5 Lies Writers Believe About Editors

At least in the sci­ence fic­tion com­mu­nity, there’s a lot of false com­mu­nity wis­dom float­ing around about the edi­to­r­ial process. Some of them may have been true once. Some were prob­a­bly invented to mess with the heads of noobs. Some of them are care­fully nutured lies, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Well, no longer. I’m here to tell you the truth, no mat­ter how ugly it may be.

LIE #1: Editors give every story fair con­sid­er­a­tion. OR: Editors reject sto­ries with­out read­ing them at all.

The truth is, the slush is deep, and it’s rarely an editor’s favorite part of the job. Why do you think so many places have slush readers?

Every story doesn’t get fair con­sid­er­a­tion. Not every story deserves it. If you can’t be both­ered to read the sub­mis­sion guide­lines and fol­low them, it’s an easy rejec­tion. If you have five gram­mar and spelling mis­takes in the first two para­graphs, it’s an easy rejec­tion. If it’s a story about vam­pires, and I hate vam­pire sto­ries, it’s mostly an easy rejection.

Most sto­ries get at least a page out of me. Then I skip to the last 3 para­graphs, if I’m feel­ing gen­er­ous. Some get less. Some work is so obvi­ously bad that it’s star­tlingly easy to know it’s not going to work. But every story gets looked at. Nothing ever gets rejected with­out being par­tially read. Honest.

LIE #2: Editors never reject a good story.

I rejected plenty of really good sto­ries at the Fortean Bureau. I’ve even rejected a cou­ple at Escape Pod. The rea­son is pretty sim­ple: edi­to­r­ial vision or scope. The Fortean Bureau was look­ing for a par­tic­u­lar kind of story. Your space opera, no mat­ter how good, was never going to appear there. Likewise, we don’t accept hor­ror or fan­tasy at Escape Pod. If the story is good, and sucks me in, I will rec­om­mend send­ing it over to the other editors.

Stories get rejected for being too long, too short, too sim­il­iar to another story the edi­tor has already bought… there are as many rea­sons for rejec­tion as there are sto­ries. And not all of them involve you mak­ing mis­takes. There are aspects of the process that a writer can­not con­trol. Best to just relax about it.

LIE #3: Editors don’t fos­ter new writ­ers like they did in the old days, and don’t care about new talent.

John W. Campbell was a med­dle­some bas­tard who sent his writ­ers spe­cific ideas for sto­ries. He was not what you call a “hands off” kind of edi­tor. He wrote his fair share of sto­ries, and some of the tales I’ve heard about him make me think that he was often think­ing as a writer as much as he was an edi­tor. He wasn’t afraid to rewrite some­one else’s story.

For what­ever biz­zare rea­son, some peo­ple wish edi­tors would take that level of inter­est in their work, and they lament that edi­tors no longer fos­ter new writ­ers, giv­ing them the kind of con­struc­tive crit­i­cism that leads to their per­sonal growth. Everything for writ­ers was just won­der­ful back then but these edi­tors today are jerks!

Not true. Campbell may have had time to do this with a larger per­cent­age of his sub­mis­sions, but the field was smaller then. Today, there are tens of thou­sands of writ­ers all try­ing to break in to the same pub­li­ca­tions. We sim­ply don’t have time to give per­sonal feed­back to each sub­mis­sion. These days, some­times the best you get is an encour­ag­ing rejec­tion. My first came from Stanley Schmidt: “I like your writ­ing, so I hope you will send more in the future.” Not very spe­cific, but it does the trick. It tells you that you’re on the right track.

As much as I give Gordon van Gelder a hard time for his oppo­si­tion to online media, the man writes a very suc­cinct and help­ful rejec­tion let­ter. Even the form let­ters have a sys­tem to them to help you fig­ure out why the story was rejected. I always simul­ta­ne­ously feared and looked for­ward to his short notes.

Editors do build a sta­ble of writ­ers. The rea­son most peo­ple don’t see it is because by the time you come along, the edi­tor has already estab­lished a group of authors he or she can count on. But short story writ­ers in par­tic­u­lar are always going on to write nov­els, so open­ings do occur from time to time.

If you really want feed­back on your work, join a work­shop or cri­tique cir­cle. It’s not the editor’s job to help you become a bet­ter writer. Sometimes, we’re help­ful, but we can’t do it for everyone.

LIE #4: Editors are peo­ple too.

Editors are just like us.” No, we’re not. You don’t have a nev­erend­ing stream of bad writ­ing com­ing at you day in, day out. You get to read for plea­sure, select­ing mate­r­ial that has been through at least one fil­ter. Whereas you turn on the tap and get a stream of nice drink­able water, we put our mouths to a sewer pipe and hope to get at least one swal­low that won’t give us rag­ing diarrhea.

