You submit a piece of writing to an editor. You feel certain that it’s your one-way ticket to fortune and glory. After a few days or weeks (or months, depending on the publication), the editor sends you the published link.
You tweet the link to all of your followers, and then you click the link so that you can bask once again in your glorious, glorious prose. As you read it, you start to feel just a little bit sick. Once you reach the end, bile has bubbled up in the back of your throat.
It sounds awful. You’re ashamed to have your name on it. And you’ve just promoted it to all of your Twitter followers.
In my experience, most editors do a great job of collaborating on changes. When a good editor wants changes, the changes benefit the piece. In a few cases, instead of making notes and sending the piece back for a rewrite, editors have rewritten my work themselves. I think many editors, particularly inexperienced ones, think they’re doing writers a favor by “taking care of it” instead of sending something back for a rewrite. They underestimate just how personally we take it when our words get changed without permission.
Editors, instead of rewriting something, should send pieces back to a writer with clear, specific notes about changes. Writers, in return, should make edits without complaining. We’re all collaborating to make the work better.
I Hope No One Finds Out About This Ever
I wrote one piece as a guest blog post a few months ago. I won’t say which piece or who published it. I wanted to tweet the link immediately when it went live, but I decided to reread the post first.
As I read through the words, I realized that the editor had rewritten it without consulting me. To my ears, the voice sounded like the writing of a junior high girl.
It’s important to note that when I was that age, I wrote a 2,000-word op-ed for my school paper about why people should vote for Ross Perot. I even read his frickin’ book. I mean, I emerged from the womb holding Roget’s Thesaurus. I’ve never once eaten a ring pop, and I had no strong opinion about which New Kids on the Block member was the cutest.
Ross Perot and NKOTB. Dating myself much? Anyway, I hated the edits.
I deposited the check for the job. I mercifully did not tweet the link. It went quietly to content hell.
For Editors: How I Want You to Correct Me
When I submit a piece to an editor, I view it as a draft. I’ve proofread it and polished it so that I think it’s good, but mine is only one perspective. Ideally, anything that’s published in a respectable forum gets fact-checked and rewritten until it’s excellent. Good editors see things that I don’t. They make me sound better than myself.
When you rewrite something without talking to me, it ceases to be my work. It also makes me think that you believe I’m not capable of fixing the writing. Frankly, I also don’t like to work with people that I don’t trust. When you rewrite my work without talking to me, I no longer trust you to take care of my work.
I never object to making changes in a piece. I just want you to let me make the changes. Not you, not your intern – me. If you think my work needs changes, I implore you to send it back to me. I don’t want my headshot suspended over someone else’s words.
For Writers: How to Act When You’re Asked to Revise
Sometimes, when I’m asked to make revisions, it’s because I missed an element of the original instructions or messed up something really obvious. I feel embarrassed when that happens, so I try to make that occur as infrequently as possible.
At other times, when I’m asked to rewrite something, the editor tells me something that’s in sharp contrast to the original instructions. Occasionally, I’m asked to do something that I think is incorrect, and I think the editor’s decision isn’t in the publication or client’s best interest.
Ultimately, as my friend Maya of Bringe Indexing Services once reminded me, we all have to live by the real Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. Before I fire off a whiny email to the editor who has violated my beautiful work, I ask myself whether the argument is worth it. Most of the time, it’s not. If I'm being paid for a piece of writing, and the changes don’t violate a moral principle, I make the changes as requested.
When an editor has rewritten my work so much that I no longer wanted the byline, my response has depended on whether I wanted to maintain a long-term relationship. If I didn't, I ignored the slight, and I reminded myself never to pitch work to that publication again.
With a good publication or a good editor, I've reached out to say that I'm more than happy to make changes if they want them. I also say that if they're having to revise my work that much, then I'm worried that I'm not doing a good job for them. So far, editors have responded graciously and apologetically to those messages. They know that I care about the work, that I'm willing to revise as needed, and that I prefer to take care of my own changes.
You Have to Be More Than Just a Good Writer
Neil Gaiman, in his famous graduation speech at the University of the Arts, says that artists must submit good work, submit it on time, and make sure that people enjoy working with them. It’s best to be good at all three, but you absolutely must do two out of three. As Gaiman says:
“People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
Writers, you don’t just get jobs because you write well. You get jobs because you’re easy to work with and because you turn around work pretty quickly. When an editor sends corrections and you respond like a diva, you lower your odds of getting the next job.
Editors, if you want to cultivate a long-term business relationship with a writer, make rewrites remain collaborative, not unilateral. A writer who is a two out of three is a gift. A three out of three – yahtzee!
And writers, you need to be really, really good – and probably rather wealthy – before you even think about being difficult. Make the changes without comment as often as possible. Don’t write passive-aggressive remarks in the email body. Also, don’t argue with the editor until the number of email replies surpasses your numerical age.
In a blog post for Scripted.com, I wrote some scripts that clients and editors can use when asking writers for revisions. They’re not just about protecting the writer’s feelings. They’re about getting the product that you want.