5 Tips for Dealing with Editors Who Change Your Work

Oct 122013
 

YourWayMyWayMy client said she didn’t want to write for the magazine any longer. she thought  the editor had distorted her article, and she worried about what would happen in future pieces.

I listened from the other side. I was a magazine editor for years. I rewrote and reworked my writer’s stories in every issue. One guy wanted to go over every single edit, including grammatical ones. He didn’t last long. Most of the other writers just accepted my work, and they were the ones I hired over and over.

So when do you shut up and when do you say something, when an editor changes your piece in ways that make you crazy? From an editor’s standpoint, I have five suggestions:

1. Analyze the changes. Most edits are tweaks to tighten and enliven the piece, improve clarity, or to better reflect the voice of the publication. You might not like them, but you can live with them. Learn from the edits so you can do a better job next time.

2. Pick your battles. If an editor changed the meaning or emphasis of your work, or inserted inaccurate material, you have a case.

3. Be polite and thorough. In an email, make a clear argument with up to three points of disagreement. Don’t call and don’t make accusations. If you write down how you would like the sentences rephrased, it’s easier to cut and paste.

4. Accept change graciously whenever possible, and move on. This guy did not, which is what inspired me to write this post. Obviously, he had a point and an axe to grind. Don’t blast your story all over social media unless you want editors everywhere to wonder if you will be difficult.

5. Decide whether to keep writing for the editor. The freelancer I coached decided not to pitch more stories, because she felt resentful. That’s the right decision, because her attitude would come through. I have had disagreements with editors as a freelancer too, but we worked them out and continued working together. I’m not saying I’m right — maybe I just have a higher tolerance for changes, having been on the other side.

(Photo courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Thanks to Sally Prosser for alerting me to the post.)

  27 Responses to “5 Tips for Dealing with Editors Who Change Your Work”

  1. Dear Dianne…. this couldn’t be more timely as I have more and more experience with different editors, each with his or her own approach, desires, ways of working, etc. Had a lousy experience, an extraordinary experience, some pretty good experiences and one so-so. Some editors, I find, are more open to what I see is important, some think they know best. As I am rather a shy person and as someone pretty knew to freelancing who certainly does not want to make waves, I do try and pick my “fights” but I do need to understand what I can ask for and how to ask for it. Much food for thought for me here.

    • At least you have had variety! Better than all bad. I had my work completely rewritten once, but it was a cover story (my first). It was hard on my ego, but at least I had a cover story as a clip.

      I hope you get to do more stories with editors who listen to you, Jamie.

  2. All the editors I’ve worked with have improved my writing, mostly by cutting down on wordiness and eliminating awkward phrasing. Only once did I encounter someone — not a professional editor but a publisher! — who distorted my meaning and introduced errors. My editor in that case stood behind me when I challenged the publisher. I say hooray for editors.

  3. I stopped working for a certain magazine recently due to the editor. (I ill keep the magazine and editor anon.) I would ask, repeatedly, to see edits and changes so I could have a say, some input, offer a response, etc. I was constantly met with a general, “Yeah, uh-huh, don’t worry about it,” attitude. Every issue I would read an article only vaguely like mine. New stock photos were added, whole paragraphs cut, and even worse whole new sections written under my byline. It was maddening because half of the time things I would never write or simply totally unchecked and wrong facts were added. Even recipes were changed in a way that I knew that they would no longer work for readers. I finally hit the point where cutting ties before my rep got hurt became the only option.

    • On the magazines where I was the main editor, we didn’t show our edited copy to the writers in advance of publication, unless we needed to check technical info. I have done it all — rearranged paras, cut paras, rewritten paras– and the writers would have to lump it when they saw their stories in print. I probably got it wrong sometimes too. But it was the normal procedure, so you can expect more, Garrett. Sorry about that.

      The only part I don’t like is where you say the recipes didn’t work for readers– not sure what you mean but that sounds troubling.

      Re your reputation, getting published in a prestigious magazine trumps the edits most of the time.

    • Garrett, I’ve had typos and errors edited into my articles and I didn’t see it until the articles were published. One in particular changed an important word in a quote that changed the meaning of the quote and ruined, in my opinion, the whole story. How in the world can professional editors actually edit IN typos and mistakes?

      • Oh my that is terrible. I would never change a quote. I might shorten it, or paraphrase it if it’s not very good, but changing a word within it is verboten.

  4. This is invaluable advice and so timely. It’s so hard to read an editor because you usually only correspond with them by email. I’ve never even met most of my editors! Big changes to my writing always leave me worrying about if they hate my work. As a new freelancer, I also have no idea if I should speak up about some things or just let it go.

    • Most of the time, you should let it go and try to learn from their edits. It doesn’t mean they hated the story. Editors expect to edit to their satisfaction. If they hated the story you would not get another assignment.

  5. You are absolutely right. I am getting my feet wet in this business and you have to let the editors do their work, even if you do not agree all the time with the changes. I do believe in speaking up if you feel that, there was a section that shouldn’t have been revised. Great topic. I am reading your book now on Will Write for Food and hoping it gives me the inspiration and strength and courage to keep moving forward with my work.
    Thank you for doing what you do.
    xo
    Kristin Nicole

    • Thanks Nicole. It is very hard on the ego to work with editors who change your work, but it sounds like you are coping with it. Thanks for reading WWFF.

