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Editors Must Respect Writers
Editors should never make assumptions about your capabilities, where you've been published, or what you know. No matter how accomplished (they think) they are compared to you, editors should treat you like a human. Maybe an editor doesn't think your pitch or submission is a good match for their publication. Maybe an editor doesn't think you're the right writer to hire to complete an assignment. Maybe an editor doesn't think you're even ready to be published. They are entitled to their opinion. In fact, it's part of their job to make these kinds of judgment calls. However, an editor should always treat you with courtesy and professionalism, regardless of how they assess your work. It's possible to decline a writer's work without being condescending, pretentious, or mean—and that's the exact approach editors should take. Of course, that is assuming a writer brings civility and tact to the table. Don't bring attitude and be surprised if someone treats you less than graciously. Read my article on how to respect editors' time as a writer if you haven't already.
Sometimes, however, it's not so obvious that an editor has crossed a boundary with a writer. I'm going to outline five signs of unprofessional behavior from editors based upon my experience as a staff, contract, and freelance editor and writer for commercial, academic, and literary publications. This includes a vast world outside of Quail Bell. For the purposes of this article, I am mainly addressing relationships between editors and freelance writers for non-fiction publications that hire wordsmiths as journalists, essayists, and content producers. I am not referring to editors of literary publications for which writers are submitting poetry and fiction. (Frankly, the dynamics are different because the economics are different, but, hey, I guess I just signed myself up to write another article.)
Here are five signs an editor is acting less than professionally:
1. Reinforcing sexist, racist, and classist patterns. Journalism, publishing, and content marketing have a lot of problems. Like the rest of society, these fields suffer from sexist, racist, and classist traditions and ways of thinking. Editors must do their best to resist these old ways, listen, learn, and reform what's in their power to change. This means not assuming a woman they've never met wants to cover a fashion story and a man they've never met wants to cover a sports story. This means actively trying to hire non-white freelance writers outside of "special occasions" like Black History Month. This means not making a pass at a female freelancer after assigning her a big feature story because she "owes" something. This means not privileging Ivy League writers over ones with state school degrees when their writing is equally strong. It means all of that and more because we live in an age where people should really know better—especially literate people who are supposedly avid consumers and creators of media.
2. Refusing to provide a contract for freelance work. If an editor wants you to write an essay or article as a freelancer, they should offer you a simple contract. This contract should outline the scope of the work, including the deadline and pay. If an editor does not give you a contract, ask for one. If they say it's not necessary, insist. If they say their publication doesn't provide a contract for freelancers, still insist. Tell them it should be part of their story assignment procedure. You can also offer to draft one up yourself (though this shouldn't be necessary.) You need a contract to help ensure that you get paid. If an editor won't agree to a contract, they are essentially saying they can't promise that you will get paid. Run. Your talents could be better used elsewhere.
3. Pushing a writer's emotional buttons. A good editor takes a mama bird approach. They know when to push a writer out of the nest to fly, but they also know when to hold back. This is particularly true for sensitive story matters, such as personal essays about traumatic experiences. Some stories need more time in the oven. An editor should never pressure you to write a difficult personal story. You don't have to share your trauma with the world; sharing it should be your active choice. Do not trust someone who cares more about Facebook shares or page views than they do your dignity and safety.
4. Publishing with no attention to detail. These days, many editors, especially digital editors, face tremendous pressure to publish. The competition for page views and social media views is fierce. According to a 2016 article in The Atlantic, The Washington Post publishes more than 1,200 stories a day, 500 of which are produced by their staff. The New York Times publishes about 230 per day—a 35% increase since the mid-2000s. These huge publishing demands mean that many editors are overworked. Writers should know this and always submit high-quality articles that they've proof-read and fact-checked. Still, as an editor works in a web content management system, they might accidentally introduce new errors. Editors should double-check their work before they press 'publish'—and swiftly correct any mistakes noticed by writers and readers. (Apologizing is nice, too.)
5. Ghosting. As previously mentioned, editors are especially busy people. They don't have time to reply to every email because they receive too many. It's not just writers looking for responses; so many marketing and public relations people contact them angling for free press. But if an editor starts a conversation with a writer, they have an obligation to finish that conversation. So if they commission an article, they need to stay in communication with the writer until that piece is either published or killed, and the writer is paid accordingly. It's not okay to disappear. Writers need to know if their work will be published or not, and when they will be paid.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.