25 January 2022

Building the Perfect Editor

A magazine issue, an anthology,
and a couple of collections
make for a pile of editing.
Over the years I’ve had several thousand pieces of writing accepted for publication, ranging from fillers, jokes, and anecdotes to essays and various forms of non-fiction, to short stories in a variety of genres, to a handful of novels. My work has appeared in anthologies, journals, magazines, newsletters, newspapers, webzines, and other types of publications. I have sold original work and reprints. I have written on assignment, on invitation, and on spec. I have been paid bupkis for some projects and have received payments in the low four figures for others. I have been paid promptly but often not, and too often promised payments never materialized. Through all of this, I have worked with many great editors and with a few who should die from a thousand paper cuts and be left on the side of the road for feral hogs to devour.

Because I have recently been doing more editing than ever before and because I don’t wish for my paper-cut-riddled body to be left on the side of the road, I’ve been pondering the attributes of the perfect editor.

For me, that editor responds promptly, pays promptly (and handsomely), publishes everything I submit, edits with a deft touch that puts a brilliant shine on my near-perfect prose, puts my name on the cover, sends numerous contributor copies, ensures that my work is seen by the most influential reviewers (all of whom recognize my brilliance), and ensures that my work is considered for every appropriate award and best-of-year anthology. No matter how much of an ass I am to work with, a great editor never badmouths me, my work, or my highly inflated ego, and always picks up the tab when we go for dinner and drinks.


The reality is that no editor can meet my expectations. All are constrained by the budgets and policies of their publishers as well as by their own strengths and weaknesses.

Still, I can dream, and my dream is to play Dr. Frankenstein and build the perfect editor from the best parts of the editors with whom I’ve worked, all the while hoping my assistant doesn’t bring home the brain from “Abby Normal.”

I would start by creating the environment in which the editor works: A well-funded publishing company that believes in treating content providers (writers, artists, photographers, and others) as important collaborators to be respected and not as necessary evils to be tolerated.

The editor would have an unlimited amount of time to accomplish tasks and would have stellar support staff, from editorial assistants to designers to contract managers to bookkeeping and accounting staff.

The editor would have all the necessary tools, from the latest hardware and software to appropriate reference materials to comfortable seating and favorite writing implements.

The editor would have the ability to focus on a single task when appropriate and the ability to juggle multiple tasks when necessary.

The editor would have a superior sense of story and the ability to pinpoint exactly where and why a story jumps the rails.

The editor would have superior copyediting skills or a trusted assistant editor with these skills.

The editor would have infinite patience to work with new writers and guide them through the publishing process as well as to answer the same questions ad nauseam.

The editor would have exemplary people skills and, perhaps more important, a sense of empathy that allows the editor to understand what writers experience when they sit at the keyboard to create or when they anxiously check email every thirty-seven seconds awaiting responses to queries, submissions, and revisions.


Alas, once I release the perfect editor into the world of publishing, the newly created creature, lovingly assembled from the best of every editor who has ever existed, is likely to become a jaded, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, hard-drinking SOB whose days consist of rejecting the brilliant work of new writers, publishing the work of washed-up hacks, introducing errors during editing, complaining about the production department, lobbying for a raise (if on-staff) or a bigger advance (if freelance), and bemoaning its failed writing career.

Damn, I really need to quit staring in the mirror when I write these things.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this post is intended to resemble any actual editors, living or dead, except those devoured by feral hogs.

James A. Hearn and Michael Bracken
at the 2019 Shamus Awards Banquet
in Dallas.
“Blindsided,” co-authored with James A. Hearn and published in the September/October 2021 issue of
Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, has been nominated for an Edgar Award.

Congratulations to fellow SleuthSayer R.T. Lawton, whose story “The Road to Hana” (AHMM, May/June 2021), was also nominated for an Edgar.


  1. Most of the editors I've worked with were excellent. A few clunkers. Most of the agents were horrible. A few good ones. Feral hogs. Like that image. "Several thousand pieces" published. That's so cool.

  2. I've been contacted by president of the Feral Hog Appreciation Society and chastised for my inaccurate portrayal of our four-footed porcine friends. Apparently, a feral hog would never eat a bad editor because, and I quote, "They're tasteless."

  3. I'm embarrassed to admit I had to google "Abby Normal." How could I have forgotten that scene from one of my favorite films?? Thanks for the reference. I'm still laughing.
    My thus far limited experience with editors has all been positive. No feral hogs required.

  4. I squint or take my glasses off when I look in the mirror.

  5. Great post, Michael.

    I only remember working with one really bad editor, and I'm sure he or she was using a fake name. It was for the first novel I published with a publisher who went under after several of the writers found that they were being treated badly and left for other places. Other than that, I've been remarkably lucky.

    It works both ways, too. The writer needs to follow guidelines and meet deadlines. Editors can eliminate many of the problems if a submission doesn't measure up, but the writer is still at a disadvantage waiting for responses. I presently have three stories that have been out for over a year, and two others that I suspect MAY have been accepted even though I've received no acceptance letter. Both of those are coming up on eight months now.

  6. Michael, congratulations to you and James for "Blindsided" getting an Edgars Nomination. Great story. See you at AHMM's table at the ceremony in Manhattan.

  7. Congratulations for your Edgars Nomination! And to you, too, R.T.!
    Michael, you are an excellent editor.
    Meanwhile, the Feral Hog Appreciation Society is simply trying to hide the fact that feral hogs will eat anything. We need to smash this conspiracy before it starts.
    Also, mirrors are overrated. Eyes on your keyboard, please!

  8. I like editors who give compliments to writers. I received this comment in a recent acceptance email: "Loved the twist, the last line!" 😎

  9. like your first definition of the perfect editor: “…responds promptly, pays promptly (and handsomely), publishes everything I submit…”

    I’ve liked working with editors and that feeling when, as you say, they polish my excellent prose into words of beauty.

    Feldman and Wilder… I wasn’t expecting that. And congratulations to you and RT for the nominations.

    1. Wait. I forgot a long ago journal ‘edited for space’ a tech article and changed its meaning and intent entirely. Tech magazine hint: When faced with the sentence, “That is not good,” please don’t dele the word ‘not’!

  10. So Michael, are you coming to New York for the Edgars? And did you mean it about picking up the tab?

    1. Liz, you seem to have me confused with an editor who has an expense account...bur if you're willing to split a Happy Meal, I'll do it!

      And, yes, Temple and I plan to attend the Edgars.

  11. Thanks for your comments, everyone!

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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