Writers and Editors Discuss the Delicate Dance of Story RewritesBy Mason Lerner December 9th, 2014
House slippers. Freelance journalist Craig Lindsey has seen a lot in his 20-year career—he was a film critic for the Raleigh News and Observer for eight years, and before that, he covered subjects like “porn stars, S&M parties, and swingers clubs” for Houston’s alt weekly The Houston Press. But the only time in his career he had problems rewriting an assignment was when a local glossy mag asked him to review a pair of house slippers.
“No matter how many times I submitted it, the editor wasn’t happy,” he said. “Maybe it was because I had never written about house slippers before.”
During the situation, Lindsey confronted an ugly editorial truth: Editors don’t want to work with writers who need to keep revising, and writers don’t want to work with editors who keep sending back revisions.
That said, rewrites are still going to be a regular part of any freelancer’s career. Therefore, it’s important to know some basic etiquette about the topic from both perspectives. For instance, house slippers aside, Lindsey says it’s not uncommon for editors to ask trivial follow-up questions.
“The bottom line is you have to give editors what they want, and you have to keep reworking the story until you do,” Lindsey said. “But in the day and age of Google, there are a lot of times editors ask me questions that could be answered much faster if they did a ten-second search.”
Balancing what is and isn’t okay to ask for in a rewrite presents quite a challenge to editors who work with freelancers regularly. Because freelancers aren’t on staff, editors need to respect a freelancer’s time differently than they do with staffers, and it’s not always easy to draw the line.
“It’s something I struggle with and ask myself a lot,” said Derek M. Kwait, editor-in-chief of New Voices magazine, a nationally distributed student publication.
Kwait is in a unique position to offer insight because he works with student writers who are often dipping their toes in the editorial waters for the first time. But the principles that guide his rewriting philosophy apply to all freelancers, from newbies to the grizzled freelance vet sucking down a scotch and water and rolling his eyes while reading this.
“Typically, if it’s just a grammatical thing, I’ll just do it myself unless it’s a chronic mistake that the writer is making,” Kwait said. “But if, for instance, the language they’re using is too passive, I’ll make a few corrections and tell them there are a lot of other areas where they need to [make similar corrections], and it will really help their style.”
The goal, beyond guiding stylistic choices, is to help these young writers learn a truth that will hopefully stick with them forever should they ignore their parents and embark on writing careers: Most editors are okay with heavy revisions early on, but they expect to see fast improvement. Kwait said writers who stick it out usually have no problem with that.
“I notice that with most writers who continually contribute, their writing has gotten better and better, and I need [fewer] and [fewer] rewrites from them,” he said.
There are even situations when writers welcome multiple rewrites. John Morton, author of Fire the Pretty Girl: Awkward Adventures in Business, has spent the last 20 years writing speeches for corporate CEOs and said he doesn’t mind a lot of revisions since it’s part of the collaborative process.
“It’s not like I can say, ‘No,’ to the CEO of American Airlines,” Morton explained. “When I’m asked for multiple rewrites, it lets me know that a client is engaged. When you’re trying to capture someone’s voice, it becomes very hard if they’re not engaged. A lot of back and forth helps me do my job.”
For Lindsey, that back and forth also shed light on the cynical side of freelancing. He finally did get his editor to accept the story on house slippers, but it came with a price. He learned not all editors really want your honest opinion. Sometimes, especially for smaller glossy publications that need house slippers reviewed, there are advertisers to consider.
“A lot of times you pick up a client that has an agenda,” he said, “and you have to be able to work within that if you want to complete the project.”
Rewrites are going to happen no matter how well you can turn a phrase. And even though revisions may be the most annoying part of life as a freelancer, they also offer perhaps the best chance to learn what a publisher wants long-term.
Kwait is preparing his young writers to be ready for this realization, but there is one aspect of his approach to editing that stands out. “I try to be gentle,” he said.
Freelancers have to have thick skin if they want to survive. It’s not personal—it’s just a rewrite.Image by MATTHIAS RIETSCHEL