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The 10 Deadly Sins of Bad Editors

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 themAnd 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. 

  1. 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
  1. 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! 
  1. 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. 
  1. 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? 
  1. 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. 
  1. 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. 
  1. 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. 
  1. 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? 
  1. 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. . . .   
  1. 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 

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32 thoughts on “The 10 Deadly Sins of Bad Editors

  1. I could never be an editor. Oh, sure, I can catch typos and bad punctuation and other copy editor things. But when it comes to editing to improve readability, for example when I’m editing the contributions of my co-author, my tendency is to throw it out and start over.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Mike, I’m the same way. I’ve tried collaborative writing and it’s always ended in disaster: hurt feelings on the part of the other writer (after I’ve rewritten their contributing portion to harmonize with my own).

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I posted this blog on Facebook and the initial comments from writers & editors include recommendation, agreement and enjoyment.

    E.M. Swift-Hook
    Well worth a read…

    Keyla Damaer
    Can’t say I disagree.

    Ian Bristow
    Indeed. Enjoyed the read.

    …etc.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. victoracquista says:

    I find that I feel a sense of purgation just reading through your list. It would be fun for an editor to provide a list of particularly irksome things they have to contend with when dealing with authors.

    I draw an important distinction between those editors who work with authors through developmental, line, and copy editing and note your comments pertain to acquisition editors, a different breed entirely. Judge, jury, and executioners are this second lot. I do think there is a good, bad, and ugly way to think about these editors collectively. As you have experienced, I’m glad you shared the good along with the bad and ugly.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Good points all, Victor! There are plenty of jaw-dropping articles/anecdotes out there re: acquisition editors’ interactions with crazed writers–some of these incidents howlingly funny (since they didn’t happen to us, eh?) I’m actually very sympathetic to the plight of the modern editor: under-appreciated, often underpaid and over-worked, a sinews-straining gatekeeper pushing back against the talent-deficient and/or artistically deluded barbarian hordes clamoring for entry into the castle: a romantic, doomed, existential figure consecrated to the dying Mandarin art of great writing.

      But that is not what this blog post is about . . .

      Liked by 4 people

  5. I love the rant! I once had a lit mag editor reject a story, and he referred me to his own work for what type of fiction the magazine wants to publish. Unbelievable . . .

    I agree with you about editors who can’t be bothered to send out rejections. It’s not as if each rejection is an illuminated manuscript individually crafted by a cloistered monk. Ever heard of a database?

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Perry Palin says:

    Thirty years ago I sent an article to a small commercial magazine and the publisher/editor liked the writing but rejected the piece on the basis of poor quality accompanying photos. With the promise of $100 for the piece I paid a photographer friend $50 for better images. The magazine published the article, and then stiffed me on the payment. I was paid, but only after I persuaded the publisher that I could influence both other contributors and subscribers.

    I had a couple stories rejected by a little magazine that matched the kind of stuff they were accepting. The boilerplate of the rejection notice encouraged further submissions. I sent them a couple stories that I am embarrassed to say were not my best, and the magazine bought them. I couldn’t make any sense of that.

    The publisher of my second book of short stories assigned an editor who tried to change some dialogue to make a lower working class rural Midwestern teenager sound like an English professor. The editor had a day job as an adjunct English professor. I was able to fight off those changes.

    And then there was the editor whose only act was to submit my story to Grammarly. I had already decided how and where to use those commas. If you’re going to suggest changes to a piece of fiction, you should have a better reason than you ran it through a free software program that doesn’t know dialogue.

    When I had a day job I was asked to write and/or edit all types of business writing, everything from marketing pieces to business policies to legal pleadings. This was a sideline to my regular work, but I was happy to make myself useful. Still, I would never want to edit anyone’s fiction, and I appreciate those editors who understand and can make fiction stronger.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Ah, you’ve been there too, I see! Battling with the clueless. Loved this:

      “The publisher of my second book of short stories assigned an editor who tried to change some dialogue to make a lower working-class rural Midwestern teenager sound like an English professor. The editor had a day job as an adjunct English professor.”

      Remember the rejection notice Melville received from Peter J. Bentley?

      ““First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale? While this is a rather delightful, if somewhat esoteric, plot device, we recommend an antagonist with a more popular visage among the younger readers. For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens?”

