Just like any successful romance, a good editorial relationship starts with two people, a mutual attraction, and the hope that they can build something special and lasting together. While staff writers tend to settle down with one or two people, freelancers have a harder time committing: We juggle one-piece stands, steady dates, and editorial partners that are always up for a romp, all while pining for the sexy publication that’s out of our league. But as with all relationships, even when you’ve done everything right, editorial liaisons sometimes end.
Most of the times these breakups are friendly. Editors move on; writers drop gigs; priorities change. Occasionally, though, things go really wrong, and writer and editor are embroiled in messy, prolonged breakup, with a nascent piece of nonfiction—once so promising!—stuck between its parents.
How do you know when you’re in a bad editorial relationship? Here are a few warning signs.
You’re writing a story that wasn’t your idea, for an editor you’ve never worked with.
When I asked around about nightmare editorial breakups, most of the stories I heard grew out of new relationships, when a writer and editor hadn’t worked together before. Sometimes, budding editorial relationships end for understandable, unemotional reasons: The editor can’t pay well enough. The writer doesn’t have enough time. But these were stories of two people going back and forth, in round after round of edits, disagreeing about some of the story’s most basic features. One featured an editor who accidentally assigned two writers with the same first name the exact same topic.
These unhealthy endings seem to happen most often when the writer and editor don’t work together on the initial idea. Often, this means an editor coming to a writer with an idea already in hand (but it might also mean a journalism organization that’s funded a reporter’s work coming to a publication with a mostly finished piece). When a writer pitches a story to an editor, she usually has some idea of how much work she’ll need to do, and the editor usually has some idea about whether the writer’s angle fits the publication’s voice and mission. But when that script is flipped, expectations may not match up.
Rachel Nuwer, a science reporter (and one of the hardest working journalists I know) told me a story, for instance, about a publication that contacted her and had topics ready to assign. She was excited to develop a new relationship, but quickly realized that the amount of work (1,500 words, eight interviews, a complex topic) didn’t exactly justify the amount she was being paid. Then the editor demanded endless rounds of edits—“there were, like, nine of them—totally over the top.” Even so, she tried to communicate her own expectations and asked for a lighter lift the next go-round. Her second assignment ended when, after she submitted a draft, her editor wrote that they wanted a deeper dive, asked for her notes, and paid her a kill fee. “As far as I know, they never used it for anything else,” she says.
This isn’t to say editors can’t come up with strong ideas that reporters can pick up and run with. These problems begin when the assigning editor doesn’t know what she (or her boss) really wants. “I’ve learned that a real red flag—a pre-breakup warning sign—is when an editor can’t exactly articulate what your assignment is, or comes to you with a topic rather than a concrete story idea,” writer and editor—and CJR contributor—Ann Friedman emailed. As a freelancer, it’s always tempting to take an assignment that’s just handed to you. But, says Friedman, “You end up paying for it on the back end, when you are totally confused about how to write the thesis graf and have to have 10 phone calls with your editor about it and STILL hate the resulting piece.”
Your writer/editor ghosts.
If you haven’t heard from your writer/editor in an unusually long time and you’re starting to worry…well, you should. One editor told me about a literary critic who disappeared for weeks while the magazine was trying to close a short piece he’d written. Finally, the editor heard back: The cuts that had been made to the critic’s piece were “Stalinist,” and he was pulling it, four days before the issue closed.
Editors, too, can deal with frustration by avoidance. A functional editing process shouldn’t drag on so long that both parties get sick of each other—but after restructuring, fighting over edits, whipping a piece into publishable shape, starting factchecking, fighting over factchecking, working to re-report parts of a story…an editor can lose interest.