Friday, 5 April 2013

Editors: 10 Top Tips For Getting the Best From Your Contributors

 By Moira Butterfield

I have been thinking recently about the delicate balance that exists in the relationship between an editor and freelancer. Having been both an editor and an author, I know there is a trade-off between meeting the needs of the company and its sales targets, and keeping contributors engaged and committed and generally ‘onside’. But what constitutes good and bad practice? Below is my list (in no particular order) of suggestions to smooth the relationship. If you are a freelancer, please add your own thoughts and experiences and it would be great to hear from some editors, too.

1. Don’t treat an author’s text as your own. Don’t try to re-write it wholesale. Good authors spend a lot of time choosing the right vocabulary and establishing the right rhythm. Many inexperienced editors don’t realise this and tamper with text too much. Suggest improvements by all means, but let the author convert suggestions into text.

2. Don’t ask your author to make changes without carefully explaining why. This may seem obvious but surprisingly it happens a lot. It isn’t about being above criticism. An author needs to know that the editor is clear about the direction of a project. There’s nothing worse than “Hmm. It’s not right yet,. I don’t know why….Can you sort it out?”

3. If you have a brief or some comments on work, email them over but also make sure you explain properly what you mean. Emails are notoriously bad communication tools. People take them to mean one thing when they mean another. Better to email, then phone.

4. Constant phoning with thoughts and requests isn’t great, either. Not only is it time-consuming, but the freelancer is going to feel that the editor doesn’t quite know what they are doing.

5. I have been to lots of sales conferences in the past, and salespeople often suggest useful improvements to proposed new projects but they have occasionally been known to spout ill thought-out nonsense, too. Good editors can sort the wheat from the chaff and gently but firmly head off the less considered comments. Don’t pass on all comments wholesale to the author and expect them to act on all of them. If there are consequences – a change of schedule or a lot of rewriting – it needs pointing out in-house.

6. If there are changes to be made, is it a rebrief on your part? Did you ask for one type of text and now you’re asking for another? Don’t pretend it’s not a rebrief when it is. If it is, you should allow for more time, and if appropriate, some recompense.

7. Freelancers are not employees. They need to be properly paid for their time and expertise, and treated with respect. See Point 6 above.

8. Keep your contributors in the loop about what’s going on in-house – If there’s been a delay or a postponement, for example. Silence is the worst option.

9. It takes surprisingly little to make a freelancer love you forever. ‘Thank you’ is good. Thank a freelancer immediately for work sent, even though you may not have had time to read it yet.

10. Tell your authors and illustrators what kind of projects your company is looking for, perhaps in the light of bookfair or sales team feedback. Your contributors are creative thinkers and, given the chance, they are likely to produce the goods.

Keeping the balance right is a difficult skill, requiring fine judgment and good people-handling skills. The payback for a good editor is in creating a good pool of creative talented people who are always keen to work for you.

One other thing. Get out of the office once in a while. Come and have a chinwag, a cuppa and a bun. Then you really will have your freelancer eating out of your hand!

PS: It would great to post a similar list from an editor regarding contributors. Do get in touch, editors.


Stroppy Author said...

Good stuff, Paeony.

Can I add, please, "and don't call us 'freelancers'"? (I'm assuming this is an insight into in-house speak.) We don't call you 'employees'. We are writers or illustrators or both.

On the getting out - or, better, invite us in. For writers/illustrators who have not worked in-house it is really important to get inside a publisher's office every now and then. It's good to see what happens to our work, and disarming to be kept out. I once - long ago - challenged an editor who always wanted to meet out for lunch and asked why she was so keen to keep me out of the office and she was stunned. She couldn't see why I would want to go in the building she was keen to escape. But it's important - it makes us feel part of a process and a team and more likely to go the extra mile if we have *seen* the person who does the page layout and have *seen* the massive pile of other MSS on the editor's desk. Authors/illustrators don't like to feel like cows that are just milked for text/pictures and left in the field all day to get on with doing cowish things.

Moira Butterfield said...

It's my blog, not Paeony's (only she may not agree with what I've said!). I like the 'being milked' image!

Stroppy Author said...

*SO* sorry, Moira! Not sure why I did that. Just stupid, I guess :-)

Paeony Lewis said...

It's an interesting blog and I'd be happy to say I wrote it (though I didn't). Paeony!

Go away google said...

*puts editor hat on* However, my views should not be taken to be that of my current employer etc blah...

1. It seems obvious, but meet your deadlines. This is the single most important thing, particularly in creative non-fiction where I’m working at the moment, because books are often tied to calendar events. I’d rather commission a good writer who meets deadlines than a brilliant one who doesn’t.

2. Follow the brief closely but flexibly. If you have a better idea that will change things significantly, let your editor know early in the process. She will probably be glad of the improvement. Smaller tweaks to the brief, you can just go ahead and implement. Just be prepared to change them back if asked.

3. Then again, if she declines to make your brilliant amendment to the book plan, don’t take it personally. Editors have a hundred and one factors to take into account, from the taste of the biggest foreign rights buyers to the subject matter of next year’s still-under-wraps big project. Your editor will explain if possible but if she doesn’t, there is still likely to be a good reason.

