Managing Your Editor When You’re Writing On Assignment

your editor

Writing on commission with an external editor can be challenging, rewarding, or both at the same time. Here’s advice on managing the relationship and publishing something you can feel proud of.

I’ve been blessed to write for a wide range of clients, organizations, and publications in my career. And though topics and audiences vary widely, all assignments have one thing in common: my work is reviewed, revised, and ultimately signed off for publication by an external editor.

I’ve worked with some amazing and inspiring editors — and some I’d rather not work with again. But I’ve learned from each of them, and every experience has taught me ways to better collaborate on my next project or assignment. Read on for advice on managing your next writer/editor collaboration and making sure that your finished, published piece is something you and your editors can feel proud of.

Go for collaborative, not contentious

When you work with an editor, remember that you share a common purpose of creating compelling writing that achieves agreed-upon goals. All of your interactions with your editor should support that mission — and that means making sure your editor is your ally, not your adversary.

You and your editor don’t have to be best friends, or even like each other that much. Just remember to always engage with respect and professionalism and interact in a way that will make your editor want to refer you to colleagues — and work with you on subsequent projects as well.

Do your research

Before I start to work with new editors or clients, I always find it helpful to look at previous pieces they’ve published. Even five minutes of quick skimming can give you a strong idea of the tone, format, style, and impact your editors are looking for. If you’re writing on a topic you’re not very experienced with, it can also be helpful to quickly research what other organizations or publications have put out on similar subject matter.

Ask questions ahead of time

Set yourself up for a smooth collaboration by aligning on expectations ahead of time. After you’ve done your research and gleaned what insight you can from it, this means asking questions early and often.

What are your editors looking for? What would they cite as prime examples of previous published works you can use for inspiration? Who is the audience? How would the editors describe the ideal tone? To them, what does success look like for the project you’re working on? What should you absolutely not do while writing for them?

Don’t feel the need to ask all of the above questions verbatim — or any of them, for that matter. Just be sure to clearly and concisely request whatever information you need in order to write successfully. As you move forward with your draft, don’t hesitate to ask additional questions, though be mindful of your editors’ time. That said, part of an editor’s job is to support you and give you what you need to deliver your work in style.

Check your ego

They may be your words, but most often, pieces you write for external organizations, publications, or editors are not about you. Remember that you are being hired to help your editors accomplish a specific goal — and that goal is your top collective priority.

In other words, if your editor doesn’t love the title of your piece, feels that one of your interviews didn’t cut deep enough, or wants a refocus on facts over feelings, don’t take it personally. Remember that edits and revisions are not personal attacks on you as a writer and, much as it may hurt to see your work even minorly redlined, you should use it as an opportunity to strengthen your writing and grow as a writer.

Call things out

When you submit your draft, share ancillary insights, context, and recommendations with your editors if you think such thoughts will be helpful as they prepare your piece for publication. That said, keep your notes as brief and practical as possible. Your goal is to streamline your editor’s process, not clutter it with information not directly relevant to the task at hand.

Challenge but don’t push

If at any point you disagree with your editor on a matter concerning your writing, consider bringing it up in discussion. Keep all communications collaborative and respectful, state your concerns and the reasons behind them, and see what happens. I’ve found that in the vast majority of cases, when I present a well-reasoned suggestion, my editors respond positively and we come to a solution that works for all involved.

Choose your battles wisely. You never know how overworked or under-supported your editors may be, so make sure you only bring to their attention matters that feel vital. Small changes in tone or word choice, stylistic knots that you would have untied differently — these are probably not worth either of your time. Major questions of content or tone, implication, or connotation — or embarrassing errors that need to be corrected — are moments when it is appropriate to make yourself heard.

5 Steps GuideThere will be times when you respectfully challenge your editors and are overruled. Unless the matter is do-or-die, gracefully defer to their judgment and let it go. Your editors are the gatekeepers for their publications or organizations, and they are the ones ultimately responsible for everything they publish. They may have to address dynamics or challenges that you, as an external writer, are simply unaware of.

Keep your creativity

Writing on assignment with an external editor may seem limiting at times, especially if you are handed a hyper-focused assignment with strict guidelines for format and style. At the same time, creativity can thrive within constraints. I’ve often found myself experimenting with fresh modes of description, new storytelling approaches, and more, even within the narrowest and most structured of assignments.

Write, learn, move on

Once you submit your work, any number of things can happen. Your editors may thoroughly rewrite some sections and cut others. They may table your work for months and publish it under a different title. Or they may think it’s perfect and publish it immediately with minimal copy edits.

It can be easy to get hung up on an assignment if it doesn’t go exactly how you want it to, or hung up on an editor who doesn’t “get you” as a writer, but try not to. Every collaboration is an opportunity to learn, grow, and advance your writing career. Focus on what you can gain from each project, make mental or literal notes for next time, and dive into whatever comes next.

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