I’m looking forward to school starting. Really. Because this fall I get to teach one of my favorite classes. The class Feature Writing is unique because there is very little lecturing, but a great deal of learning. The premise behind the class is that students write seven feature articles, and are required to get four of them published, three of those off-campus. When I first announce this, you can almost hear audible gulps from the students. They aren’t used to meeting the expectations of anyone but the professor. In fact, the first year I had one student come to me after class and ask how long his stories should be. I chuckled and told him that that was between him and his editor. It’s nice to have someone else play the bad guy once in a while.
But I don’t leave my students hanging out to flutter in the wind. During the semester I have several local editors come to the class and talk about what they want from writers, as well as give students an opportunity to bounce story ideas off of them. In addition, we do phone interviews with several national editors that I know. It helps to have been an editor for several years, and continue to write for them.
What the students learn over the semester is an important truth about editors–something every writer needs to know. The fact is, editors needs writers just as much as writers need editors. Maybe more. Because if there are no writers, editors are out of business.
Editors come across harsh and uncaring because they often have to say no to writers. It’s just part of the job. I remember when I was an editor at Listen Magazine. I tell students that I used to wait until I was in a grumpy mood before I evaluated manuscripts. That made it easier for me to say no to the many, many manuscripts that were good but that we just couldn’t afford to buy. There are always–or should be–more manuscripts than you have space for. And the reasons why editors turn them down are as varied as the types of manuscripts. You may have just bought another manuscript similar to the one you’re looking at. Or it may be too long or too short. Or it may be a great idea but poorly written. Or vice versa. And the list of reasons goes on and on.
But when it comes down to it, the editor goes with the best manuscripts that come his or her way. The editor’s goal is to increase the number of manuscripts being submitted, and by doing so, hopefully increase the chances of quality as well. But you can’t buy them all. You just don’t have the budget.
So the key to getting on the good side of an editor and getting your manuscript published is the same method I tell students to follow when trying to get through a class at Southwestern. The way you pass is class is simple: give the professor what he or she wants. Getting published? Give the editor what he or she wants. Simple.
How do you know what they want? Well, in a college class you read the syllabus or you ask the professor. In a magazine or a publishing house you do the same. You read the writer’s guidelines. You read the magazine–actually, several of them. And you talk to the editor.
If you understand that editors need writers, it makes you a little more comfortable getting an editor on the phone or email and asking them questions. But just like professors, editors are busy people, so make sure your question is intelligent and not answered somewhere else, like in the writer’s guidelines. And don’t be afraid to bounce an idea off of them.
That’s the truth about editors. Trust me. I used to be one. Actually I still am.