How to piss off an editor

If a prospective client (or, for that matter, anyone else) sends me an email, I will respect their privacy. I will not go around telling everyone what we talked about.

Unless, of course, they cross what is known as the Critical Jackass Threshold (CJT), whereupon I enthusiastically reserve the right to post the entire email exchange online for the purposes of public mockery edification.

Let me tell you a story.

On February 18, I got an email from someone I’d never talked to before, who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty. That email, in its entirety:

Hi Mr. Buckley,

I want to know if you still do sample edits. If you could let me know, thanks!


Now, a sample edit is just what it sounds like: An editor edits a small portion of a larger work so that a prospective client can evaluate the editor’s skills before committing to an entire project. Some editors refuse to do sample edits at all, while others will do them but charge their usual hourly rate for the time. Personally, I offer free sample edits of a few pages — I’m still early in my career, and it’s (mostly) worked well for me so far, but I can understand why many editors don’t.

Anyway, I responded:

Hi [Name] — Yes, I do sample edits. What do you have in mind?


He wrote back (and again, this is the entire email):

Well. I could send you a few pages, if you want. Do you do in depth editing ? for a sample.

This isn’t a promising start.

For starters, it tells me nothing whatsoever about his project. Fiction, nonfiction, or something else (e.g., poetry)? A book, or something else (e.g., article, essay)? Remember, I have no idea who this guy is, so I’m still completely in the dark here. If he’s writing his postdoc on the finer points of organic chemistry as viewed through the lens of post-fin de siècle French literary criticism, I’m probably not his guy.

Also, “in depth editing” isn’t a thing. Is he looking for a copy edit (spelling, grammar, etc.) or a developmental edit (plot, characters, etc.) or something else? Again, no idea.

Now, so far, none of this says “jackass” per se. So far he just seems kinda clueless, which isn’t a crime. Everybody’s clueless when they embark on something new. Granted, in his situation I would’ve done some research about how editing works, and I would’ve volunteered some more information rather than making the editor drag it out of me.

But, whatever. I’m game. I reply, asking some specific questions to get a little basic information about his project. I finish by saying:

Once I understand what your project is about and what you’re looking for, yes, please send me some pages (preferably the first 3 to 5 pages) and I’ll be happy to do a sample edit.


He responds, answering my questions. I learn that he has a complete draft of a novel, but is “reworking a lot of it.” As to what kind of editing he wants (copy editing or developmental editing), his response is:

Is there a mix between the two ? lol. um, I guess copy editing.

Again, this is not promising. Asking someone to copy edit a book you’re still revising is like asking someone to paint the inside of a house while renovators are still gutting it. You can do it, but you’re kinda wasting your money.

Still, I understand what it’s like to shop for a service you know nothing about (e.g., home renovation). So I’m trying to be understanding.

He closes that same email with this little gem:

don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. I mean, I am looking for a reason to pick YOU over every OTHER editor out there.

[Name] 🙂

I have no idea what “don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty” means, since I’ve already told him I would do the sample edit.

But of course, I am giddy with excitement when I realize that he might pick ME over every OTHER editor out there. In fact, I had thought I was the only editor in the world, but now that I realize I have competition, I am energized with the succulent ambrosia of free-market capitalism and desperate to win his approval. Truly, I will try harder than ever to do my best at — what was it again? Oh, right: “A mix between the two ? lol. um, I guess copy editing.”


At this point Betsy is telling me not to do the sample edit for him, which is of course the correct answer. But I’m still trying to be nice and give him another chance. I tell him to send me the sample, and he gives me the first three and a half pages of chapter 1.

The writing is, surprisingly, not godawful. It’s not good by any means, but it reads like it was written by a human being rather than a precocious baboon. So that’s something. Since it’s only a few pages, I decide to be extra nice and do both a copy edit and a developmental edit — that is, making small corrections to things like punctuation, while also giving him comments to guide revision. You should only do one or the other at a time, but I figured it might help him decide which one he wanted.

So I send him my sample edit. He writes back with an email that begins as follows:


So I accidentally sent you chapter two, instead of one. I was renaming files and got mixed up.

This is not a promising start.

Okay, it doesn’t really matter for a sample edit, but still. Besides, this explanation is a bit sketchy, since not only the file name but also the main header inside the file says “Chapter 1.” But, whatever.

Mix-ups aside, he’s enthusiastic about my developmental edit comments. (He evidently does not consider my copy edits worthy of mention.) He has lots of follow-up questions. Should he do X with this character? Should he try Y with the story? And, of course,

Is there any other things I can tighten? or perhaps change?

Ah yes, the author’s eternal question: Is there any other things I can perhaps change?

He concludes:

Please let me know asap,


He’s a busy guy! He doesn’t just want to know if there is any other things he can perhaps change, he wants to know it right now.

I’m going to pause for a moment.

Those of you playing along at home may have noticed a certain minor omission in this chain of events. Let’s review what’s happened so far:

  1. Author asks editor for a sample edit.
  2. Editor provides sample edit for free.
  3. Author expects editor to do additional work.

What’s missing there? Can you guess? Here’s a hint: It’s right between steps 2 and 3.

You guessed it. Step 2.5 is called “Author agrees to pay editor for additional work.”

Yes, that’s right. Editors, greedy plutocratic bastards that they are, typically ask to be compensated for their services. And as a matter of fact, I have actually done free editing for clients on more than one occasion — but the common thread was that they were people I liked. You may have guessed that we’re in distinctly non-liking territory at the moment.

Nevertheless, I dutifully reply with an explanation of my rates and an estimate for the project. For reasons that will perhaps elude him, I do not answer any of his follow-up questions.

That was almost three weeks ago. Shockingly, I haven’t heard back.

Now, I’ve had some internal debate as to whether this guy (1) is such a genuinely self-centered nut job that he simply didn’t realize he was being a jackass, or (2) was deliberately scamming me.

I’m actually leaning toward the latter, mostly because of what he said about the chapter — that it was really chapter 2, not chapter 1. That suggests that he may have sent multiple different chapters to different editors for free sample edits, calling all of them “Chapter 1,” hoping to get a significant portion of his book edited for free.

(Incidentally, besides being a supremely jackass thing to do, that strategy also isn’t very effective. Both copy editing and developmental editing need to be handled consistently throughout the work.)

Of course, if he was scamming me, wouldn’t he have had a clearer preference between developmental and copy editing? So I don’t know. Maybe he’s scamming, but also a clueless jackass? It’s really hard to say.

The moral of this little tale: “If you screw over the person trying to fix your story, you might end up in a different kind of story.”

Nah, that’s dumb. How about just: “Don’t be a jackass.”

2 responses to “How to piss off an editor

  1. Oh my. My editor for my recent book happens to be a good friend, but even then we established the payment before she started editing. This is a very sketchy situation.

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