To be edited …

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 11.17.31 PMBeginning with my time at the University of Delaware’s student newspaper, I was a bad edit.

By “bad edit,” I mean I absolutely hated having my articles edited. Every comma had a purpose. Every word was perfectly outfitted for its placement. Every period, every dash, every but and will and ahem and egad and ergo—all in the exact right place at the exact right moment. If you were changing things, well, I was arguing.

Upon arriving at The Tennessean as a 22-year-old rookie, I was no better. My first editor was quiet and soft, and I ran over him like a truck. Then, after making one too many sloppy mistakes, I was banished to the police beat—land of straight ledes and minimal creativity. “Get your act together,” I was told. “Then we’ll see …”

I stopped, for the most part, being a bad edit.

Oh, there were moments here and there. Some squabbles on the baseball beat at Sports Illustrated. Some heated words at Newsday. Mostly, however, I came to the important realization that—at day’s end—today’s newspaper/magazine is, truly, tomorrow’s fish wrap and/or plunger place mat; that while it’s important to take your work personally, there’s no reason to lose your cool over editing disputes. Some articles you’ll ultimately be happy with. Others, you won’t. It’s just the way it goes.

A few days ago, sadly, I forgot this.

I lost my cool.

Without naming names or places, I wrote a freelance piece for a newspaper. The editor I’d worked with in the past was away, and in his place was a, well, hands-on sort of guy. He wanted to make alterations that I believed to, eh, suck. He thought the lede needed rearranging; the focus needed to be slightly altered; etc, etc. My regular editor is fantastic—he wants the writer to maintain his voice, and only switches things when they absolutely need to be changed. This dude wasn’t fantastic. He was, I believed, overly involved.

So I lost my cool. We went back and forth via e-mail. I refused to make his changes, then refused to make his changes, then refused refused refused refused to make his changes. This was my story, and it was done the way I wanted it. Who was this man to shove his pen in my work? What the flippity flippity f*ck was he doing?

End result: The story was killed.

Fault: Me.

I’ve met very few good writers who enjoy the editing process. As Gary Smith once wisely noted, every word in your story should have meaning. So when a foreigner arrives with his red pen and jabs, jabs, jabs—it hurts. It’s uncomfortable and off-putting. But, it’s also a part of the process—one writers (even experienced writers) need to go along with and accept. The piece I submitted was important to many people. It concerned a deceased sports figure, and his family was thrilled (beyond thrilled) that his memory was being acknowledged.

I had to call and tell them the story had flat-lined.

I had to tell them it was my fault.

5 thoughts on “To be edited …”

  1. The great and sad truth is most editors are untalented.

    The best of this lot are the ones who are untalented but tread lightly. The worst editors have no eye (or ear) for good writing, do not improve the text they’ve been given and, in fact, are in it only for the very tiny bit of power the job affords them.

    I’ve found it’s best not to make waves. They’re paying, they’re calling the shots. A stand, now and again, is not altogether terrible…

    1. I completely disagree that most editors are untalented. I’ve had many that helped me immensely. The great majority of the time, the editors make the story better. It’s just that the writer is too enmeshed in the story to see it objectively.

      There are exceptions — Jeff clearly being one of them — but often I found that the better the writer, the better s/he was at taking edits. The converse was true, as well — I had a writer who was “borderline illiterate” (according to a colleague who now writes for Vulture) and he was IMPOSSIBLE to edit. he fought clearly necessary changes, argued over minutia, got totally passive-aggressive.

      I appreciate Jeff taking the blame here — by and large, I feel editors make stories better. If you pick your battles and don’t explode over every change, you’re more likely to get your way on the things you feel strongly about.

      1. Joel, I agree with you completely. A good editor is able to see the forest from the trees and steer the writer in the right direction. It’s a collaborative effort. The terrible ones make edits for the sake of making edits, and treat the writer as a nuisance. As a writer, I’m open to suggestions and edits–if an editor clues me in and allows me the chance to revise. But making major changes without letting me know? Absolutely unacceptable.

  2. Not all editors are the same. I’ve had some in the past that would change a word in a sentence, then fail to re-read the sentence after the change. Then, the added word stood out like a sore thumb, because the sentence no longer made sense…with my by-line. I used to get furious over these mistakes and ask them to be changed. I mellowed out in recent years and stopped caring, which I’m sure was met with delight from my editors, though some work suffered. I can’t say that’s a better compromise…

    Jeff, how about posting the story here? Or are you trying to take it elsewhere?

  3. I seldom challenged my editors on their changes — most of the time, I felt their input improved the final product. But one time, I was working on a HUGE story (a forest fire in our small California area), and the editor had made the lead, “A massive forest fire burned several houses then danced toward the ocean…”

    I said, “I don’t like ‘danced.’ It makes me think of a tap-dancer.” He said, “Ok, what should we use instead?” I said, “How about… ‘raged.'”

    He said ok, made the change, and that story won two awards. I earned the credibility to get that change because I didn’t argue about each of his changes along the way.

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