The Ten Commandments of Working with Editors

Curmudgeon. Loner. Keyboard monkey. Cave dweller. Hermit.

These are just a few of the choice names many have come to associate with those of us who edit for a living.

And they’re not 100% wrong. Stereotypes often emerge from a grain of truth.

There’s no question that editors are unique creative creatures that are often misunderstood by producers, directors, and clients:

  • We more often than not prefer to work alone.
  • We don’t get a whole lot of sun (not familiar with “The Sun?” Here, let me Google that for you).
  • We can be ridiculously OCD about “our way” of doing things.
  • We don’t like to be told what to do.
  • And we get really snappy when you touch our keyboards (sorry about that, it’s nothing personal).

If you’re a producer or client sitting on the couch in an edit suite struggling to understand what makes your editor tick, and you’d like a better understanding of how we operate, I hope the following “commandments” will give you some important insights.

[Author’s Note: I totally get that “editor” encompasses a wide range of job types. For those of you specifically in the Fortune 500 agency world, for example, it may be routine for the editor and producers to sit together during a session. I assure you, whether you’re with your editor every day in his or her suite, or collaborating cross-country with a tool like, you will have a superior working relationship with your editor if you adopt the spirit of these commandments—which will yield a superior end product. And that’s something we all want.]

The Ten Commandments for Working with Editors

  1. Thou shalt respect each editor’s unique personality.
  2. Thou shalt understand the creative process takes time.
  3. Thou shalt be patient and understand that “we will get there.”
  4. Thou shalt not micromanage the process.
  5. Thou shalt understand we report to multiple people.
  6. Thou shalt maintain the position of “collaborator.”
  7. Thou shalt not “play around” with our cuts (or touch our stuff).
  8. Thou shalt accept that editors are not technical wizards.
  9. Thou shalt accept that not everything can be “fixed in post.”
  10. Thou shalt accept that editing is our career and our passion—but it’s not our life.

All editors are not created equal. We are not machines with a single factory setting.

In a popular article from 2016, producer Damien Dayton (condescendingly) outlines The Four Types of Video Editors You Will Meet. He details the strengths and weaknesses of “The Musician,” “The Technician,” “The Painter,” and “The Storyteller.” Where Damien completely misses the mark is that we cannot be efficiently put in cleanly labeled boxes. But at the same time, he’s not all wrong—there are different tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses we all have as creative professionals.

Yes, some editors are dominant “Musicians” with strong rhythm and a unique ability to work with music, but that doesn’t mean they suck at using the Avid or doing a quick color pass.

Some editors are dominant “Painters” who embrace the visual image and hang their own photography on the wall for all to see, but that doesn’t rule them out as fantastic storytellers.

And editors like me who are primarily “Storytellers” might surprisingly also have a knack for rhythm, pacing, doing a quick split-screen comp, or even throwing in some motion graphics.

If you want a long lasting (and stress-free) relationship with the editor you’re sharing that dark room with, take a bit of time to understand their strengths and dominant tendencies—but without the knee-jerk reaction of assuming they fit into only one “type.”

The next time you become frustrated with an editor because he keeps incessantly asking you “how” your specific change relates to the story, rather than getting upset because you just want them to push the buttons, instead consider the perspective that your editor’s number one goal is providing you the best end product possible.

And if you find it odd that most editors are anti-social creatures who are often awkwardly introverted, consider that we chose a solitary profession working in the dark for long hours for a reason.

We totally get it: You need to see it ASAP. In fact, the many repeated requests we get to complete our work immediately has transformed the acronym ASAP into a verb:

“Hey man, why are you in such a rush?”

“Ugh. I just got ASAP’ed again.”

As simple as it might seem to quantify how long something will take by the amount of notes, the creative process can be messy. It’s not always easy to provide an exact to-the-minute deadline for when a cut or round of changes is ready for review. A list of five notes could take a day if they involve complex story restructuring or extensive music replacements, and a different list of 50 notes could take 30 minutes because all we have to do is massage a few frames or fix glitches and pops.

We are always doing our best to deliver work as quickly as possible—but as creative professionals, it’s nearly impossible for us to deliver unfinished work that lacks integrity.

Delivering our very best day-after-day takes time.

Fast. Cheap. Good.

Pick two.

You need the work to be of high quality, but unfortunately, there’s no money in the budget to cover my OT? No problem. Just don’t expect it in 5 minutes.

Also, keep in mind that allowing us to frontload the creative work and providing us the time to really polish and perfect our edits saves you a ton of time down the road. When I’m putting together my editor’s cut of any given episode of TV, I’m playing the long game. I’m not doing my best to get you an “Assembly;” my goal is to deliver a cut so polished it could be mistaken as a final air master (minus final VFX or color).

Allowing us to breathe a little bit now gives you a lot of breathing space when it’s your turn.