I know the sen­ti­ment of the phrase is meant to imply that we’re not god­like arbiters of taste, mak­ing and break­ing careers on a whim. But edi­tors do wield power. And it changes us. Generally it makes us ill-​​tempered and eas­ily dis­tracted by shiny objects. I’ve yet to feel god­like, but I’m not rul­ing out the pos­si­bil­ity. Maybe when some­thing I’ve pub­lished wins a Hugo, I will ascend to Asgard.

LIE #5: Editors (and crit­ics) are failed writers.

As a rule, no. A lot of us are mod­er­ately suc­cess­ful writ­ers. Some of us have never wanted to write and never will. There are a few who have started out as writ­ers and given it up for the editing/​publishing game (Gordon, I think), but not all of us have.

We’re not dri­ven to become edi­tors out of bit­ter­ness. We all come to the posi­tion for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, but I think most of us start out as opti­mistic and hope­ful. We think that maybe we have a vision for a type of story that nobody else has seen before. We day dream about find­ing writ­ers that amaze us and pub­lish­ing them before any­one else.

It takes a pecu­liar sort of ego to take up edit­ing. And thank god. If it wasn’t for edi­tors, we’d all have to sort through the kind of self-​​published garbage that made it pos­si­ble for Geocities to stay in busi­ness for so long. I shud­der to think of a world with­out editors.

And finally, a well-​​known truth:

You can bribe an editor.

Most of us are broke and dri­ven to drink copi­ous amounts of alco­hol. See the sewer pipe anal­ogy above. That gives us a weak­ness you can exploit. Next time you’re at a con­ven­tion, go to the bar, and buy a drink for your favorite edi­tor. Make sure you do it early on, because seven or eight drinks in, we’ll never remem­ber your name. We’ll be lucky to wake up in the right hotel room, or even the right state. Who bought the drinks on a night like that will be the least of our con­cerns when we wake up naked atop a desert mesa cov­ered from head to toe in blue paint.

Putting a name to a face, along with a men­tal data­base note of “bought me a beer” doesn’t hurt. One of the things that makes edit­ing eas­ier is pre­tend­ing that the sto­ries aren’t all writ­ten by human beings with heart. Sometimes, we have to put that out of our minds. And if you find a way to politely shat­ter that illu­sion, well, it can be good for you. But only if you are likely to start sell­ing sto­ries anyway.

There are no great secrets to being pub­lished. Read lots. Write sto­ries. Lots and lots of sto­ries. Submit the work until the sto­ries are either accepted or rejected by every mar­ket you could bear to see your name asso­ci­ated with. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Everything else is basi­cally unimportant.

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47 Responses

  1. Still Giggling says:

    That was the best metaphor ever.


    It’s per­fect on so many lev­els. Except the lit­eral one. That one’s just icky.

  2. John Klima says:

    re: well-​​known truth

    *sigh* it is true. That’s where you’ll find me at a con­ven­tion: the bar.

  3. Yvette Davis says:

    Sewer pipe?

    Raging diar­rhea?

    You flat­terer!

    • Jeremiah Tolbert says:

      Yvette, of course I’m not talk­ing about your writ­ing. Someone else’s truly awful crap.

  4. […] 5 Lies Writers Believe About Editors 2009 May 7 tags: Interesting URLs, Writing by depatty JeremiahTolbert​.com » Blog Archive » 5 Lies Writers Believe About Editors At least in the sci­ence fic­tion com­mu­nity, there’s a lot of false com­mu­nity wis­dom floating […]

  5. Jamie Grove says:

    Most of us are broke and dri­ven to drink copi­ous amounts of alco­hol. See the sewer pipe anal­ogy above. That gives us a weak­ness you can exploit.”

    Now I know what I’ve been doing wrong all these years… It’s sad, because I’m a seri­ous pro at the bar. lol

  6. Ben says:

    Lie #4 was amaz­ing. I actu­ally laughed.

  7. Nobody Special says:

    > As a rule, no. A lot of us are mod­er­ately
    > suc­cess­ful writ­ers. Some of us have never
    > wanted to write and never will. There are a few
    > who have started out as writ­ers and given it up
    > for the editing/​publishing game (Gordon, I
    > think), but not all of us have.

    So far as I can tell, most of every­one in this busi­ness was at least think­ing about being a writer when they fell into it. But most edi­tors don’t have the tal­ent to write. (Check out the odd bits they leave behind, or even try read­ing one of their let­ters! It’s plain to observe.) And most of every­one, these days, can’t make a liv­ing as a writer.

  8. Erica Orloff says:

    #4 needs to be framed.

