Response. I ask you a direct question. You refuse to answer. WTF?! Am I supposed to somehow divine the answer, perhaps through a throw of yarrow stalks or the shaking of a Magic 8-ball? Surmise your response through subtext? Re: subs: Your site says: “Follow up in 6 – 8 weeks if no reply to submission received.” Which I do. At eight weeks. Again—one week later. And again . . . one week after that. Yet one more time . . . And then I regretfully (though confusedly—what happened?) pull the story from your slush pile/in-box. Did you never get to it? Plan on going out of business? Feel the story and/or author beneath your contempt? Are simply unprofessional? (Yes, I checked my spam filter.) And don’t give me that crap about “we don’t have time to reply to submissions”. Penetrative-act you! If you have the time to solicit submissions—and publish a magazine/online site/book—you better make time to respond to writers who devote time and energy from their harried, frequently under-paid and over-worked lives (just like you, see?) to create something they feel might serve your needs.
- Broken Promises. “Pays 2 contributor copies.” Never received. “Queries answered.” Not. “Please follow up in . . .” See point #5 above. “Will be published . . .” Out of business; story never formally returned.
- Changing Submitted Copy Without Notifying the Writer. Yes, maybe your suggested revision is better. Maybe it isn’t. Let’s look at it—together—before one or both of us face-plants in public.
- Editors Who Treat Their Magazines as Their Very Own Vanity Press. It’s impressive that you’ve published 5,000 stories. It is! Really. Somewhat less impressive that half of them were published in your own magazine. Who edits the editor?
- Editors Who Publish Commonplace Dreck Whilst Rejecting Your Literary Gems. Just kidding! That’s frustration speaking, not sober judgement or fair criticism. So okay; this should be a 9-point list! No one reads 9-point lists. . . .
- Endless Whining, Moaning & Groaning, Bitchy Kvetching About Writers. I’m sure all of it is, at times, merited. More than merited—richly deserved. There are madmen and madwomen and genderless mad people (everyone in the pool!) perpetrating all manner of wrong actions upon long-suffering editors. But once in a while—please—pause to consider the sins committed upon writers by your colleagues. (Not you, of course! You’ve never committed any of “The Ten—well, Nine—Deadly Editorial Sins” enumerated above, I’m sure. Never! My goodness. Why, the very thought!)
And now, the bonus round: 10 favorite quotes about editors and/or the process of revision.
1.) “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.” (Okay, that’s one for your side!) ― T.S. Eliot
2.) “The first draft reveals the art; revision reveals the artist.” ― Michael Lee
3.) “An editor is like a priest or a psychiatrist; if you get the wrong one then you are better off alone.”
― Toni Morrison
4.) “Just get it down on paper, and then we’ll see what to do with it.” ― Maxwell Perkins
5.) “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” ― Stephen King
6.) “Remove the comma, replace the comma, remove the comma, replace the comma…”
― R.D. Ronald
7.) “Editors can be stupid at times. They just ignore that author’s intention. I always try to read unabridged editions, so much is lost with cut versions of classic literature, even movies don’t make sense when they are edited too much. I love the longueurs of a book even if they seem pointless because you can get a peek into the author’s mind, a glimpse of their creative soul. I mean, how would people like it if editors came along and said to an artist, ‘Whoops, you left just a tad too much space around that lily pad there, lets crop that a bit, shall we?’. Monet would be ripping his hair out.”
― E.A. Bucchianeri
8.) “Writing well is more than mechanics, but it is not less.” ― Douglas Wilson
9.) “Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.” ― Kurt Vonnegut
10.) “Most of these editors, as they call themselves, couldn’t even effectively edit a haiku.”― Frank Black