The One Freelance Writing Relationship That Matters Most: You and Your Editor

May 2, 2017 Bethany Johnson

As a content creator, who's your most important working relationship? Make your editor your greatest ally and strongest advocate for a more secure (and much more fun) freelance writing career.

I was livid. I was so mad I couldn’t breathe. My editor had just returned my work to me and informed me that the client liked it, but wanted to take the assignment in a completely different direction. “Scrap the whole thing, please, and start over,” she wrote.

What?!

I’d been freelance writing for about a year, and I’d become a pretty hot commodity. My roster was full of clients who had sought me out—not the other way around. A new prospect approached me weekly, and I wasn’t even promoting myself. It was marvelous.

Then this.

I fought the urge to chuck my laptop across the coffee shop where I was working, and I forced myself to breathe. Does this client even know who I am?

Now, pause the scene and reason with me. People get torqued off at their coworkers all the time. But full-time freelancers have a special freedom to do something about it. And since I’m a make-your-own-destiny kind of person, I don’t believe in staying in a working relationship that’s not…well, working. In fact, that’s how mad I was. I considered backing away from this client, but I hesitated.

I knew I would miss my editor.

You see, this editor was one of a kind. She saw my potential, and I appreciated how she covered both my grammatical mistakes and my creative risks. She would applaud my artistic wins when other clients tended to hit publish and hustle on to what’s next. We had a history. Over the last year, we’d built much more than grabby content campaigns. We had something worth spreading.

The difference between a stagnant and a vibrant freelance writing career could have more to do with the writer-editor relationship than you think.

Image attribution: Inforedmag

In fact, the relationship is enviable. NPR critic David Edelstein described the portrayal of the perfect writer-editor relationship in the 2016 movie Genius as something that “…makes you envy the push and pull and sometimes shove and yank of people working together to make what’s on the printed page sing.”

We’re Neither One Afraid

First, we’re not scared of one another. Many content coordinators and marketing managers have found that special writer who can juggle deadlines, ideate endlessly, and deliver snappy stories over and over without missing a beat. To lose them would be a major hit. So they fear trying to correct course when their darling begins to get comfortable and veer off.

Recently, I read Lisa Rogak’s A Boy Named Shel about one of my favorite writers and cartoonists, the late Shel Silverstein. The man abhorred the spirit of commercialism and punished his editors for participating in the industry. He needed them, they needed him, but he did everything in his ridiculously creative power to trip them up. He even stuffed his royalty checks into a drawer to confuse their accounting department. Perhaps the only thing scarier than a flaky or subpar writer is the potentially bestselling one who hates his editor.

On the flip side, I hear of writers settling for underpaid and undervalued gigs daily. And I don’t even hang out where these frail sufferers are found. I estimate over half of all freelancers live in fear of the big, bad client, and that posture shows through their work. My favorite anatomical feature of my relationship with this particular client is the pure, complete lack of any fear. I trust she’s my advocate, and she trusts I can handle reasonable revision requests. If ever we do part ways, we both trust it’ll be for a good, amicable reason. There’s no feeling quite so secure.

We Combine Ideas

My network is full of strong freelance writing gurus, so I hit them up to see if they had any synergistic writer-editor relationships like the one I’m describing. Instead of a chorus of yeses, I was hit with a number of horror stories. One friend said she’d sent beefy pitches to her editor that he then turned around and assigned to another writer. Another freelancer messaged me to say he hates his niche but can’t seem to break out because his editor won’t put him on the project he was originally hired for. One of my brand journalism buddies said his editor uses sarcasm frequently, so he honestly can’t decipher what kind of feedback he’s getting. And still another said her editor’s not an editor at all but an enterprise-level marketing manager, so when he changes her work, it looks like a middle schooler published it. Yikes.

Honestly, I’ve experienced a minuscule degree of each problem represented. Today, though, my favorite editor and I work together to build upon good ideas, making them the memorable, stand-out ones that get repeat mentions.

Sometimes, she proposes an idea and I add my spin. Other times, I pitch and she steers me slightly before telling me, “go.” Always, we share a virtual high five when we nail a client’s pain point or entertain the bleh out of someone’s day.

We Protect Everyone Involved

“No, you’re not crazy,” she crooned, calming me down. “And yes, you over-delivered.” I felt my muscles relax with every acknowledgment she made. She explained the tough spot her CMO was in, and I began to understand how the situation could have developed and how lines got crossed. I saw that no one had intentionally derailed the project, and that the new concept indeed had legs.

The difference between a stagnant and a vibrant freelance writing career could have more to do with the writer-editor relationship than you think.

Image attribution: Ada Gonzalez

In the course of a few minutes, we were back on track, brainstorming and building a smarter, even more impelling piece. And you know what? The irritation softened, even though no apologies were exchanged. My editor had protected the people involved, and I didn’t pry. I was already excited about the next project.

Who Benefits Most

The benefits of a strong working relationship between writer and editor are endless, but right off the bat, here are a few immediate, obvious goodies.

Your Freelance Writing Improves

If an editor returns work for the same reason twice, good writers perk up and look for a trend in their style. Wise writers adapt quickly and decisively. I consider that a valuable education with a generous scholarship.

Your Morale Improves

As you view revision requests as free education, you naturally assume an attitude of thankfulness. It’s a mood-boosting exercise that doesn’t take an ounce of effort.

Your Reputation Improves

Somewhere, someone is brainstorming how to execute a new content strategy and asking, “What writer do you know who could pull off a message like this?” And another person in the room thinks of me. That’s not because of my social media presence. It’s not my professional headshot. It’s because clients have seen my editor and me deliver elevated ideas consistently over time.

I enjoy receiving the benefits of such a strong partnership, sure, but the reader is the one who really wins. Our pieces are nothing if not enjoyable, and it’s fun knowing we entertained another curious audience by putting our heads together yet again.

You’ll never find me hacking a social media site or finding one special way to “get in front of” more people. And I certainly won’t engage folks by posting links to stuff I haven’t read just for the sake of keeping an algorithm on my side. Instead, I’ll do what the great Arthur Gensler suggested in Fortune and simply grow my business by helping clients build their business. In other words, I’ll turn good ideas into strong connections that linger long after an audience has finished reading. And hopefully, my editors will remain my strongest allies and advocates. Because without editors, well, there are no greats.

That day in the coffee shop, I didn’t flip my table. Neither did my editor need to talk me off any ledge. The frustration dissipated as I worked with my advocate to get to the bottom of what had happened and prevent it from happening again. Today, I relish the chance to tackle problems with her because our final product is always more lively after a good struggle.

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