Once you understand that not all notes are created equal and the creative process can be messy, it’s also important to understand that just because what you see isn’t working now, doesn’t mean it won’t end up being exactly what you wanted (and more). Trust us…eventually, we will “get it there.”

You no doubt had a specific vision in your mind of what your project would look like when it was finally cut together. Yet after viewing the first cut, you have a horrible pit in your stomach (and possibly the urge to vomit) because what you’re watching is NOTHING like you imagined. Maybe the director went off the rails. Maybe there were production issues you magically hoped wouldn’t be noticeable once the piece was edited together. Maybe the first cut is twenty minutes longer than expected.

The key is embracing that this part of the process is 100% normal. Just like writing, you have to write “the bad draft” before you are able to discover “the great draft.” Editing is simply the final writing process and equally as important.

But just because your script presumably was perfect, and just because everything went well on set doesn’t mean the first cut is going to be magical with zero room for improvement. We’ve been in this position many times before, and while you might not be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we do. Take a breath, relax, and allow us to guide you there.

If most editors are like me, when asked to deliver any kind of creative work, whether it’s a first cut that will take weeks, or a small list or revisions that can be turned around in an hour, there are only two important questions:

  1. “What are your expectations when this is done?”
  2. “When would you like to see it?”

Once we understand your level of expectation, and once we know when you’d like to see something, we’re all good.

It’s not always helpful having someone pop in every two hours to “take a peek” at a scene or ask how the changes are going.

Nor is it necessary to have someone stand over our shoulder and comment on every work-in-progress music edit that doesn’t sound smooth yet.

We got this!

In my article 5 Things Every Editor Can Do to Build Trust and Keep Clients, I highlighted the need for editors to communicate with directors and producers so everyone is on the same page with clear expectations of the process, and this advice applies equally to producers as well. When making a request, have a quick discussion about the working style and your expectations.

Are you super rushed and based on your schedule it would be better to just “sit in” and review the changes one by one? Not a problem, just clearly communicate that.

Are the changes more complex and you have four other meetings to attend, so perhaps it’s best to just let us “do our thing” so you can get other work done? Fantastic. What’s important is that we’re all on the same page.

Tell us what you expect, tell us when you expect it, and then communicate about the best process for all of us. Then we’re all good.

Side note…just because we’ve stepped away from our workstations for a quick walk and our fingers aren’t banging away at the keyboard doesn’t mean we’re not still working on your changes.

Creativity doesn’t always happen at the computer.

Calmly repeat after me: “Your emergency is not automatically my emergency.”

Just because someone needs it ASAP (refer to Commandment II), that doesn’t automatically mean we have space in our calendars to deliver immediately.

The chances are pretty good that in addition to working with you, we are also working with other producers, a director or two (depending on our workload of episodes, promos, trailers, etc), and we also answer to a network, an agency executive, and an EP or showrunner.

Editors are the children trapped between many divorced parents. We get feedback from a lot of places, and every single person’s voice is important, but there are only so many hours in a day to make everyone (and thus no one) happy.

If something urgent has come up and you require an editor to turn something around quickly, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. You’re doing your job to the best of your ability, and being a fantastic producer means pleasing the people you work for—just as our job is to please you. The key is communicating with us about your deadlines and expectations (refer to Commandment IV).

Before assuming that your emergency can automatically become our emergency, all you have to do is ask: “Hey, this just came up and it’s super important. Do you think you have the bandwidth to handle it?”

If your current emergency is, in fact, a true emergency, then it’s time to have a larger conversation with everyone involved to properly prioritize all active works-in-progress. Communication is the key to getting everything done on time and on budget—with no loss of sanity.

The #1 rule of post-production: Never assume.

Despite our tendency to sulk in dark rooms (Hence the terms “cave dweller” and “hermit,”) editors LOVE to collaborate. We understand our ultimate job is to service your needs. But here’s the thing—we love to work with LEADERS…we don’t enjoy working for “BOSSES.” And whether or not you are actually our boss is irrelevant: don’t treat us like “You’re the boss,” adopting a “my way or the highway” kind of attitude.

Treat us like a fellow collaborator with the common goal of telling the best story and delivering the best work possible. Asserting your dominance over us measly “button pushers” is definitely not the best strategy to help us reach our greatest creative potential.

We editors are hired for our creative tastes and our opinions, in addition to our technical abilities. Treating us as if our ideas truly matter (even if they sometimes suck) is the clearest path to getting the best work you can from us. If you go out of your way to show appreciation for the contribution we make to the work, and if you recognize the value our ideas bring to the table, we’ll be loyal to you until the end of time.

Lead us—don’t push us around.

If you lord over us while we bang away at your changes because you think the added pressure of breathing down our necks will help us reach a state of “creative flow” and deliver faster, well, good luck with that.

Just because we’re classified as “Below the Line” doesn’t mean we’re second class citizens. The best idea wins, no matter who it comes from.

