Editors do not hate you, but they have every reason to.
I’ve always been puzzled by the antipathy many writers have toward editors.
I have a biased perspective on this, of course, because for a few years in the early 1970s, I was the principal editor of a Southern West Virginia weekly newspaper, where I read copy, wrote headlines, laid out pages, and occasionally sold ads. I left the journal in 1974 to enroll in a master’s program, with the help of an assistantship in journalism.
It’s the ultimate recompense for what can be a job of thankless, soul-sapping drudgery, doing all the putrid and repulsive tasks to keep a weekly newspaper/magazine going, namely trying to find the money to print the doggone thing. In many instances, I was reduced to selling advertising on the side. I never could figure out why car lots and dress shops purchased ads in a small weekly newspaper.
There is no better reward than to publish a new writer and maybe see him or her get a Pushcart or an O. Henry or a Best American selection and then have agents and book editors vying to sign the writer up.
It’s a validation of the entire endeavor. It makes editors believe again that what they do matters. It doesn’t happen much, that sort of success, but it happens often enough to keep the faith during the down times, which are recurrent, dark, and deep.
I am not exaggerating. As an editor, I strictly received those kinds of missives. I received abusive phone calls and emails wishing me ill will (attributed) and letters with death threats and packages of dog hooey and envelopes filled with tiny pieces of sharp shredded metal (unattributed).
Without question, there were many more communiqués of the opposite ilk—I still get notes from authors telling me how much the publication of a piece meant to them, and each one validates all those years I worked as an editor, each one confirms it was all worth it, that what I did mattered to people—but the small, irritating expressions of contempt, said or unsaid, along with the truly nasty stuff (though not as pervasive as I’m making them out to be), tended to stick in my head.
Were they deserved? Certainly not to that extent, but I admit that I could sometimes be a butthole. Overworked and burdened, I could be brusque and dismissive. I also know that I occasionally rejected things I shouldn’t have, mostly out of haste, and I regret those lapses, both in judgment and behavior, to this day.
As a matter of fact, it was never for a lack of effort or respect for writers. I cared fervently about the process, about trying to make it fair and professional.
Pride and integrity were what drove me. I was not interested in gaining power or attention, nor was I hoping to promote my own writing career by being an editor.
I think most editors are dedicated, tireless, honorable people, and they’re woefully underappreciated.
The vast majority of them, you see, are publishing their newspapers/magazines as labors of love.
The vast majority are volunteers. Not only don’t they get paid, but they also often dip into their own pockets to fund their publications. They have entirely separate full-time jobs. They have families. They fill out grant applications and read manuscripts and typeset issues and haggle with vendors and stick labels onto renewal letters in what little spare time they have.
In other words, they forfeit their own ambitions as writers to accomplish this. They do it all for you.
What makes them dispirited is the us-versus-them mentality that has developed between writers and editors, linked to accusations that they aren’t open to new writers or that the system is somehow rigged.
Granted, it gets difficult for editors not to become cynical. You would, too, if you saw some of the crap that comes in over the transom—submissions from rank amateurs and inmates and crazies and attorneys that are excruciatingly, laughably awful. When editors find anything with a modicum of craft or originality, they are grateful—yes, grateful.
However, they can’t publish everything, and not every piece is appropriate for a given magazine, regardless of its merits. And something else—a hard truth: a submission might be good but not good enough.
This is what writers have problems swallowing. After getting a rejection, instead of taking another look at the story or poem and perhaps revising it or spending a little more time thinking about the most suitable venue for it, it’s much easier to rail against these editors and magazines and believe as a writer myself, despite my past experience as an editor, I do exactly the same thing.
After all, be kind to your poor, beleaguered editors. Buy a copy of their journals once in a while, or even, God forbid, subscribe to one. If enough of us don’t, literary journals—as a collective enterprise—won’t be around for much longer. If you get rejected, just move on. There are, at least for now, plenty of magazines and other publications out there. Don’t harass the editors, in person or in correspondence. They’re doing the best they can. They’re actually on your side. Really.
Slush piles are dangerous things. Sometimes they contain hidden gems; more often, they contain bruised egos.
I’m a freelancer. I write, I edit, and I tell startups and other college and high school writers how to write and edit in order to reach the best audiences possible.
Where there’s a cutthroat focus on producing the best possible content with the smallest possible budget, tempers get frayed, people lose sleep, and ideas are gutted every day at every meeting.
I once was criticized by a journalism dean because, even though it was announced at our first class meeting, “Students must publish a feature story with art before the end of the semester.”
Well, one student had his girlfriend, a leggy red-head with the most innocent-looking freckles, call me at the end of the first semester (Christmas break), telling me that her said “boyfriend” was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer.
“No problem,” I offered up to the magazine cover-girl. “Just have him pen a feature on what’s it like to be hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer.”
She whined, “But he isn’t able to write; he’s sick.”
“Okay,” I fired back, as I was packing my suitcase for the trip home to enjoy the holiday festivities. “Just have him dictate it to you, either in person or on his cellphone.”
She hung up.
That’s when the dean called me up. Apparently, the damsel in distress was sitting in his office, pleading for mercy, and pouring out of her sweet soul and other delicious parcels in front of the ogling and gawking department head.
“Now John, my boy, don’t you think you are being a little hasty? Shouldn’t you be able to modify the assignment for such a worthy cause?”
“In what way?” I asked, trying to remain professionally grounded. “For the student, or for his girlfriend?”
“Oh John, come on,” he kind of whispered, kind of pleaded. After all, the girl was a looker. I will give her that, and the dean obviously must have felt the same way.
“Okay,” I blurted. “A rule is a rule, but you’re the boss. Just tell me what you want me to do, make an exception, cancel the assignment?”
“John, I know that you’ll be fair to the unfortunate hospital patient. Whatever your conscience lays on your heart. I know that you want to do the right thing.”
“Dean L., tell the student’s fiancée that he passed with flying colors. No need to do the story, I’m sure he’ll be grateful, and so will she.”
Top o’ the morning!