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The role of an editor

I’m a writer and an editor, so I’d like to think I’m empathic to the professional challenges and let-downs of each role. I’d also like to think that being a writer and editor has endowed me with an understanding of the responsibilities unique to each role.

The writer’s task is, well, to write (and, one hopes, to write well). The editor’s role is a bit more complex, requiring different and multiple skills. There’s the work of editing an article for spelling, grammar, punctuation, flow, coherence, and cohesion, which might be considered micro-level editing. Writers typically appreciate this editorial “interference” because it prevents them from looking like an ass, especially when they’ve been careless or inattentive to craft.

But then there’s the bigger picture of editing, the macro level work, which involves looking at how (or whether) a piece fits within the larger context of the publication. This particular task also compels the editor to return to the article to ask a vital question: How can this piece fit within the style/format/tone of the publication while retaining the writer’s authentic voice? And it’s this question–or rather, the answer to it–which often irritates writers and provokes their indignation. How dare the editor change my writing?

*

As a writer, I’ve had these “How dare they?” moments, most recently after seeing the published version of an article I was commissioned to write about “eco-friendly destinations” for an in-flight:

Trust me when I tell you that there was nothing in my submission about “dolphin spotting… or trundling down country lanes in a horse-drawn caravan.” (In fact, to be perfectly candid, I had no clue that it’s possible to spot dolphins in Ireland).

Be that as it may, I quickly got past my “Why’d they do that?” reaction as a writer because as an editor I know the editor changes your writing for many reasons, most of which you won’t know or understand as the writer simply because there are too many factors determining the macro-level aspect of editing to which you are not privvy.

Deal with it.

*

I was already thinking about the writer-editor dynamic when one the editors on the Matador team received a revision request from a writer this week… for a piece that had already been published. I’d been somewhat ambivalent about the piece when I read it on spec after the writer submitted it, but I passed it along to the section editors with this note: “i dunno- there’s lots of fluff that could be cut….” The editors decided that they’d trim and polish the piece because it covered a geographic area we haven’t touched on much and because amidst all the fluff, there was some good content.

The writer, however, was deeply attached to her fluff. “Sorry it’s so much,” she wrote the editor, “I’m a bit of a perfectionist!”

She went on to request multiple edits that essentially restored her piece to the original draft form.

It was a request that was not well-received:

“I’m sorry, but the edits I made were to reflect the tone of MatadorNights,” the editor replied. “I can’t change anything unless I’ve made a factual error. The article was wordy and parts had to be cut. I’m perfectly aware of what you wrote…. This is the way it goes. Correcting an editor is very bad form….”

*

This anecdote speaks volumes, I think, about the distinct yet overlapping roles of the writer and editor, and yet how unaware (or unappreciative?) we are of our complementary tasks and skills. It also speaks volumes about the difference between the online and print publishing platforms. For some reason, writers feel more free to request changes on digital platforms compared to print platforms; the former are viewed as more dynamic and malleable, the latter as more static and immutable. You’d only see a “change” in the form of a correction in a print magazine. Yet I can’t tell you the number of times editors of online publications are asked to change an article for purely “aesthetic” reasons that reflect the writer’s own preferences.

I’d love for you to weigh in with your thoughts. What do you view as the distinct roles of writers and editors? How do you react when your writing is edited? And do you view online and print publications as fundamentally different when it comes to making changes? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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15 responses »

  1. This is a great post theme! I guess I’ve only really had experiences as a writer (unless you count editing in my college writing center–where I definitely saw my fair share of fights put up when I *suggested* changes…yes, we were only allowed to suggest). There has got to be some sort of understanding that the editor is just doing his or her job and it’s being done for the good of the publication’s voice/tone/reputation/accuracy/etc. I hope to always remember that–even if an edit does bother me!

    There was ONE time that I e-mailed an editor about a change she made. It was because I felt as though they had misinterpreted my idea. They were editing (for wordyness, I assume), and made a change that I felt had changed the actual meaning of what I meant to portray. I very politely (or at least I think it was politely) e-mailed her to explain and ask if we could come to some agreement on a new way to phrase my original idea. I think she responded well, but it was a very distinct case.

    Reply
    • Alyssa-

      I think it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for a change when an edit has occurred that seems to change the meaning or intent of your piece to the extent that what you wanted to convey has been misconstrued.

      Reply
  2. I come from the Every Writer Needs An Editor school of thought, because as a writer I know that it’s easy to lose sight of your work because you are too close to it.

    Unless a published piece was changed to be ofactually inaccurate or leave out a source, I’d never ask an editor to fix something that ultimately is left to preference.

    I know it’s also easy to believe that something is really, really important and be attached to it, but that is the difference between writing something and publishing something. You have to let go.

    Reply
    • Leigh- I was going to haul out the “E” word in this piece and then decided against it. There’s definitely a certain level of ego that prompts writers to ask for changes, especially changes that are merely cosmetic restoration of fluff. 🙂

      Reply
      • That’s sort of why I chose to respond to this piece as a writer and not an editor.

        As an editor, I am incredibly grateful when someone — author or otherwise — gives me truly constructive criticism. My patience level as editor is so much lower than as a writer, so it better be relevant. Kwim?

        Now, if I’m editing a longer piece of fiction and really working with a writer, that’s a different matter and I will do all the ego-stroking needed within the context of being honest.

        Perhaps because that is what I’d want someone to do for me.

