5 Questions to Ask Before Challenging Your Editor

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.

A Really Great Shew

I grew up hearing 2 Timothy 2:15 read in church, mostly in the King James:

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

And, yes, I always giggled and thought of Ed Sullivan, who every Sunday on TV proclaimed we were in for a “really big shew”—meaning show.

And, yes, I’m that old. Get over it.

Humor aside, this concept is a really big deal for all Christians, and especially those of us who are writers. Nearly everything we write involves at least some element of “rightly dividing the word of truth.” Or, as the ESV puts it, “rightly handling the word of truth.”

For years, whenever I’ve seen a promotion for yet one more Christian writer’s conference, I’ve glanced at the workshop line-up to see what was being offered. Typically included are workshops on how to write marketable articles, crafting marketable headlines, engaging with editors to increase sales, what markets are hottest, and so on. And let us not forget the keynote speakers—successful writers who will tell us how to work the markets to be as successful as they are. (Swoon!)

What I never find are workshop topics like these:

  • Overview of current Christian theology
  • Canon and context of the Bible
  • A brief look at the Pentateuch
  • Overview of biblical literary styles
  • A short survey of the Gospels
  • A glance inside the mind of Paul
  • American church history
  • Biblical cultures and history
  • Understanding biblical poetry
  • Principles of pastoral care
  • Perspectives on the world Christian movement
  • Theology of creation

Most of us know how to write and write well. Most of us have a fairly good handle on how to shape good headlines. We know how to be marketable, punctuate sentences, and conjugate verbs. And, besides, most of what we write will be edited by someone else to fix any goof ups. Not that there will be any.

The essentials of being a good writer are pretty basic. We could all distill them down to 5 or 10 meaty items. But when it comes to God’s word, to theology, to church history—all things we need to have at least a small grip on—these are topics vast and deep.

Why do we need to know these things? Because we’re writing about Scripture, explaining it, applying it. Even if we’re not writing about exegesis, we’re doing it, on at least some level, every time we write about a biblical topic. All the biblical passages we know are being channeled into our writing, influencing our writing, even when those passages aren’t cited. It’s important that we have handled them rightly when putting them into our brain reserves to draw from later.

Sure, theology and church history can seem a little dry sometimes, but the knowledge is priceless in the context it provides for our work. Using certain terms without being aware of the vast array of theological or historical meaning behind them can blow up the intentions of your well-crafted article. Take for instance “conservative” or “fundamental.” Both of these terms don’t mean today exactly what they meant when I was in high school.

I know, it’s not very likely topics such as these will start popping up in a Christian writer’s conference near you. But we can hope! And in the meantime, look for other opportunities to feed our heads with the deep stuff.

Most colleges and universities offer online courses and certificate programs. Some are very reasonably priced. Or, if there’s a seminary or Christian school near you, find out if they allow people to audit courses or just sit in a class now and then.

If you’re fortunate enough to be a member of a larger church, prod them to offer at least one Sunday school class or small group that every few months tackles a deeper, more academic topic. Odds are you have people in the church who are qualified to teach such courses.

The bottom line is this. Hearing a good sermon every Sunday, reading devotional literature or Christian biographies, and subscribing to Christianity Today aren’t enough. These are all good and things we should be doing. But, to be truly effective as Christian communicators, we need to always be learning a little more deeply.

We need to tackle that “boring” book on theology or church history or biblical literary styles. Or take a class online. And to put it all back into something marketable, going deep can often uncover a pearl of an idea that can yield a great price with a fresh take in a published article carrying your byline.

So, let’s revisit the whole verse once more, this time in the English Standard Version (ESV):

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

This is not a passive command. It’s a two-handed let’s-get-to-it kind of effort. An effort that will yield a really great shew.

 Stephen R. Clark

Practice Makes Progress

practice

“What you want is practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter what we write (at least this is my view) at our age, so long as we write continually as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it’s thrown into the fire the next minute, I am so much further on.”

C.S. Lewis

What will you write today?