4. Likewise, treat editorial comments on a finished draft with respect, but not as gospel. This is particularly applicable to fiction – usually your editor will be providing valuable insights that you can use to improve the text but sometimes she really hasn’t appreciated what you are trying to do. If you can argue your corner convincingly she may change her mind.

5. When you are working on a project, stay in occasional touch about your progress. To an editor, a busy productive silence sounds the same as an ‘I’ve died/emigrated/gone into a convent and didn’t tell you, so the book is belly-up’ silence, so the occasional check-in is a good idea. Particularly important is an early warning if you are going to submit late. Life happens, but the earlier you warn of a problem, the less egg on your editor’s face.

6. When you are not working on a project it’s fine to occasionally email saying ‘Hey, I’m available for any work you may have coming up soon.’ Don’t hassle however. As well as being annoying, that makes it look like nobody else wants to employ you.

7. Invoice clearly and in the appropriate amount of detail. The editor wants to just print it out and take it down to accounts, without having to figure out how to apportion fees to different projects etc.

8. Don’t make suggestions that are outside your remit. For example, a proofreader should not be suggesting how to rephrase things that are not technically wrong.

9. Generally editors like to use email more than the phone, because it gives them a chance to prepare. A surprise phonecall risks catching your editor in the middle of five different emergencies, all unrelated to your project. Sometimes it’s useful to speak direct, but try to schedule it.

10. Keep your editor – unpushily – appraised of any new areas of expertise you develop. I have recently needed at very short notice experts on ice hockey, the American revolution and laser technology, so you never know which facet of your CV will be the perfect match for an urgent project.

Moira Butterfield said...

Brilliant! Thanks Anna. I hope this 'double blog' will make a good read for authors and editors alike.

Stroppy Author said...

Excellent other-side-of-the-fence view! (Glad I haven't fallen foul of any of those. And if I suddenly develop ice-hockey skills I'll make sure I tell all my editors. I don't see it happening....)

Philip Wilkinson said...

An excellent post, and a great response too from the editor's side of the desk. Moira's point about saying 'Thank you' is a good one: it means so much - and it brings to mind the fact that a lot of these points are about keeping lines of communication open, so that we all know what is happening.

Jonathan Allen said...

Great post, thanks Moira. And thanks Anna, for the editorial view. .
From my perspective the communication thing is the most important. Editors keeping the author or illustrator in the loop. Saying that, it is worth authors and illustrators bearing in mind that an editor is likely to have several projects on the go at any one time, each with issues as urgent as theirs, whereas it is worth an editor bearing in mind that an author or illustrator often has just the one project they are working intensively on at any one time, and can be held up by lack of response on some specific issue or other. This is quite a hard balancing act ;-) An editor can feel harassed by constant demands from authors and illustrators who conversely can feel forgotten and pushed into an uncomfortable and frustrating creative limbo while waiting for their roughs to be approved or whatever.
Juggling cats while tiptoeing round fragile egos. . . ;-)
With a bit of polite consideration and understanding we all get there in the end. . .

Moira Butterfield said...

Exactly, Philip. A prompt 'thank you' goes such a long way.

Moira Butterfield said...

Yes, Jonathan. You're absolutely right that editors are under a lot of pressure - more and more - and constantly making demands on them wouldn't be helpful. On the other hand, I think many of us will know examples when editors suddenly disappear off the radar completely and it turns out they're hoarding bad news - a cancellation or delay, for example. It's much better if they 'fess up.

Stewart Ross said...

A most interesting discussion, for which thank you Anna, Moira et al. I believe that most heartaches and misunderstandings in the world of nonfiction arise because both authors and editors, decent people all, are striving desperately to feed a relentless machine powered by the impersonal of forces of the Bottom Line!

Jason Carnrike said...

Wow, thanks for this. Great tips in the post and in the comments! I'm glad I got to look at things from both sides. I'm a children's author, but have been thinking about doing some freelance.

Moira Butterfield said...

Agreed, Stewart. Non-fiction is a particularly relentless schedule and budget-driven area for authors (I'm working on some this very Sunday morning when I'd much rather be doing other things). Picture book authors, meanwhile, seem to more regularly suffer from lack of communication - long silences while their beloved story seems to disappear into another dimension.

Moira Butterfield said...

Good luck, Jason. Great to have you on picture book den.

Paeony Lewis said...

Great feedback - many thanks. This should be a blog in its own right! I find number six very tricky as I never want to appear to hassle and therefore do nothing, which is pathetic!

Lynne Garner said...

Stroppy Author: I do freelance work for many different people - so I have no objection to being called a freelancer.

I've worked with a number of publishers and packagers. Some have been a complete nightmare (changing brief, giving instructions with no reason why, making pointless changes etc.). I've also been lucky to work with some great ones. One that springs to mind not only said thank you but have been the only packager to ask me to the xmas bash. It made a big difference to how I felt about the project but also if I'd want to work with them again of not.

Many seem to think we don't have a choice if they come knocking on our door offering work. We do and if the previous project wasn't enjoyable I can always be 'too busy."