      Liked by 5 people

  7. My sympathies, Carl.
    It’s interesting to see this from both sides, although I must admit that my experience in both cases is limited.
    I had one editor for my book who sent me an introductory e-mail letting me know all about her prestigious degrees (topped off, of course, with an MFA). I assume I was supposed to be in awe that such a well-trained person was lowering themselves to help with my meager effort (I never told her about my degrees). It was also obvious she didn’t like my book and had decided I should rewrite it as she dictated (cut by 1/3, totally rewrite a character to her liking, getting rid of all of her backstory, etc.). Our relationship did not last long. The line editor was also really an amateur who tried to come off as Lou Grant (if you’re not familiar with Lou, he was played by Ed Asner on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and then later spun off with his own dramatic newsroom show) – gruff, acerbic, sometimes downright nasty, etc. The only problem is that if you want to be a Lou Grant you’d damn well better know what you’re doing. He didn’t. My favorite memory of him is his suggestion (after admitting he knew nothing about science fiction) that we should market my book as the new ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe’. Of course, my book was a dark dystopian novel, so his suggestion was a bit akin to marketing ‘Apocalypse Now’ as the new ‘Peewee’s Playhouse’. I ended up ignoring about 95% of his suggestions.
    On the other side of the coin, I’m currently learning the joys of editing, by working on the next ‘Rabbit Hole’ anthology. We have posted a specific theme (you might remember GD polled everyone about it months ago) – Descent into Madness. So far I’ve received about 68 submissions, and a whopping 18 actually fit the theme. I once assumed that the ability to read was a necessary precursor for writing. Guess I was wrong. I could go on, but I think I’ll leave it at that for now.
    Write (and rant) on!

    Liked by 5 people

  8. mimispeike says:

    DocTom says: I ended up ignoring about 95% of his suggestions.

    The only editor I ever dealt with (for Sly), I ignored close to 95% of her suggestions. Is this a common experience? This would be, of course, for a piece you will self-publish, maybe not so much one you are trying to sell to a magazine.

    Decent into Madness, what is the deadline for submission. Somehow I missed the announcement. Is it too late to submit?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I hired an editor for Book 1 of my sci fi trilogy. She wanted me to write a different story. I got so irritated I didn’t even read all her feedback. Then I felt guilty: “What if she’s right? Every author gets upset at such feedback.” But no, every time I looked at what she’d said, I got pissed off.
      Since then I’ve relied on my critique groups and beta readers

      Liked by 2 people

      • mimispeike says:

        Maybe when it was first announced I couldn’t see a piece in me for it. It comes to me that I, a possibly delusional old lady in Maisie in Hollywood, might fit the bill. Thanks.

        And I am a crazy, old, lady, so the character is very easy for me to write.

        I believe I could almost just give you chapter one and it would meet the requirement of the topic.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Whether confidence or hubris, I don’t know, but I’ve dispensed with the services of an editor. I’ve only dealt with two – not atrocious but not a great help either.
    I’ve edited a lot of stories myself – a very time-consuming labour of love (huge thanks to Tom for stepping in on The Rabbit Hole). Quite a few, I’ve rewritten completely, not without some anxiety each time over the author’s reaction. I developed a carefully worded accompanying letter which must have helped as only one took umbrage. But on the whole I find it a daunting task. Like redesigning human beings – how far can you go before God throws a hissy fit?

    Liked by 3 people

    • mimispeike says:

      It is good to get criticism, even if it takes you apart, for this reason: it forces you to reconsider your choices, forces you to defend them, to yourself more than anyone.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Curtis, you’ll appreciate this:

      link: https://medium.com/@acardais/even-nabokov-needed-an-editor-75daf2b084d8
      ……………………………………………

      Excerpt from article referenced above:

      One of my all-time favorite editing stories is from the wonderful 2009 memoir City Boy, by the writer Edmund White. When White was an editor at the now-defunct Saturday Review magazine in the 1970s, he commissioned an essay by his idol, Vladimir Nabokov, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century.

      Unsurprisingly, the piece was excellent. “But I had a problem,” White writes. “Nabokov’s mini-essay had minor mistakes in punctuation and even in diction. How did one edit Nabokov?”

      To avoid offending Nabokov, White wired the Lolita author two versions of the essay to review: the original draft, “mistakes and all,” and an edited copy, with a polite note explaining his revisions.

      Nabokov wired back: “YOUR VERSION PERFECT.”

      This story gets at two of the most important lessons I’ve learned over 14 years in publishing. First, every writer, even Nabokov, needs an editor. Second, diplomacy is key to editing.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Gee Curtis, I can’t see myself rewriting someone’s story. I generally line edit with explanation, and make it clear that these are suggestions. If there’s a plot hole I’ll point it out and make a suggestion there too. But I think if a story needs a total rewrite then I’d just reject it.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Yes, the rewrites came from an excess of enthusiasm when I started out, plus the challenge and satisfaction if it comes out right and the author agrees that it does. But there has to be some potential at the start.

        Liked by 2 people

  10. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writers Links | No Wasted Ink

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