When Editors Break Bad
I recently pitched a personal essay to an online magazine and was thrilled when it was accepted. Another byline! Another paycheck!
I spent a solid week writing, tweaking, then writing some more, and finally submitted what I felt was a solid 950 words.
A few weeks later, I received an email from the editor saying it “looks great.” Knowing he had a lot on his plate, I figured it would be awhile before I received his first round of edits. I put a reminder in my calendar to touch base with him at the end of the month and turned my attention to other projects.
Then, out of the blue, I received an email from the publication: “Your story was just published!”
But, I never received any edits. I guess maybe there weren’t many to make?
I logged onto the site and there it was. My name. My photo. But…new text. So much new text. An entire paragraph of new text.
My essay — my personal essay, about an aspect of my life — was sliced and diced, so much so that my initial reaction was, “This isn’t right. I need to have this pulled. People can’t see this.”
Although I write regularly and publish as often as I can, I’m still very, very, VERY sensitive about my work. I put so much effort into my writing and am always nervous when I submit a draft to a publication. What will they think? Will they like it? Will they like me?
Usually, my fears are unfounded, and the process is painless. The editor eventually responds with some thoughts. Sometimes there are minor tweaks — a grammatical change here, a word swap there. Other times, the editor might give notes: “Can you expand upon this idea? Maybe flesh out this thought a bit?”
And though I occasionally feel defensive — “What do you mean they didn’t like [insert unfamiliar, pretentious word here]? That’s what gives this paragraph panache!” — overall I enjoy the editing process.
(Note: I would never actually complain about something while using the word “panache.”)
I love when an editor helps me tighten a phrase or clarify an idea. I’ve learned so much from many great editors and truly feel my writing has improved over the years, specifically because of the notes and feedback I’ve received.
But this… This was different.
There were no notes. There were no questions. No requests to explain, build upon, or illustrate. Instead, the editor took it upon himself to cut out chunks of my writing and replace it with his own.
And he did it all without telling me.
“After all the changes are completed, the editor should give you a copy of his edited version, also known as a galley. You should be given the chance to look it over and point out any problems you have with the revisions.” — Writer’s Digest
So now, there’s a 700-word piece floating around out there with my name on it, but it’s not all my work. Some of it is. The middle section is mostly untouched. But the first and final paragraphs are not mine. In fact, my original closing paragraph was deleted entirely, and the paragraph before it was cut so the piece ends abruptly.
Readers have told me the essay still works, and I guess that’s OK. But every time I get a compliment on it, I want to yell, “IT’S NOT ALL MINE. IT COULD BE BETTER. I WOULD HAVE DONE BETTER. I JUST WASN’T GIVEN THE CHANCE.”
Perhaps it doesn’t matter in the bigger scheme of things. I have the byline; I’ll get the paycheck. Life will go on.
But it’s a disappointment. To put so much time and energy into something so personal and to wait for its publication, only to find the finished piece is drastically different from what I submitted, is just a massive let-down.
I considered pulling it. I considered asking the publication to remove my name. But I chose against that. First, this publication pays well, and I need the money. Second, none of the added verbiage is technically false; it’s merely in a voice different from my own.
So, I’m letting go and chalking this up to another lesson learned. What I’ve gained from this experience, and what I encourage other freelancers to do:
Always insist on seeing edits before a piece goes live. Some words might be cut, and some difficult changes might be made, but at least you’ll have a chance to defend what you feel is important. And you won’t be blindsided when the article is up for the world to see.
Research a publication before reaching out. Facebook writers’ groups and sites like Who Pays Writers have similar complaints about this same publication, something I would have learned had I done my homework. Always do your due diligence before submitting a pitch; at least you’ll have an idea of what you’re getting into.
At the end of the day, there is no HR Department or employee handbook for freelancers. It’s a free for all out there, and the onus is on you — the writer— to ensure your work represents you in the best possible light. After all, it’s your name below the title.