  6. Just a variation on “pick your battles”, Dianne, but my biggest piece of advice would be to lose your ego.
    A good editor will make you look like a better writer than you really are, and that will involve messing with your work. It’s not personal. I’ve learned to let sentences — heck, whole paragraphs — go, or be changed. In the end, no one cares as much about what you wrote as you do. Those changes that you’re agonizing over and that are glaring to you won’t register with the average reader. From the moment I accept a commission that I really, really care about (let’s be honest, some jobs are mostly just jobs and some are really gut-level, for whatever reason) I remind myself that I need to let go of my piece as soon as I hit the “send” button.
    The only time I voice protest is when words have been added/cut/changed to make it look like I don’t know what I’m writing about, or when a not-true “fact” or facet has been added to my story. (Once an editor gave my single-man subject a wife and kids, presumably to “friendly up” the article. Needless to say, I objected. He took it out.)
    Before decided NOT to work with an editor again, it might be worth asking for a final read-through on your next piece “for accuracy”. Most editors don’t seem to mind this, and the good ones expect it. But if you do this, and an editor obliges, A) be cognizant of the editor’s deadline and make yourself available to do your read-through whenever it is convenient for the editor and B) do NOT mess with or comment on the copy for any reason other than accuracy.
    If an editor who has made objectionable changes to your copy in the past — and whom you have communicated with about those changes — refuses to accommodate you on final read-throughs then perhaps they’re not the editor you want to be working with.

    • Wonderful comments, Robyn. It’s great to hear from someone who freelances for a living.

      This may sound vain but I always assume that I am improving someone’s work when I edit it — that is the whole point! Some newer writers take the edits personally, and then it’s hard for both of us. It doesn’t mean the work isn’t good. It means I want it a certain way, and I don’t assume the writer knows that way.

      Re giving work back to the writer after it’s edited, your B comment is why so many editors don’t do it. I don’t have time to go over the whole piece again to see what else the writer has changed. I just wanted them to see what I changed in case I messed something up inadvertently.

  7. The most important sentence for me was…

    ‘Most of the other writers just accepted my work, and they were the ones I hired over and over’ …

    I shared this article with the MA in Journalism class at NUIG. As always, an excellent piece of information Dianne. Thanks.

    Mona

  8. This post is very timely for me, as I just had a disagreement with one of my editors, and I wish I would have handled it differently. She has repeatedly added clichés to my pieces–like “icing on the cake” and “voilá”–which I just ignored. I work hard to try to rid my writing of trite phrases, so I finally asked her to remove “voilá” from my latest piece. I should not have told her I considered it to be a cliché because she was offended. And I should have spoken up sooner when I first saw that she was adding phrases that I would never write.

    • Oh my, that is unfortunate. I guess I assume that all editors are good, but I am learning here in the comments that they are not. I hope she improved your articles in other ways.

  9. Thanks for these reminders, Dianne. Usually, I appreciate the editor’s objective eye, since after going over an article too many times, I can’t see the big picture any more. I feel lucky that one of my favorite editors often calls me up and we re-do the problem parts together, so I can answer her questions quickly and we can both agree on the finished product.

    There was another editor, however, who pushed me over the edge. The reason I stopped working with her was her mini-lectures inserted in the edited versions, e.g. “A quote is used for..”. Please, change it, omit it, rewrite it, but don’t lecture me.
    Thanks for letting me vent.

    • I too like the luxury of working out the problem parts over the phone. Sometimes I just can’t fix it myself, and sometimes email or comments just don’t work.

      Yes, no one likes to be lectured to. She probably thought she was educating you, but that was not the right way to do it.

  10. I know I am lucky when I say that my editor always improves my stories. And I am always gracious. Whenever I have interaction with my story subjects, especially those I interview, I always let them know ahead of time that things might be cut, my editor is fantastic at her job, and that she is very busy. After that it is hard for them to come back and complain about the finished piece. It’s a chain of trust that shouldn’t be broken, especially if you feel he or she is being respectful on his or her end.

    I think another problem with editor etiquette is that many don’t have a lot of experience with writing. They start out as an editorial assistant, work their way up to editor, and often don’t see the nuances of a story like a writer would. It’s too bad because editing is a learned skill just like writing and they should be interchangeable for published materials. Editors should look at a piece of writing with a writer’s eye just like writers should look at a piece with an editor’s eye.

    • Wow, you sound like a dream to work with, from an editor’s perspective,Sophia. I like that you set the expectation with the subjects of the story. Very smart.

      Re your comment about how editors get to their jobs, I have found that most editors were once full-time writers, and they struggle with not having time to write — or they still write on the side. That’s great background for the writers who write for them, but on the other hand, these new editors have no experience as managers, and they are not so good at that. So I guess coming from either side — whether editorial or writing — can be limiting.

  11. I learned a very valuable lesson as an editor at a magazine that prized its writers more than its editors (not necessarily a bad thing, as the writers had deeper technical knowledge than the editors). I had come from a magazine where rewriting was common, but when I moved to the new job, and rewrote extensively, I got my hand slapped. I learned this lesson: just because someone says something differently than you would doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I was a lot less edit-happy after that.

  12. Thanks for the shout out Dianne – I have a lot of sympathy with what Matthew went through. I think his recourse to social media was because he felt his whole moral stance had been so compromised. I might have done the same in his position.

    Having written copy for most of my life where when a client wants revisions they ask you to do it (and of course your name is not publicly associated with it), working for publications has been a whole new experience. I have been astonished how some of my work has been edited so savagely that it no longer makes sense, and like Jamie, mistakes have been edited in rather than out! Now I’m starting to accrue a body of work I’ve decided to be a lot more choosy about the titles I work for where possible and use your post as a guide. It couldn’t have been more timely.

    • Yes, true about Matthew. It was a terrible situation, very frustrating.

      Editing your work so it no longer makes sense is a tragedy. And mistakes edited in! This makes me sad. Perhaps there are some good editors out there who will appreciate your work, Sally. The trick is to find them.

  13. It can be a very personal feeling when an editor changes your work. I LOVE my editor and when she changes things I know it is for the better. :-)

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