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.