Editors’ Pet Peeves: Menagerie of Faux-Pas for Writers


Ask an editor about their pet peeves about working with authors and wow. Stand back! From the cluttered litter box/Inbox to the pain of scooping poop in a story’s metaphorical lawn, editors have definite opinions on author behavior, and what they consider professionalism for writers.

One challenge to the author-editor relationship is this: at this stage, your “baby” has moved from the realms of art to the realms of commerce. And commerce means money and schedules and deadlines. Yes, your editor wants your story to be its best, but your editor also wants to make his/her boss happy and meet the required deadlines. There’s often a push-pull between the two areas.

If you aspire to be a professional writer then you need to act like one, so take a look at some of the species on display here at the Pet Peeve Menagerie:

The (un)Reality Rat- characterized by its blatant disregard of facts, fictional or otherwise, this pet makes editors want to scream. C.B. Potts, the editor of The Journal of Nursing Jocularity and she’s edited fiction anthologies as well. She says, “Pay at least passing homage to reality. I don’t care if it’s physics, politics, biology—huge, glaring, basic factual errors throw me so far out of a story there’s no getting back. This isn’t “Oh, in 1435, they didn’t wear BLUE billabongs upon their head, they wore only green!”; it’s “Oh, in 1435, I drove my Porsche to India from Nebraska to Colonize the Wild Frontier.” And before you say, “No one is that stupid,” let me assure you that yes, yes they are. Ask some of my esteemed colleagues one day where Kentucky is. If you are writing about a location you do not live in and know as intimately as you know your undergarments, look at a map before you arbitrarily place things right, left, north, south, etc.”

In addition to the issue of reality, another frequent resident of the Pet Peeves Menagerie is Ernestine, the Email Egret. Characterized by nearly invisible plumage and resultant empty Inbox, Ernestine isn’t able to respond promptly (and professionally) to editor requests for edits, forms, information, or to even acknowledge receipt of same. KIL Kenny, Senior Editor at Torquere Press, has this say about the Email Egret. “Please acknowledge my e-mails promptly. Especially when I have attached an edit or a form to be dealt with. E-mail is not failsafe. I can’t assume you’ve gotten it.”

Of course, we understand if you truly had an emergency to deal with. A Day Job issue, a sick family member, an unexpected trip, of course, these will take precedence over a story. But, it takes thirty seconds to compose a brief email explaining the situation to your editor and offering your own deadline on when you can respond to the editor’s request. In one notable example I experienced myself, an author ignored my email with an edited file attached then blithely wrote back two weeks later that she’d be unable to meet the deadline due to her class schedule. This was for a contracted piece with a scheduled publication date! By that time, the proofer’s job was affected, and when you get the whole domino effect happening with schedules and dates, you’ve created a real problem for your publisher. Let me just say: her credibility with that press plummeted, and if and when she gets the project done, she may or may not have a spot in the release schedule. This is the Email Egret species at its worst.

Another species that makes an appearance in this menagerie is Harold the House Style Hamster. Harold doesn’t think that house style guides should apply to him because he’s brilliant. Or he’s Australian. Or, um, well, just because. Most publishers have a standard guide that helps them have a consistent editorial tone, formatting, and overall “feel.” Some presses are comfortable using British or Australian spelling (favor versus favour, for example), and some presses are stringent about applying American English rules to their books. When it comes to a house style guide issue, Harold the Hamster spins his wheel, asking endlessly about this already-decided issue. Harold needs to learn to let it go and not get bogged down with small things like spelling. Focus your discussions, if any, about truly important story issues.

One of my least favorite species in the menagerie is Sally, the Slacker Snake. Sally shows up in authors who write consistently for a publisher, and the issue with Sally is this: she doesn’t even try to improve. Say for example, Book One of a series has dialogue tag issues, POV slip-ups, and issues with scene setting. Despite having these problems pointed out repeatedly in a manuscript, Sally doesn’t make the effort to deal with these issues for later stories. Book Two of the series has exactly the same problems, the same revisions are needed, the same slacker writing is on the page. This is an immensely frustrating animal to deal with, and ultimately, discouraging.

An editor who tells an author over and over to learn proper dialogue tagging (and who even shows you in a story), and then gets another story with exactly the same problem is going to feel ignored and useless. Remember, publishers pay editor to make stories better, but not for ghostwriting. Learning the basics of fiction and applying those tenets in a more sophisticated manner with each submission will show editors that you’re trying to improve. Don’t try to improve and don’t be surprised if your contracts dry up.

KIL Kenny tells of another species she dreads dealing with—Fanny the Fussy Finch. These authors, she says, “…treat the editing process as the opportunity to start their second draft. And the proofing process as the opportunity to start their third draft. I had an author not too long ago who sent me revisions after I had told her the manuscript had been submitted for production.

“IMHO, an author should not sub a story until the author is satisfied that the story is in its best, final form. Editing should be a process of polish, not reshaping the substance. I’ve heard the argument, “But I’ve learned so much since I subbed that story, and my thinking has changed!” Then write a new damn story to show off your new thinking.

“Of course, there are occasions when a submission is disastrous and the editor is going to ask for very substantial rewrites. That situation should be the exception, and should be driven by the editor’s requests, not the author’s second thoughts.”

Most editors want to work as a team with an author; it’s not in our interest to have huge conflicts and issues in working with writers. An author who responds promptly to questions, handles edits and revisions in a professional manner, who submits with the house style guide in mind, and who makes the effort to improve from one story to another is a beast who will be gladly welcomed into the editor’s personal zoo. This is a writer we don’t mind feeding, watering, and tending to!

Vincent Diamond
May-June 2010

“Serious about Smut” © 2010 Vincent Diamond. All rights reserved.

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