Help! My editor is being super nitpicky and I don’t know how to say something. Where do I draw the line?
-Spineless in Seattle
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if editors didn’t have to make any edits? If our perfect prose could go straight from the keyboard to the reader?
Well, if you want to work in the writing business, you have to learn to work with editors. You also have to learn how to be a “good writer,” as it were; someone who takes corrections cheerfully, doesn’t repeat mistakes, and doesn’t try to challenge every editorial change.
Remember that freelance writing is a business, and it runs like most standard workplaces. Your editor is your supervisor. Editorial nitpicks are designed to make your writing better and keep the publication’s style consistent. So take your editor’s nitpicks as you might take any supervisor’s guidance.
If it’s a grammar and style thing, let it go
The idea that there are actual grammar “rules” is one of those lies we were all taught in school. Grammar and style are ever-shifting piles of sand, and it’s your editor’s job to turn your words into a sand castle that is structurally sound, and — as is often the case in many publications — a sand castle that looks like it belongs with the other sand castles on the block.
I’ve had editors, for example, who cared significantly about the difference betweencan and may. Two different publications I work with have entirely different views on the em-dash — and don’t get me started on the Oxford comma.
[Ed. note: I will fight to the end of the Earth in support of the Oxford comma.]
If an editor sends back pieces marked up with picky grammar notes, don’t push back and say “technically, this is appropriate here.” This is a newbie mistake — and yes, I’ve made it! — because pushing back on technicalities doesn’t always look great. The editor is working on a deadline and is giving you these picky grammar notes in the hopes that you’ll turn in drafts that won’t require such picky grammar correction in the future.
This means that if an editor sends you the same correction more than twice, you now have a problem to solve — and yes, it’s your problem to solve, not the editor’s.
I used to put up sticky notes on the borders of my laptop, reminding me about specific style guide peculiarities. I even had a note telling me that if I wrote for a specific client, I needed to search my draft for the words can and may before I turned it in.
Did the editor change the meaning or just the structure?
When I started writing short pieces for online magazines and websites, I’d often get editorial changes that made me want to cry. How dare that editor cut out that sentence — I put it in for a reason, and the editor didn’t even ask me what that reason was!
The truth is, editors are going to cut and change your pieces. Sometimes, those changes are going to be infuriating. You’ll want to send emails to all your friends that read “I didn’t write that terrible sentence, the editor did!” (I sent that email. Once. Got it out of my system.)
I suspect every writer has threshold where they draw the line. For me, it’s if a revision affects the meaning of my original sentence. That’s when I’ll message the editor and flag that something essential to the piece was changed.
Otherwise, it’s just window dressing, to borrow the cliche. So an editor likes to chop up your beautifully constructed sentences? Fine. Did an editor insert a metaphor that you wouldn’t ever have chosen yourself into one of your paragraphs? That editor probably thought it would resonate with the publication’s audience. Or maybe the editor thought your explanation wasn’t clear and the metaphor gave it strength.
How—and when—to speak up
Let’s say you want to push back against an editorial change. Keep it short, don’t make it about ego, and focus on results.
“Well, according to Strunk and White —” who cares. Don’t send that email.
“I actually value complex sentences —” who cares. It’s not about you, even though your name is going on the piece. It’s about what the publication values.
Here’s an actual note I sent to the editor of The Freelancer last week:
Under “Your payment process” the sentence “I am assuming you are willing to pay competitively” got changed to “I am assuming you are willing to pay.”
The editor states that her site pays in the first sentence of her question, so “I’m assuming you are willing to pay” makes it look like I didn’t read the question carefully. Can that get fixed? Thanks!
The note clearly and quickly explains why an editorial change affects the larger piece, and in this example, The Freelancer accommodated my request.
[Ed. note: It’s true.]
And if the editor turns down your request, at least you can say you respectfully made your case.
Nicole Dieker knows this series wouldn’t be as strong without the help of The Freelancer’s editorial team. If you have additional questions for Ask A Freelancer, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.