3 signs you’re in a bad relationship with your editor

What happens if, somewhere between first draft and publication, the editor-writer relationship goes south?

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.

“When things start to get that annoying in the editing process, I start to check out,” says Gabe Arana, an editor at the American Prospect. “I’ll take a really long time to get back to them. A new draft will come in, and I can’t bring myself to open it.”

So, if you should have heard back and you haven’t, odds are, the person on the other side of the email chain is stewing over your stubbornness, trying to convince their boss to kill the piece entirely, or cursing your name and every edit you made to whoever they can get to listen. If this sort of dodging goes on long enough, it can mean accidental death for the story: I heard about one editorial fight that went on so long that the institution the story was investigating changed its practices for the better, leaving the editor with no choice but to kill the story entirely, after months of work.

You don’t have a contract.

It’s these sorts of bad situations that contracts were made for—they’re a guide for how both parties should behave. But plenty of editors and writers send and sign contracts without thinking much about what’s in them. And often they work without a contract at all.

“Officially, we frown upon it. But I think everyone does it,” says Kim Kavin, who heads the American Society of Journalist and Authors’ contracts and conflicts committee. And, of course, “it’s inevitably one of those cases where something goes weird,” she says.

Suddenly, you’ve sunk hours, or weeks, of work into a project, and the assigning editor is fired. Or, even worse, your story’s already been published, and now the publication’s asking you to sign a contract on terms that are terrible for you—asking, for instance, for film rights to a story you think has more than half a chance of being a decent movie.

In theory, writers have some power in this situation. “The default under copyright is that the creator of the work owns the copyright in the work,” says Jonathan Hart, a lawyer who specializes in media at Cooley, a Washington, DC-based firm. Even if a writer agrees to publish a story, without a written contract, it’s not necessary clear what rights (digital, print, re-publication, and so forth) the publisher has. But if you haven’t been paid yet and the accounting department won’t cough up your fee unless you sign this contract, that won’t feel like much power at all. In the worst case, a Web publication might even take your piece down from its site—and good luck trying to sell it elsewhere once it’s damaged goods.

One of the strange features of bad editorial breakups is that, even with the editor-writer relationship in shambles, the story they patched together will often get published anyway. Once a story is assigned, the incentives, on both sides, align so strongly that often the estranged parties just grit their teeth and finish. Relief comes only with publication. Editors keep blacklists of writers they’ll never work with again; writers try to forget the story ever happened. (“What’s worse than a subtweet? Not acknowledging an article with your byline has even appeared,” Friedman wrote.)

Of course, sometimes stories do get killed. In a clean breakup, where an editor kills a piece, the writer usually gets to keep his reporting and whatever writing he’s done up to that point.

It can get messier, though. If the editor proposed the idea to begin with, maybe he gave the writer information or data that the publication wants to keep. If the writer is particularly well known, in rare instances, she might have retained the power to reject edits—or take her name off the piece, if she thinks its quality is below her. But in most cases, once a writer submits a draft, if the editor still wants to publish the work, he can, with or without the author’s input.

“Typically, the publisher retains editorial control over the work,” Hart says. “Once the author submits the work, an editor can turn it into something the editor deems publishable.”

That may be a better outcome than the alternative: Your editor doesn’t kill or publish the piece, which means she doesn’t pay you. “When people come to our committee, it has usually gotten to the point where they’ve gone round and round, they believe they fulfilled the assignment, and the publication still won’t pay,” says Kavin. The best way to avoid this fate is to make sure your contract specifies that you’ll be paid on acceptance of the piece—not on publication. Or even better, argue for a contract that specifies that the editor has to either accept the piece or pay a kill fee within a certain timeframe.

In the end, though, breakups are harder on writers than editors. So be wary of editors bearing too-good-to-be-true assignments. Get a contract; make sure it works as much in your favor as you can manage. Try to remember: As in love, in journalism, not all stories have happy endings.

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Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications.