Student guest post: How to navigate the crucial writer-editor relationship

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Adam Phan is a UNC-Chapel Hill student studying journalism with a minor in art history. He is an assistant Arts & Entertainment editor at The Daily Tar Heel and hopes to write for Entertainment Weekly magazine one day.

I haven’t been working at The Daily Tar Heel for too long. In fact, I only joined the student publication this past spring. I was a newly minted staff writer with no journalism experience.

Fast-forward to a year later: I’m now an assistant Arts & Entertainment editor at the paper. Instead of doing the writing, I’m now doing the editing. Oh, how the tables have turned. In addition to editing, I’m responsible for other things like assigning stories and attending budget meetings.

Wait, that’s all? No, not really.

My most important duty as an editor is maintaining a good relationship with my writers. If you’re on shaky ground with them, they might not be putting out their best work. After a semester of being an assistant editor, I’ve picked up a few tips on how to navigate the crucial relationship between a writer and an editor.

1. Get to know your writer.

I remember coming into the office to read my first story — a review of the CW drama “Riverdale.” I barely knew my editors, so I was sort of shy. But that quickly changed because they made an effort to get to know me.

With that said, get to know your writers. I’m managing a staff of 25 writers. Yes, it may seem like a lot of people to get to know, but it’s the first step in maintaining a good relationship with them. By learning their names and a few facts about them, they’ll begin to feel more comfortable around you. It’ll break the awkward silence and tension that can happen while you’re editing their stories. And trust me, I’ve been there before, and it is not fun.

When a writer comes in, I make it a habit to ask them how their week has been so far. Ask if they have anything important or exciting coming up and go from there. Crack some jokes with them. Let them know you’re looking out for them and that you care about their development. And help them if they ever need anything, like advice on homework or someone to talk to during some tough times. You’re their friend, and they’re yours.

2. Communicate often with your writers.

Communication is very important in a writer-editor relationship. It can make or break the story.

Sometimes writers may have some trouble finding or contacting sources, or they’re struggling with the lede or structure of a story. Your job as an editor is to help them. So I give out my phone number to my writers so they can message me anytime with their questions. They can email me, too, but I respond much faster to text messages since I have my phone on me at all times.

But remember, communication is a two-way street. If they don’t reach out to you, you need to reach out to them. Make sure they’re held accountable for updates and deadlines. It’s crucial to know where they are with their stories. You don’t want to them waiting to the last minute to contact their sources to write their story.

To keep them accountable at all times, the Arts & Entertainment desk has a Google Sheets spreadsheet where our writers can update us on their stories. We encourage them to fill it out each day. On the day of their deadline, they must update the document by 2:30 p.m., or we’ll text them inquiring about their story.

3. Respect your writers.

Your job as an editor is to edit your writers’ stories. But that doesn’t mean you can go off on a power trip. You may be in a position of power over them, but they are still your equal, so treat them the way you would want to be treated if you were a writer. Don’t talk down to them when they make a mistake. Your job is to help them grow as a writer. After all, the DTH is a learning newspaper.

Just like communication, editing is a two-way street. Be sure to always edit side-by-side with the writer. Engage them in the editing process. If you come across something strange while editing their stories, ask questions. For example, “Why did you phrase it this way?” Don’t just automatically change something.

Writers can get defensive about changes at first, so by asking questions, you can come to understand their reasoning behind it. And you may not change something because of it. However, if you still think something should be changed, be sure to have a good reason for it, too.

Also, don’t forget to compliment them on their good work. Give them credit where it’s due, and you’ll have a happy writer. And a happy writer means you’re a good editor.