There’s no question the creative process can be a delicate dance of good ideas and bad ideas that must be executed within a tight deadline (and a limited budget), but the key is understanding that despite our often antisocial tendencies, editors love working with you…but we rarely love working for you.

Yeah, I heard… Avid Media Composer now has a free version. Or maybe you discovered there’s a free trial for Adobe Creative Cloud. Oh, your brother-in-law has a copy of Final Cut Pro X? Good for him.

Here’s the thing: having access to editing software makes a person an “editor” about as much as having access to QuickBooks makes a person a CPA.

Imagine standing alongside Michelangelo as he crafts a beautiful canvas right before your eyes. Now imagine someone stepping in with a paintbrush they bought at Home Depot so they can “polish” the painter’s work. Yes, I know that person was most likely “just trying to help,” but clearly he doesn’t have the creative eye, nor the years of experience and expertise.

Respect the amount of time, energy, and attention we’ve put into perfecting our craft and stick to giving us feedback, not steering the ship for us.

While we’re on the subject of “playing around,” please keep in mind that our edit suite is our habitat. It is our home.

Don’t touch our keyboards.

Please don’t touch our monitors.

And please don’t use our office as your own personal conference room while we do your changes. We don’t pace around your office for an hour making our doctor’s appointments while you try to get work done. We expect the same respect in return.

Trust us, we desperately wish that we could simply “turn off” the vocals track and use just the instrumentals on that amazing song you found on iTunes for the act 3 montage. But the sad reality is that editors are not wizards, and post-production is not Hogwarts (not to mention the licensing issues involved with using that music).

We can’t do everything.

Sorry, we don’t have a plug-in to remove the background music playing in the production track that completely drowns out the star’s dialog.

Yes that visual effect is still “temp,” unless you have the $25k to send an unlocked sequence over to the VFX house while we’re still deep in the Director’s Cut.

And no, we can’t quickly paint out that billboard in the background of sixty-seven different shots in the first act chase sequence that was shot 100% hand-held.

We also can’t attach a 4GB HD ProRes output to an email so you can quickly take a look. That’s what is for. Use it.

If you’re still convinced we fill the role of ‘Wizard’ and can fix everything in post, please proceed to Commandment IX.

If you’re tired of putting out fires at the last minute and always feeling like you’re chasing your tail while you “fix it in post,” might we suggest bringing the editors into your many pre-production conversations well before the cameras roll? We might not spend a lot of time on set (or around people in general), but we sure know a lot about avoiding potentially disastrous mistakes that can cost millions of dollars to fix two days before final delivery.

There will inevitably be problems with every production, and ultimately it comes down to one choice: Do you prefer to pay to fix those problems now or later? The problems are inevitable and beyond your control. Being proactive about averting those problems is a choice well within your control.

And if your strategy is to cross your fingers and hope we can fix everything, please refer to Commandment VIII.

Given the sacrifices (and the brutal lifestyle) required to successfully build and maintain a career as an editor, I would venture to guess the vast majority of us do it because we love our craft and simply can’t imagine doing anything else with our lives. This, however, doesn’t give anyone the license to take advantage of our time.

We realize you and your team may have spent years packaging this project. We understand you might even have a good deal of your own money invested (including the second mortgage on your home and emptying out your kids’ college funds). None of this means it’s okay to ask us to work unpaid overtime, or work beyond an agreed out-date without more pay, or bring a sleeping bag to the edit suite because “This week’s gonna be a long one.”

Don’t automatically assume that our level of passion is equal to your level of passion. You may have more invested in the outcome of the project, but you also reap the benefits far beyond us.

The reality is that no matter how successful your project is, we get paid the same rate. Also be keenly aware that the bank does not allow us to pay our mortgages with “Exposure Bucks.”

And most importantly, before cultivating a work environment that makes us feel like we’re raising our kids via Facetime, take a second to find a little perspective and realize that We Create Entertainment For a Living…We’re Not Curing Cancer.

All this being said, know that if you adhere to these commandments, we will have the energy, inspiration, and commitment to give you exceptional work, a fulfilling collaboration, and an end-product we all can be enormously proud of.

Ready to get to work now? So are we.

Some decor for your edit suite. Right-Click to download, print, and hang with pride!

Author’s Note: A special thanks is required for the many people in the wonderfully supportive Blue Collar Post Collective Facebook community. You all helped me write this, whether you realize it or not.

Zack Arnold

Zack Arnold (ACE) is an award-winning Hollywood film & television editor (Cobra Kai, Empire, Burn Notice, Shooter, Glee), documentary director, and creator of the Optimize Yourself program & podcast. He helps editors work smarter and not harder so they can do the best creative work they’re capable of…without sacrificing their sanity in the process. To learn how to better manage your time, your energy, and develop ninja-like focus, Click here to download Zack's 'Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Creativity (and Avoiding Burnout).'

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