When you don’t like an editor’s edits…

October 8, 2012 in Best Of, On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough, through having done some freelance work earlier with the same magazine, to be given an opportunity to write a profile on a remarkable woman who devoted her life to those less fortunate than her. I was ecstatic because it was going to be published in several languages/countries and would be a great addition to the CV. Most of all, I love doing in-depth profiles, and I was determined to make this one totally awesome.

Initially, the process was not all that difficult, as I had already done some preliminary research during work for a related project. The interview was a blast, and although I would have liked to have gotten more secondary sources, on the whole I had more than enough for a compelling piece.

The writing was a little more difficult as I also had to deal with full-time work, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable to craft. The word limit was 1800 words, but I’ve always been the kind of writer that likes getting everything down on the page first, so by the time that first draft was done, I had almost 4500 words.

Cutting down the length is my specialty, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt to chop away all that hard work. After about four rounds of edits, I was down to 2500 words, and I was at a loss as to how to trim it further.

So I did what every lazy writer would do — ask for more words. To my surprise, the request was granted; 2500 words, no problem — they can work with that, and the editor can work her magic on it if necessary. I even submitted the piece two days earlier.

I thought I was done and it was time to celebrate, but of course, as usual, I was wrong. The first editor I worked with was fantastic. She cast a spell and 300 more words fell away effortlessly, bringing the total to a publishable 2200 words. Crucially, she managed to preserve the essence of the article and all the key points. I was impressed. She also said she really liked it, which felt great.

She had a couple of questions and issues and we worked them out through email over the next day or two. I don’t remember having had to push back on anything. I remember her removing all my carefully planned section breaks, but the flow didn’t feel like it was interrupted, so I let it go.

I thought we were ready, but a couple of days after that, I received another email from the same editor, passing on the suggestions from the magazine’s editor-in-chief. I was told in the email that the EIC made some changes to the introductory sections, but didn’t really touch the remaining two-thirds.

When I opened up the document, my jaw dropped. I usually love working with editors because they teach me how to improve, but in this case the EIC totally butchered my original intro, which was a sensory anecdote, and replaced it with a more straight-forward, chronological, report-style beginning. It was, frankly, predictable and boring.

It was contrary to everything I had been taught about how to write the intro of a feature, and it was the opposite of what the magazine’s local editor had told me before I started writing. That said, my first impression was — I don’t like it, but it’s their magazine and if this is the way they like to do it, then fair enough. After all, this was the EIC of an international magazine — surely even at her worst she would be substantially better than me at my very best — who was I to complain?

But when I read the edits properly, I got angry. The EIC had gotten the basic facts muddled up, and asked a bunch of questions that were already answered in other parts of the article. Initially I thought perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, or that stuff got lost during the editing process — but after re-reading it and getting other casual readers to take a look it became clear that the EIC simply didn’t pay enough attention.

I could accept differences in style, but not when facts get completely mutilated. So I responded to the immediate editor I had been working with and explained politely that the EIC had gotten the facts wrong. I wrote a lengthy explanation of the facts in detail, filled in the blanks and answered all outstanding questions. In light of the edits, I asked whether they would like me to rework the introductory paragraphs to better match the style that the EIC was aiming for, or whether they preferred to have a got at it themselves using the new information I provided.

The editor responded with the latter, and agreed to my request to show me the article again once they were done to make sure that I was OK with everything.

I knew they were on a tight schedule, so alarm bells started ringing when I hadn’t heard back from the editor after a few days (we had previously been in touch every day). A couple of emails to her went unanswered. I assisted the local editor who called with a few ‘urgent’ fact checking points, but generally speaking I was kept in the dark over what was going on.

I didn’t end up hearing back from the editor until five days later, and by that time the article had already been formatted for publication, with photos and captions and all. I was informed that no more changes would be made, except to correct factual errors. There was absolutely no feedback, no reasoning behind the changes; not even a ‘sorry, we know we promised to make sure you were OK with it, but we’re out of time.’

It was clear why they had been keeping me out of the loop all this time — they obviously wanted to avoid anything that might slow them down, such as dealing with pesky writers who want to have more creative control.

The majority of the near-finished article appeared to be the same on paper except for the intro, but the feel of it was completely different. Key quotes and passages were removed from those initial paragraphs and the remainder of the article no longer flowed on as smoothly as before. It came across as slightly disjointed, especially since new section breaks were inserted at rather unnatural places (presumably because of the formatting). Sadly, the word count was virtually identical to what it was before the EIC got her hands on it.

Being aware that I might have been working too closely to have an objective opinion, I enlisted a couple of other readers to tell me what they thought of the changes. The conclusion was unanimous: the article had lost some of its mojo.

The only feedback I ended up providing was telling them to delete an unnecessary word the copyeditor missed, which they gladly did, but I knew there was no point in giving them anything substantive because nothing would be done.

It’s a disappointing feeling knowing that something you put so much effort into didn’t turn out the way you envisioned it to be, for better or for worse. I appreciate what the editors did and the pressures they must have been under, but the experience left a bit of a bitter aftertaste. I’ve always been receptive towards constructive feedback, and often feedback that’s more negative than anything else (which is a regular occurrence on this blog especially) — I don’t have to agree with it, and it’s never a bad thing to get another perspective.

But I suspect in this case the disappointment stems mainly from my lack of control over the content of something that is ultimately going to have my name attributed to it. That and knowing that the changes I didn’t like were made by someone who didn’t actually read the article properly. It’ll be my most important published piece to date, but unfortunately it’ll be far from my proudest.

My editing lecturer wasn’t shy about telling us all her horror stories in dealing with writers who refuse to budge on every single word and is irrationally defensive about changing things that would unequivocally improve their work. That can be frustrating, I’m sure, but what about the writers who get their hard work trimmed, reshaped and rewritten without even getting a say on the final product?

I still wonder, several weeks on, whether I should have kicked up more of a stink. But what good would it have done other than to give me a bad name? All I can do now is wait a couple of months until the final version is published and hope that when I read it again, I’ll see what I had blown the whole thing out of proportion.