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A person stands in front of two huge stacks of manuscripts with their hands on their head (opinion)

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A university press editor friend had been ignoring me in ways that were unlike him. When he finally got in touch, he apologized and explained he was swamped.

What was going on? (Translation: What could be more important than chatting with me?)

Two weeks after graduation, he said, professors send in their manuscripts before they go off for the summer. Everything comes in a flood.

There’s another wave, he said, just before the academic year starts again, after academics have had all summer to complete projects. Then they get pissy if he doesn’t get back to them quickly.

When I was an editor (and also as an admissions officer), I bristled if faculty friends wished me a good summer. They either didn’t realize or forgot that staff members work year-round.

And I’m pretty sure I didn’t realize that faculty members don’t get paid in the summer. Even though both of my parents taught at universities, I somehow never got that memo.

My first year as an assistant professor, I was shocked not to get a paycheck from July until October. When I was growing up, my family decamped each year to a small cabin in an unglamorous part of Maine, and I watched my father type out manuscripts of novels that would never be published. But I still somehow didn’t realize summer wasn’t a paid vacation.

Eventually I opted to spread my salary out over 12 months, something an economist friend told me was not the smartest financial choice but only reasonable for us humans.

Most people who aren’t at elite colleges or universities don’t have a lot of time during the academic year to do the writing work that is part of our jobs. I was lucky for a long time that I had no children and very little in the way of a social life, so I managed to get stuff done. It helps in getting manuscripts completed to have actual due dates from publishers and to be driven by the feeling that if you don’t see your byline in print (or electrons), you’ve ceased to exist.

Now I have a more fulfilling life (though still no children—I don’t know how you people manage to wash your hair, let alone write books) and less time than ever before. I’ve also experienced the not-uncommon phenomenon that the more work you do, the more you’ll have. I learned that if I spend less time puttering around at night and get up two hours earlier, the day is—news flash—longer. (How’s that for career advice?)

So, I’ve found habits and hacks that allow me to get stuff done. What works for me won’t necessarily be a fix for others. We each have to figure out what we need. But there are ways we can set ourselves up for success.

Like thinking about what happens during the next steps.

In order to get what I want (book contracts, magazine assignments, regular columns), I need to make it easy for editors to say yes. If I want to be invited back, as I always do, I can’t be difficult or diva-esque. I know there are plenty of other people way more talented than I am, so all I can do is work with what I have and bust my butt. My motto: clean copy ahead of deadline. You would not believe how well that works.

Because I had a career in publishing, I understand some of what editors face, and, more important, I am suffused with empathy and admiration for them. Every author is FINE, in the great Louise Penny’s characterization: fucked up, insecure, neurotic and egotistical. Guilty!

I try to be aware of my own neediness. When I don’t hear back in what feels like a reasonable time to me (weeks, days or hours), I write an email. And then delete it. When I can’t rein myself in, I acknowledge my childish ways, apologize and make a joke. I am impatient—I can’t help it; like Jessica Rabbit, that’s just the way I’m drawn—and it doesn’t help that I have been spoiled by superb treatment by every editor I’ve ever written for.

When my editor friend talked about how academics only care about getting their manuscripts off their desks and onto his so they can go shoeless in the summer, I wondered if it wasn’t because they were FINE, or not only. Rather it was perhaps because they just hadn’t thought enough about what happened when they attached that big file to their email. Maybe it wasn’t narcissism but simple ignorance.

So here’s my advice if you want the best shot at being published and to have a good relationship with an editor: think about what their life might be like.

And then, instead of rushing to get the manuscript off when it’s good for you, maybe ask them when they’ll have time to read it. If they have a pile of other manuscripts that have to be rushed into production, or a sales conference is coming up, or there’s a giant, complicated, multiauthor book that is giving them fits, you can hold onto yours a little longer. Maybe give it a fresh read and send it when they have a window and know to expect it.

Remember you are working on a calendar that most other academics share. If you stagger your submission to come at a lull, when editors have more bandwidth, you might get a more generous reading. Otherwise, as a publisher, the easiest thing is to go all Nancy Reagan and just say no.

If it does take a while to hear back, don’t nag, but do check in. Most editors don’t mind a gentle reminder, but hectoring can backfire.

Think about all the students who wait until the last minute to submit work. Those who get stuff in early and take time to proofread make your job easier and more pleasurable, right? I’ve learned it’s best to give editors the same consideration you wish students would give you.

Rachel Toor is a contributing editor at Inside Higher Ed and a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University.

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