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Be a More Successful Writer: Five Things Editors Wish You Knew

Five Things Editors Wish You Knew

By Rochelle Melander

Never throw up on an editor. —Ellen Datlow

I have edited a quarterly periodical for 12 years. In addition, I edit books for both publishing houses and private clients. Over the years, I have kept a mental list of things I wish writers knew. Here are just a few of the items on my list. Follow them, and you will be a more successful professional writer. (Honest!)

1. Editors want you to succeed. When we open your manuscript, we hope it will be great or, at least, your very best work. If it isn’t, we will help you create your best work. But we need your cooperation. Here are a few things you can do to make the process easier:

*Be open to revising your manuscript. (I know! It’s hard.)

*Listen to our suggestions for how you can revise elements of your work.

*If you do not understand the proposed changes, ask questions.

*If we answer your questions and you still don’t understand, ask again.

*If we ask for more revisions, see #2.

2. It’s not about you. When editors offer suggestions for improvement, remember it’s about the work—the book, short story, novel, article, or poem—it’s not about you. I know—it’s hard to hear someone criticize your baby and not take it personally. But that’s all a part of becoming a professional writer. In the end, the writer has to leave the reader alone with the baby. The work has to stand on its own.

3. Editors can’t read your mind, and neither can your readers. Often writers are so immersed in their material that they forget that their readers, editors included, don’t know everything they know.

*If you are writing fiction, review your work for holes in the story. Have you skipped over scenes or backstory that serve a crucial role in the story?

*If you’re writing nonfiction, approach your work like an outsider. Does the work assume that the reader knows the people, places, and theories that are in the book? Is there any jargon that needs to be removed?

4. Guidelines matter. Publishing houses or periodicals create writer’s guidelines for a reason, and it usually has to do with two things: audience and money. The style guidelines are designed to help the writer reach the intended audience (remember #2: it’s not about you). If writers don’t stick to the style guidelines, it just adds more work for the editor—who has to edit the work to fit house style. The format guidelines, including word count, often have to do with money. The publishing company has budgeted for a certain number of pages. Your piece, once dropped into the template, must fit. When writers turn in work that is too long or too short, we have to fix it. (By the way, I rarely hire back writers who don’t follow guidelines. It’s too much work!)

5. Deadlines matter. Think of your writing deadline as just one domino in a long line of dominoes. When one deadline is missed, it affects every other deadline for the project. Yes, there is sometimes wiggle room, so if an emergency arises, please do talk to your editor about an extension. That said, I would not encourage any writer (no matter how good you are) to miss a deadline more than once.

Oh, I could go on and on. Get a few of us editors talking at a writing conference, and you’ll hear the wisdom pour out of us: Do your homework: don’t submit your thesis on biodiversity in the Wisconsin prairie to a theology journal, even if the journal is interested in all things “green.” Read voraciously in your field and as much outside your field as you can. Avoid jargon (it bears repeating). Use spell check. Keep a list of your own personal grammar goofs and use it to check every piece before you turn it in. Finally, once you think your piece is done, it probably needs a bit more work.

Writers and editors, do you have more suggestions? Leave them in the comments section below!  I have one more Bylines Writer’s Desk Calendar to give away, and I’ll give it to someone who leaves advice on this article. Leave your best advice for a chance to win this amazing tool. (I’ll hold an unscientific drawing on Thursday morning.)

WANT TO USE THIS TIP IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You may, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Write Now! Coach Rochelle Melander is an author, a certified professional coach, and a popular speaker. Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (And Live to Tell About It) is the 10th book authored by Melander, who teaches professionals how to write fast, get published, establish credibility, and navigate the new world of social media. Get your free subscription to her Write Now! Tips Ezine at and sign up to be a member of her Write Now! Mastermind class for professionals at


28 Responses

  1. Nice post with solid advice. One piece of advice I would add for writers is to print your work and read out loud before you submit. I do this for all my short stories – blog posts – life style articles etc. Reading my work out loud helps me to read slowly, discover which sentences need a rewrite, and spot stupid grammar issues.

    1. Completely agree I can’t tell you how many errors I’ve caught on my blog posts until after I’ve posted them, and it’s not like I don’t edit before I post. Thank God you can always go back and edit the blog posts, did this with a college essay once, oops (I don’t know how the professor didn’t catch the mistake).

    2. writenowcoach

      Heather, this is great advice! I also find that I see the piece differently when it is on hard paper (versus the screen) and when I have to read it out loud. Thanks!