  3. I’ve learned a lot more about the editor-writer relationship as a result of writing for Matador. Y’all are all so patient and conscientious that it’s really helped me learn how to “let go” of things I’ve become too close to to be objective about. (So thanks! 🙂

    I do think that print and online publications differ…thankfully so, because a few times I’ve noticed misspellings/inaccuracies on web-published pieces and you don’t want those hanging around!

    It’s frustrating as a writer to see significant changes in your piece and not have them explained to you. After all, you don’t want the underlying meaning changed, which I’ve also seen happen, and the result can be something inaccurate…even just slightly. On the other hand, I generally go with an “editor knows best” attitude because editors (hopefully) have more expertise than writers. I just hope that out of respect for the writer’s work (and story idea) the editor will take the time to explain any significant changes. To me, major changes mean I’ve done something wrong, and I want to know what’s going on. Ultimately that’s my byline and I want it to be my work.

    Although I guess there’s not always a great deal of time to sit down with every writer and say, hey, this is what went down. But I like a good learning experience and I feel less offended if I know what the issue was. Again, the folks at Matador have really raised the bar on editor-writer relationships IMO.

    Reply
    • Megan,

      It struck me to hear you say you want to know if you’ve “done something wrong.” Just so you know, when I’m making editorial decisions, it’s not at all personal. It’s not that “you” or the writer has done something wrong, it’s that I want the piece to be right for the context of whatever I’m editing. Usually, it means there’s extra stuff here that needs to be cut.

      I also tend not to accept pieces that need so much work that I’d have to make significant changes, although I’m sure at least some of the writers I work with would disagree.

      As for going back to people to discuss the changes I made. I have to admit, I don’t usually do that. I am more than happy, though, to discuss things if the writer asks me though.

      I mentioned in my last comment to Julie that I treat working with a writer and a larger piece of fiction differently. In this case, too. I would never just cut or rearrange a piece of longer fiction when working one on one with an author. I want them to make the changes on their own.

      A shorter article, though, I do. Partially because of the amount of time I have. Partially to make sure the article fits well in the larger context.

      But Lord, I’ve gone on long enough. Someone probably needs to edit my blog comments. 🙂

      Reply
      • True, I know things get cut for other reasons than the writer doing something wrong. I guess that statement just reflects the type of ownership and attachment I feel over my work. Which I know has already been expressed here.

        I just like to know what’s up so I can learn, and either be offended or get over it.

        Cool to get so many insights into the minds of the editors 🙂

  4. Megan-

    Great points (and thanks for the compliments, which I’ll pass on to the Matador team). You’re right that there’s not always enough time to let a writer know why changes were made, and it may be the case that this is another distinction of the digital platform– online publications tend to produce more content with greater frequency, so the overall volume of editing work is much greater than it might be at a print publication. Still, I do agree that it’s important for editors to try to explain why they’ve made edits if the edits are more structural and conceptual in nature (as opposed to just polishing spelling and punctuation).

    I like your “Ultimately that’s my byline and I want it to be my work” statement, and I agree with that, too. You don’t want to attach a caveat of “Well, I didn’t write exactly that” to every piece you’ve published.

    And congratulations on your Edible NOLA piece, by the way- I’d love to read it!

    Reply
    • Hey, thanks for noticing! I’m excited about the piece.

      I’ve had an editor recently change things so much it didn’t feel like mine anymore. That was pretty disheartening, and I didn’t feel like there was any reason for it other than her own personal taste, which just seemed silly. Anyway. Thanks for this post.

      Reply
  5. Great points all around especially pointing out the differences between print and online editing.

    With print publications, your work will be edited even after the final submission has been accepted and these edits could range from cutting out words for more advertising space to adding more ‘reader-familiar’ cliche sentences.

    Like Leigh mentioned, one has to just let it go.

    I once had an in-flight re-edit and publish the wrong map along with my piece. I did notify my editor, but this also resulted in some traveler who’d read the piece sending me a sarcastic email.

    A writer being able to see the bigger picture of how their piece fits in with the rest of the publication will go a long way in helping them build their professionalism.

    Reply
    • Lola-

      The map anecdote stays in my mind as a major editorial error that just can’t easily be corrected, even with a note in the subsequent issue. For maps, it seems like it might be worth an editor confirming with the writer the accuracy of the map.

      Reply
  6. I have been obsessing about how to contact an editor about spelling my name wrong. I was seriously bummed because it was my first piece in a magazine. Whenever I start writing the email I sound super bitchy and then I give up. Any ideas on how to handle this type of correction?

    Reply
    • Oh, Amiee, I empathize with you. With a last name like “Schwietert,” I am all too familiar with this problem (My name has even been spelled incorrectly by members of the Matador team!)

      I think that most professional editors would appreciate you requesting a name correction. Obviously, that correction won’t appear until the subsequent issue (usually in the list of corrections that appears front of book), but still.

      Here’s what I’d write:

      Dear Editor:

      I’d like to thank you again for the opportunity to write for [name of magazine]. I enjoyed writing for your audience and it was exciting to see my article published alongside other writers whose work I admire.

      I noticed that my name was spelled incorrectly in the byline, and I’d like to ask that it be corrected in the corrections section of the next issue. The correct spelling is Amiee Maxwell.

      Thanks in advance for your attention to this matter. I look forward to working with you again in the future.

      Reply

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