  9. […] Author Jeremiah Tolbert debunks 5 Lies Writers Believe About Editors. […]

  10. Lorna says:

    Ok, what about this? I sub­mit­ted a par­tial to an agent and it was sent to his asso­ciate junior agent, unbe­known to me, and she passed on it. Her rejec­tion let­ter, which I had to ask about twice since she lost the SASE(accusing me of not send­ing one in the first place), was full of gram­mat­i­cal errors, and when I called her on it, she admit­ted she was a writer too, and judg­ing from her lack of writ­ing skill both gram­mat­i­cally and in gen­eral, a failed one. So remem­ber it goes both ways, not just from your high and mighty point of view.

    • Jeremiah Tolbert says:

      You’re com­plain­ing to the wrong guy, Lorna. I know it sucks to be rejected, and it sounds like their edi­to­r­ial process wasn’t great, but it hap­pens. Take your bit­ter­ness and put it into your work and not into com­ments on my blog. Bitching about agents here isn’t going to get you anywhere.

  11. eliza says:

    i’ve shared this on Twitter. really fun. thanks for post­ing your thoughts. :)

  12. Mark Dykeman says:

    The infor­ma­tion in this post is not that sur­pris­ing but it is very use­ful at the same time. I think edi­to­r­ial vision and scope can be easy for an aspir­ing writer to over­look, often to their detriment.

    Thanks for shar­ing the anec­dote about John Campbell.

  13. […] amus­ing blog post I found via Twitterism, ‘5 things writ­ers believe about edi­tors‘. The list is msotly pre­dictable, but I enjoyed the final ‘truth’ stated at the […]

  14. Fawn Neun says:

    Very true, even out­side the SF/​F world.
    I HATE hav­ing to reject a good story, and yes some­times I have to. Because of that, yes, I would like a drink, thx.

  15. mmSeason says:

    Everyone’s pick­ing on #4 and i have to agree. How refresh­ing! I’m retweet­ing this. ;0)

  16. Paul says:

    Editors make a liv­ing from writ­ing but not many writ­ers do.

  17. Mark Twain says:

    I am not an edi­tor, and shall always try to do right and be good so that God will not make me one.” Mark Twain.

  18. […] 5 Lies Writers Believe about Editors Jeremiah Tolbert shat­ters some myths, and pro­vides some amus­ing exam­ples to help writ­ers bet­ter under­stand edi­tors. Use this post to guide you when per­fect­ing your craft and sub­mit­ting your work. And, when all else fails, buy an edi­tor a drink. You never know what will work. […]

  19. […] tips for any writer from an editor’s POV: Jeremiah Tolbert on 5 Lies Writers Believe about Editors. Leave your unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tions at the door, but do bring a healthy bar […]

  20. Hugh Perkins says:

    This is excel­lent! Very funny!

  21. Amy Sterling says:

    I think many crit­ics are indeed “failed” or “aspir­ing” or hope­ful writ­ers. I do agree that edit­ing is a pro­fes­sion, sep­a­rate from writ­ing. But as to many crit­ics? I know for a fact that sev­eral crit­ics also double-​​duty by being slush denizens. We also have some crit­ics who are also writ­ers, not failed at all. I heard a cou­ple of years ago about one critic who was a near-​​weekly denizen of a very well-​​known slush pile. Considering the crap­tas­tic com­ments this indi­vid­ual has made for years about not only myself, but the major­ity of my female friends, I loved hear­ing this info from the “horse’s mouth” — i.e. the edi­tor to whom he had directed his lov­ing slush atten­tions. No, I won’t dis­close, but if you have a prob­lem with any critic, go ahead and thinks that it’s them. It might as well be.

  22. […] amus­ing blog post I found via Twitterism, ‘5 things writ­ers believe about edi­tors‘. The list is msotly pre­dictable, but I enjoyed the final ‘truth’ stated at the […]

  23. rob says:

    I can see the prob­lems edi­tors must go through nowa­days, espe­cially since in my uni alone im prob­a­bly com­pet­ing with 100 peo­ple to be the best. Let alone those older and more expe­ri­enced, those on forums, on blogs, etc…yeah. It’s alot of crap per­fectly demon­strated by writ­ing forums every day. (Yeah. That includes me)

    One thing that does gripe is some­times not hear­ing back at all from an edi­tor. A rejec­tion slip would be nice, with­out it almost feels like Im float­ing in the dark.
    But yeah, not a big gripe.

  24. I feel so lucky to have my edi­tor, espe­cially as a debut author. She has brought my first novel to a whole new level and I can only pray I get to work with her again! I have learned so much.

    Great Post!

    xoxo — Hilary

  25. Editrix says:

    I see your Mark Twain, and raise you a T. S. Eliot:

    Some edi­tors are failed writers–but so are most writ­ers.“
    –T. S. Eliot

  26. Ah, you gave away the “buy an edi­tor a drink” secret.… And just btw, most authors drink copi­ous amounts of alco­hol, too. So for those of you who can’t find an edi­tor in a bar, find an author.

