The editorial relationship




By Caitlin Kelly

The good and bad of blogging  — for writers and readers alike — no editors!

No one to say: “Hmmm, really?”

No one to ask: “What did you mean to say here?”

No one to suggest: “Maybe you wanted a shorter paragraph?”

I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19, so I’ve worked with many editors, men and women of all ages and temperaments, some as my bosses or coworkers, many as those who chose to assign me freelance work, and my two non-fiction books.

The very best are like the best plastic surgeons — when they trim, you barely notice it, but suddenly your material looks so much better.

The very best remain calm and cool, able to re-direct us and soothe us when we’re lost or panicked in the weeds of reporting and interviewing. Book editors are gods to me — helping us make sense of 100,000 words.

I’m always amazed at the trust that each editor places in us and our skills and our character and our ethics and our work ethic when they commit to us. This was a bigger deal when top writers were paid $3/word by the big glossy magazines and a $6,000 or $9,000 or $12,000 check was still possible and not some gauzy memory.

Then as now, editors hedge their bets with contracts that may not contain a kill fee, or a very small one (25 percent), so that $4,000 you expected to earn — hah, now you’re only getting $1,000 and your bills be damned!

It’s one reason smart full-time freelancers are very, very frugal; it’s easy to blow some cash on a vacation or some new clothes or some dental work or car repair — put  it on a credit card — and, guess what?

You aren’t getting that money now.

It’s very stressful and stories get killed for a lot of very bad reasons. One I see a lot (not in my work) is editors who commission a story, disappear for weeks or even months (!?) and then the story is no longer timely or someone else already published it. This punishes the writer, who’s done all the work in good faith.




Some of my most memorable editors:

— The one who sent me off to profile David Quinn, then the brand-new coach of the New York Rangers, saying “You’re Canadian. You know hockey!” I did not. Here’s the story.

— The one who just assigned me a scary story about a technical topic for a specialist audience of readers with Phds. “You realize I never studied chemistry or physics?” I emailed him. Onward, anyway.

— The  one who told me to get what he was sure was a totally ungettable interview and I came back within a few hours with a former European leader.

— The one who sent me off on a two-week tour of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Lord, what an adventure: Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick. We flew in Lear jets, allowing Her Majesty the “purple corridor” of advance time for her jet to take off before ours.

— The one who sent me, in December, to the tiny Arctic village of Salluit, ostensibly to deliver an entire small plane-full of donated clothing, with only 24 hours there. We landed on ice and snow at maybe 1pm, and no one wanted the stuff, and it was dark by 2pm and  I had to go on the radio, a particle board shack, being translated into Inuktitut, to calm the village down and get anyone to even speak to me.




— The one, at the New York Daily News, my direct manager, who said: “When I want to speak to you, I’ll let you know” and never spoke to me again. That was December and I was let go in  June. Fun!

— The one who edited Boy’s Life, the Boy Scout’s official magazine, and had me interviewing Scouts (by phone) all across America. They were always terrific!


malled cover LOW


— The one who read my initial manuscript for Malled and said: “I really like Chapters 11 and 12.” The rest? Needed revision. We made it.

— The one who sent me from Toronto, freelance, for The Globe & Mail, to write about performing eight shows of Sleeping Beauty as an extra with the National Ballet of Canada, at Lincoln Center. I typed it up in my room at the Empire Hotel and dictated it over the phone. “This is great!” he said.


At best, it’s a collegial collaboration of mutual respect.

At worst, you feel butchered and never want to trust another editor again.

And you never know for sure what you’ll get!

6 thoughts on “The editorial relationship

  1. Your experiences sound similar to mine – you never know who you’ll get: a good editor will always enhance your work – and a bad one will butcher it. And I’ve been caught out by magazine editors commissioning work, then spiking it post-fact. The last time it happened I pushed for the agreed fee anyway. I got it. And was blacklisted by the magazine. But that didn’t worry me: if they can’t fulfil agreements in good faith, why should I write for them?

    I’ve been blind-sided a few times by heavy-handed and tone-deaf editors – and in the two worst instances I asked never to have my work sent to those people again. I suspect the cause is frustrated writers who don’t understand that proof-editing is a different skill set. On the plus side, there’s a freelance editor here in NZ who is truly awesome – and who I actively ask my publishers to use. They do: he’s known to them, too, for his quality.

    1. That’s neat that you know a good one and can ask for him. This not knowing is REALLY stressful for me — we rely on my monthly income.

      Last summer produced 2 editorial shitshows in a row, really bad experiences, and left me extremely nervous. One was a very young, very rude woman — so shitty I wrote to her boss (who never replied, oh and it’s the magazine read by all American journalists, to boot!) She killed my piece and I lost $750.

      Thankfully, the next three since her — all older men who KNOW what they are doing — have been dream dates.

  2. Rob Gill

    Similar experiences on my plate Caitlin. Parachuted in to fill for another freelance who left a role in the burgeoning world of telecommunications in a fit of pique, I confided in my fearless leader that I had never written a word on the subject. “Don’t worry,” said he, “you’ll pick it up as you go along.” Not many weeks later I was writing columns under his name for a national daily. Courage mon brave! He was a brilliant engineer but his language lacked a certain je ne sais quoi and, a rarity, I found someone willing to learn from an underling.

  3. it sounds a bit like being a high wire act in the circus. exhilarating when it works, but always with the fear of falling at any moment. your experiences sound so interesting, but I know they come at a price.

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