Assume Your Editor is a Demanding Jerk

The professional endures adversity. He lets the bullshit splash down his slicker, remembering that it comes clean with a heavy-duty hosing. He himself, his creative center, cannot be buried, even beneath a mountain of guano. His core is bulletproof. Nothing can touch it unless he lets it.

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield


If you ever write for someone else, go into every gig assuming your editor is going to be demanding, relentless, and uncompromising. He or she might be an outright jerk.

But you can take it, right?

As an editor, most of the feedback I get from people who write for me is positive. More than once I’ve been called “The nicest travel writer I know.” At least by people who haven’t met Don George yet, that is.

Two or three times a year though, I’ll get an e-mail from some writer starting with, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” The writer then calls me a meanie and says I should be more kind in my e-mails. I’ve hurt their feelings, made them feel unappreciated, and they’re miffed enough to tell me it’s been bothering them.

I play along and say I’ll keep that in mind, but really if I went back in time my e-mail would be exactly the same.

Positive Feedback is Not Their Job

You should probably get used to that. If you get a “nice job” message, frame it. Some publications I’ve contributed to for years and there hasn’t been a single piece of positive feedback. But why should there be? They paid to purchase a service and I delivered that service. The positive feedback is that they keep hiring me. Should you tell the lawn care guy every week what an awesome frickin’ job he did edging the grass along your sidewalk? Let him go win “Lawn Care Professional of the Year” if he needs that kind of ego-boosting.

Editors are busy and the last thing they’re thinking about is whether they’re making you feel good about yourself. Granted, there are exceptions. If there’s a writer I feel like I can take from good to mind-blowingly great with just a little targeted encouragement, I’ll take the time to put my criticism between two tasty buns in order to make a nice sandwich. If I’m leading a workshop I’ve been paid to lead or someone has covered my expenses for a conference, it’s my job to be Mr. Positive for three days instead of Mr. Tough Love. If you’re a real staff member instead of a freelancer, “staff development and coaching” is indeed in that manager’s job description.

But if you’re a freelancer or independent blogger selling me your content? Sorry, no.  That’s a transaction. Service rendered, fee paid. Next!

I’m telling you all this not to rationalize my gruff e-mail exterior, but to point out an important reality: I’m the norm, not the exception.

long e-mails

I’m a freelancer too and for 20+ years, I’ve been on the receiving end of that correspondence. First in letter form then in faster but even less civil electronic form. Even when editors didn’t have social media, the internet, e-mail, or constantly buzzing smart phones, they were crazy busy. I once visited one in an office in New York and watched in awe as she talked on the phone, wrote notes on documents in her in-box, interviewed me, and chewed out her assistant for double-booking her at 5:00. All while stuffing things in her briefcase to take home that night. I can only imagine how frazzled she would be now, aided by technology.

I can easily point to my favorite editor of all time, one of the first ones who hired me for multiple assignments. He was warm, charming, witty, and encouraging, no matter what. The thing is, eventually he got laid off after a buyout and it took him more than five years to find another full-time job. Meanwhile, every jerk editor I’ve ever worked with has gone on a path of getting bigger and better jobs each transition. Sorry to say, the correlation between writer coddling and career trajectory is probably an inverse one.

How an Editor Processes 250 E-mails a Day

You see, almost anyone you can point to as successful in any field has become that way by prioritizing their time and getting the maximum amount of work done with the minimum amount of time required. Nearly all top-level entrepreneurs and executives view their e-mail box as something to process, deal with, and whittle down. Short and effective moves the business forward. Chit-chatty and meandering is for amateurs and starving artists.

So call me a jerk, call me insensitive, and deride me for not being more of a people person online. Hopefully someday we’ll hang out together in person and I’ll change your mind. But if you miss your deadline, the e-mail from me will be very short and to the point. If you do that twice it might even sound downright mean.

editor praise

Sorry, but I don’t have any of these in my desk drawer…

If you do everything you’re supposed to do, on time, that’s called “fulfilling your commitment” and usually doesn’t deserve an emotional pat on the back. Call me up and ask how you’re doing if you want honest feedback. Or go enter your stories in writing contests and win some awards. Don’t just wait for praise from the people paying you and get miffed if it doesn’t appear. If you believe in your art and you know you’re good at it, you don’t need their opinion anyway.

When you think of your editor, picture Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerburg, or the old model in my music biz days: Clive Davis. If you go in with the assumption you’ll get grudging respect for a job well done and unfiltered (but valid) criticism when you screw up, it’ll be all upside and no downside. You’ll forge onward and grow your back account. Meanwhile the fragile amateurs will spend more and more time on Facebook and Instagram, getting their required injection of daily affirmations and encouragement.

If you receive an e-mail that’s all criticism and no praise, take what’s valid and ignore what’s not. Reply with one word back—maybe “Thanks” or “OK”—and get back to creating great work.

Tim Leffel is the author of five books, including Travel Writing 2.0, and is editor of the frequently awarded Perceptive Travel online magazine.

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