  2. These are great — I would just add one more, which relates to all five of your points: “Be the kind of writer YOU’D like to work with.” When I was an editor, I found there were two kinds of writers: the ones who made you nervous because you never knew if they’d really come through — and the ones who made you sigh with relief when you gave them an assignment, because you knew they’d deliver exactly what I wanted. Now, as a freelance writer, I see my overall goal as to help relieve my editors’ stress — by being the second type of writer. This is the key to getting what every writer wants — the next assignment!

    1. writenowcoach

      Barbara, Thanks for the great advice. I always think, I don’t want to be the writer who the editor complains about at the water cooler! And I love your story about the two kinds of writers. So true.

  3. This is a very nice and well considered list.

    I would also suggest the adage (a truism actually) that only amateurs fear editing; the pros know that good hard editing is the secret of their writing success

  4. I love the tip about making a list of our own personal grammar goofs. One the the best tips I ever got was to find every “that” and “which” in your copy and delete any you don’t really need. I’d even throw “of” into the mix. Once you get in the habit, it’s astounding how overused those words really are.

  5. Beth Hoffmann

    Remember that spellcheck won’t identify the wrong word that is a real word:
    their, there, they’re
    lead/led, there/three, duel/dual, alter/altar, thrown/throne
    through, though, thought, thorough, throughout
    “lie” means recline; “lay” means “put in a place”
    Reading the piece backward paragraph by paragraph helps me see what’s really there instead of just what I meant to put there.

  6. Great advice! I agree with the previous comment about reading your work out loud. My addition to the list is to know and use good writing resources. It’s rather basic, but a current dictionary, thesaurus, grammar or style guide, and other writing-how-to books are invaluable. Also, websites (like this one) and blogs about writing and editing can be excellent learning tools and motivators.

  7. Rochelle,
    Thanks for the advise, it’s always good to get it from the source. And I liked the bit about editors wanting the MS to be good. Of course they do, but maybe writers see it as an ‘us and them’ relationship sometimes.
    I think we writers really have to pay attention to what you say – it’s so easy to work in isolation and get carried away with the praise of friends and family. Editors can give a critique of the work: friends and relations are (mostly) only capable of liking or disliking something, Rarely are they equipped to see the faults or give advice.
    I agree with Heather’s advice about reading your work aloud, it really exposes the weaknesses and flaws. It also brings you face to face (or perhaps ear to face) with your work, which can be a pretty scary thing. That said, when you’ve written a full novel, it’s a bit of a challenge to read it out loud. 🙂
    She’s write about printing too. By day I’m a technical author and I know from experience that you pick up more faults on paper than you do on screen. Which is annoying as I’d prefer to save tress and not print anything.
    My tip is to get strangers to read your work, or at least those who don’t owe you anything. Join a writing group and get feedback from the other members. These should be people whose work you can respect and who are much more likely to give you honest feedback. The great thing about doing that is that you don’t have to agree with them – but they should make you question your work more deeply, which can only be a good thing.

  8. Angela is so write, for me the most important one is the thesaurus for my fiction writing. In fact I quite enjoy just scanning it anyway, but I need to get out more. 🙂

    Randy is right too, but I find the marketing side such a struggle. It’s hard enough sitting down to write let alone work on the marketing side. Yet without it you’re dead in the water, drowning among a million other voices.

  9. Pingback : The Week in Writing and Publishing 1st April 2012 | A Writer's Quest

  10. Thanks for all the good advice. I arrived here by searching Google for “writing a Kindle ebook” and this page was among the first results. I am trying to write an e-book to be called “The Art of the Meme” but I do not know the first thing about formatting the e-book or how to submit it to Amazon. I hope you keep on writing advice for us wannabe authors. Thanks. -ATM

  11. Maxine Bringenberg

    In dialogue, try to avoid writing the same way people actually speak. Believe me, most of the time, a transcript of a real conversation would never stand up to an editor’s scrutiny! Boring, grammatically lacking, and sometimes confusing!

  12. Pingback : CommDigest » Be a More Successful Writer: Five Things Editors Wish You Knew

  13. Great points. Understanding number 2 is may be the most important thing that moves you from hobbyist to professional writer. It’s really not about you. It’s about producing a piece of writing that meets a set of professional objectives, whatever they may be. Especially with online writing, editors change things for SEO reasons, and writers who get overly precious about it just show they don’t understand SEO, immediately marking themselves as unprofessional.

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