by Michael Foust
For most of my journalistic career, I have see-sawed back and forth between the role of editor and writer. I began my career as a writer, then served as a newspaper editor, then switched jobs to become a writer again, then switched jobs once again to become an editor. And now, I’m back to being just a writer.
This means I’ve experienced both sides of the give-and-take that occurs between editors and writers. I’ve sat at an editor’s desk when a clueless writer submitted a supposedly perfect masterpiece. And I’ve sat on my writer’s couch at home, stewing that an incompetent editor turned my masterpiece into a heap of unreadable trash.
So no matter which side of the fence you find yourself, I feel your pain. This column, though, is for writers.
Over the years as a journalist/writer, I’ve developed the following five questions that I always ask myself before challenging my editor.
1. Are They Right?
Scripture tells us that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Humility serves any career well, but especially within the field of writing, in which you have a gatekeeper—the editor—who can become either a good friend or a thorn in your side. I’ve written thousands of stories during my life, and I have yet to pen one that didn’t have an error in the first draft.
You’re not infallible, and your copy isn’t inerrant. Maybe, just maybe, your editor is right.
2. What Can I Learn?
To be humble is to be teachable. Think of your editor as a college professor who is giving you free lessons. More than likely, they know something you don’t.
My first editor taught me to use quotes sparingly. My second editor improved my transitions and headlines. My third editor taught me the significance of keywords for social media.
Unless a kindergartener is editing your copy, you likely can learn a thing or two.
3. Is It Worth It?
Imagine, for a moment, that your story is a triage unit, and you’re determining which patients need the most help.
Are your editor’s changes tantamount to a person with a minor cut that can be ignored? (They changed “said” to “says.”) Or are the changes equivalent to a deep wound that requires surgery? (You wrote “Bob shot Jim,” but they changed it to “Jim shot Bob.”)
By my experience, most editorial changes are like minor cuts that can be ignored. Rarely does an editor make a change so severe that it impacts the story’s intended meaning. Besides, editors often improve the story. Guess what? The reader won’t ever know—and you’ll get the credit.
4. What Might Happen?
If you gain a reputation as a constant complainer, you may forgo future writing opportunities with that publisher, who might look for a different writer who is more manageable. Are you are willing to cut those ties? If not, it might be best to swallow your pride in order to build a relationship. Then, after you’ve written additional stories and gained the editor’s trust, you can speak up more often.
As the old maxim goes: Pick your battles wisely.
5. Are You Being Charitable?
Perhaps you’ve decided this battle indeed is a “hill upon which to die”—or at least one that can’t be ignored.
If so, write your email carefully. Be charitable in your wording. Sprinkle compliments in with your concerns. (“Great job editing this.”) Avoid sarcasm. Begin your sentences with phrases like, “I may be wrong but …”—thus indicating you are bringing an item to their attention they may have overlooked. That way, you don’t come across as haughty, and they’re able to hear your opinion.
Finally, proofread your email before hitting “send.” You don’t want misspellings and typos in an email that’s complaining about shoddy editing.