  27. […] Jeremiah Tolbert debunks 5 Lies Writers Believe About Editors. […]

  28. […] Jeremiah Tolbert debunks 5 Lies Writers Believe About Editors. […]

  29. […] JeremiahTolbert​.com � Blog Archive � 5 Lies Writers Believe About Editors (Writing,Edi… […]

  30. […] On his Web site, sci­ence fic­tion writer, pho­tog­ra­pher, Web designer, and edi­tor Jeremiah Tolbert dis­pels five lies writ­ers believe about editors. […]

  31. Heather Plonchak says:

    So true!!
    I started out as a news writer almost ten years ago and love it. About four years in, I was pro­moted(?) to edi­tor of the paper I worked for. After three very very long excru­ci­at­ing years of edit­ing, I am now hap­pily writ­ing again. You are absolutely cor­rect when you say that being an edi­tor requires a cer­tain level of ego. As far as #4, you are also cor­rect, being an edi­tor does change us and it does make us ill-​​tempered. I can hon­estly say that hav­ing taken what the rest of the world would view as a demo­tion, I could not be hap­pier to be out of that posi­tion.
    On the other hand, edi­tors are a nec­es­sary evil that writ­ers must deal with, and a world with­out edi­tors would be a fright­en­ing place. I am thank­ful for my edi­tor even more after read­ing this, and I must remem­ber to thank him for all he puts up with. I must also remem­ber to ask how it is that he man­ages to smile so often.

  32. mmSeason says:

    Heather, it’s inter­est­ing to hear your expe­ri­ence as it gives us both sides AND the mid­dle, as it were. My own only try at edit­ing was on a local newslet­ter, wholly volunteer-​​based, and while i took the prod­uct seri­ously, noth­ing got turned down as we were grate­ful for any con­tri­bu­tion — which must be why it didn’t turn me grumpy. ;) I thor­oughly enjoyed my stint and would love to do some­thing sim­i­lar again. I can see i was spoilt, hav­ing only the artis­tic deci­sions to make and none of the unpop­u­lar ones.

    The hard­est part of that job was chivvy­ing peo­ple to write for the next issue; the most cre­ative part was mak­ing the var­i­ous, very unpro­fes­sional reports worth read­ing, and each issue feel like a sat­is­fy­ing whole instead of a ran­dom pile of reader’s let­ters. I’m a long way from chang­ing my mind about wish­ing to do it again in future, but per­haps i’m more real­is­tic now about need­ing to be picky if a role of that kind comes along.

  33. I espe­cially enjoyed #5. I’m a film edi­tor and no, I don’t want to be a direc­tor or pro­ducer. I want to be an editor.

  34. […] most pop­u­lar post I’ve writ­ten on this blog was“5 Lies Writers Believe about Editors.” I wrote it while I was work­ing as the edi­tor at Escape Pod, and  in it, I wanted to point […]

  35. Frank Dutkiewicz says:

    Nice, amus­ing, and infor­ma­tive piece.

    I have two ques­tions for you that I think will go a long way on fur­ther­ing my lofty writ­ing ambitions.

    1) Where’s your favorite bar?

    2) What’s your favorite drink?

    • Jeremiah Tolbert says:

      Thanks! I only drink at the BearTree Tavern in Centennial Wyoming. White Russians for me. But I’m not an edi­tor cur­rently, so you might want to ask those ques­tions of another editor :)

  36. Great arti­cle, and very help­ful. I hope peo­ple pay atten­tion. Thank you. :)

  37. Thank you for shar­ing this fine list of lies and truths :D Perspective and aware­ness are invalu­able and you’ve deliv­ered them with humour.


  38. Alex Ramirez says:

    I think I needed to read this. As a young writer strug­gling to get some­thing pub­lished, it was pretty easy to blame edi­tors. Hopefully a new atti­tude can help my karma, or at least help me deal with them bet­ter in the future.

    Now I need to find out what bars edi­tors like…

  39. Shannon says:

    I love being an edi­tor. I love being a writer. And yes, you can be both. The more the two sides under­stand each other, the more pol­ished each one’s craft is going to be. True story.

  40. Thanks for a refresh­ing read. I some­times edit ama­teur copy in my pro­fes­sional role and am famously ruth­less for my slash and burn tech­nique, but I never actu­ally thought of myself as an Editor until I read your arti­cle. :o/

    After one paid-​​for cri­tique (by a well-​​known editor/​publisher) that seemed to be writ­ten for a dif­fer­ent story and two sub­mis­sions that didn’t even get a ‘Dear John’, I realise now that alco­hol or vio­lence were tools I never considered.