Ask a Freelancer: Can an Editor Change Your Piece Without Your Approval?By Nicole Dieker January 21st, 2015
I wrote a feature for an online news site. But when I read the article on the website, there were two paragraphs that were added at the end and that I totally disagree with. I immediately shared my concern with the editor and asked her to remove one specific sentence that I found irrelevant and unfounded, but she refused saying that “additional information was provided to the reader— information that was deemed essential and in line with editorial guidelines.” I have no idea what I can do in this situation.
The first time I saw one of my pieces published with editorial changes I had not been aware of, I thought, “Wait, can they really do that?”
Now, I’m used to it. I expect that when I send a final draft to an editor, the editor may make additional changes before the piece is published—even if we’ve already gone through a revision process together.
Some editors notify their writers to approve final changes before the piece goes live, but some do not, especially in a fast-paced environment when the publication may be responsible for running six or seven articles every day.
As Sophie Lizard writes for Make a Living Writing, this is all part of being a freelancer: “Your morning starts with a birthday kind of feeling—you wake up with a smile and rush breakfast because you can’t wait to check out your latest work. You’re still smiling when you open it up and start reading… but it’s all wrong. This isn’t what you wrote. It doesn’t even look like your work anymore.”
It helps to understand why an editor might have changed your piece. From my experience, the majority of these edits are for clarity. The editor works to make your writing easier for that particular audience to understand. I have no problem with these edits. In fact, I often use them as guides to help me structure future pieces.
I also see editors frequently rewrite or reshape the first two lines of an article. These two lines are crucial to hook the readers. After all, as Slate reported in “You Won’t Finish This Article,” most digital pieces lose 38 percent of their readers right away, as they click the headline and “bounce” away without engaging. Of the readers who remain, another five percent leave before they have to scroll down the page. Part of a modern editor’s job is structuring pieces in a way that keeps readers on the page for as long as possible.
Also, notice how I wrote “As Slate reported” instead of “As Farhad Manjoo reported.” When you write for a publication, you are representing a specific editorial brand. Your editor is there to help you create the best piece possible but in the context of what that outlet typically publishes in terms of length, tone, and formatting.
As Slate editor Dan Kois puts it: “I view my job as facilitating the author’s voice … but in the crispest, cleanest, Slate-iest way, and that entails a LOT of detail-oriented conceptual and line editing.”
Or, as I wrote for The Billfold last year: “Right now I’m like a mid-shelf whiskey that every publication wants to blend with its own special mixer.” My authorial voice sounds just a little different with each editor, and part of becoming a freelance writer is learning that this is okay. Do your job, and then let the editors do theirs.
But what if the editor makes changes that you don’t agree with or are incorrect?
Trust me, I know the feeling. I have joked about wanting to publish an anonymous blog where I could list editorial changes that have made me cringe: misspelled words, clichés I’d never use, factual errors.
Don’t worry, editors. I will never, ever make this blog, because you and I are on the same team. We have the same job: to produce an article that provides valuable information to readers on behalf of a publication that wants to promote certain values.
I did, earlier in my career, email editors if I noted inconsistencies after pieces went live. “I saw the piece went up—it looks great! But it looks like there’s a misplaced apostrophe in the second sentence. Is that something you can fix?” Yes, I was taking up valuable time from my editors, nitpicking about apostrophes in pieces that were already published. (Not coincidentally, that was when I was publishing so few pieces that I had the time to worry about line edits.)
As I became more experienced, I realized this type of pedantic nagging was getting in the way of our mutual goal—to publish work that informs readers and engages audiences. As much as I hate clichés and euphemisms, the perfect is the enemy of the good.
So I let the occasional misspelled word slide. I forgive the editor who adds a linking sentence that includes “by the light of day” because that paragraph needed a transition to guide the reader through the narrative. Unless there is a misspelled name or factual error, I make like Elsa from Frozen and let it go, let it go.
On the rare occasion there is something that needs a correction, I send a short, polite email identifying the error—and those errors usually do get fixed. Editors don’t like factual mistakes any more than you do.
Mashkal, it looks like you contacted your editor with a correction request, but your editor decided to keep the change as is. What can you do in this situation? Here are a few options:
1. Let it go. Start writing the next piece.
2. If you feel uncomfortable working with this editor, pitch other publications until you find someone who is a better match.
3. If you still cringe every time you think of that article, freelancer Anne Wayman offers this advice after she experienced a similar ordeal: “I ended up doing nothing except claiming the magazine as one of the places my articles appeared. I didn’t use the article as a writing sample and eventually almost forgot about the whole incident.”
Once you start working with an editor you trust, keep pitching that person and build a relationship. When you and an editor get to know each other, it’s much easier to talk freely about a piece and work together on edits that suit both of you. I’ve found my work gets stronger simply by working with the same editor over time. If you don’t believe me, take a look at my first Ask a Freelancer column.
So let your editors do their work and begin looking for new options that work best with your style. You might still find a few editorial surprises when you see your articles go live, but they won’t be unpleasant ones.
Nicole Dieker would like to dedicate this column to all of her editors, who have all helped her become a better freelancer and writer. Have another question about freelancing? Send it to email@example.com.