“It’s probably just typical writer vs. editor issues.”
I physically cocked my head at the email from a client as we were discussing some squabbles occurring between one of the editors here at CYC and the content writer.
Having worked as a professional writer for a decade before I opened an editing agency, I’ve run across my fair share of editors.
Some of them sucked.
Some were just doing their jobs.
A rare few were those editors that inspire and support, who make you want to be a better
In general, I tend to not get too upset by the feedback editors give me. They’re just doing their job and getting upset about someone suggesting that I reword a sentence is frankly an exhausting thought.
It’s important, when you are putting your creative spirit out into the world, to choose carefully which fucks you want to give. So though I’ve disagreed with (and declined) changes editors have made in the past, I’ve never envisioned myself engaged in some epic battle royale over the sanctity of a preposition.
Apparently, though, it’s a thing — and as someone who lives on both sides of the mindset, I wanted to figure out why. In a more comprehensive way, not just “huh, this is a problem, someone should create a service that fixes it” (which, you’ll learn, is what I did).
Humans tend to learn best through stories and mythologies.
Perhaps it has to do with neuroscience or maybe just our history as an oral species. We’ve only been writing out our narratives for about 5000 years, with a few thousand years before that using rough symbols and “cave drawings.”
Every good story needs to have memorable characters — so tell me if these sounds familiar.
When you hear about an editor, you immediately think of some overweight, maybe sweaty schlub with a bad necktie, sitting behind a newsdesk.
He’s pouring over column inches and barking out orders at his reporters to “get the scoop” that will land new readers and beat their competition.
Always with one eye on the clock, obsessed with “hitting deadlines” and advertiser counts, he doesn’t care about the work that goes into the story. He just wants the story, his way — in the way that is going to get the publication everything that it needs.
Swathed in gauzy blouses and with a Bohemian hairstyle, they seem to almost float through their professional existence.
Moved only by their muse, they must feel the story to be able to write about it. They’re constantly pushing deadlines and do very little research or substantive defense in a piece.
Instead, their writing is like an ode to prose, flowery and opulent. They are in love with it and expect the rest of the world to be as well.
If only Indiana Jones worked in a newsroom instead of a university (or Nazi-occupied Temple of Doom).
He’s chasing down leads with ferocity, meeting with sources in dark carparks, and tapping out an article with a cigarette hanging from his mouth mere minutes before it is set to go to print.
He’s the one writing the real stories, the ones that will not only change the world but that readers will devour. No one understands his genius, but it is always genius. Always.
Like most characters, no actual person fits perfectly into one of these archetypes. But, beyond just imagining the fiction, I bet you can think of at least one person you know who kinda fits each of them. Especially if you work a lot in the writing, editing, content, journalism, and/or publishing industries.
As enlightened as we all like to think we are, especially in the creative and entrepreneurial spaces, we can still fall victim to believing the stereotypes. This is how we quickly fall into adversarial fights and conflict — because we think we are communicating with a character, not a person.
While I will acknowledge that I’m a much more laid back writer when it comes to editorial feedback, I still bristle a bit at times.
It’s actually part of why I started Craft Your Content. I knew too many friends and peers in online publishing who wanted to put out higher-quality content that they were pushed and coached to produce, but whenever they worked with other editors, they’d end up feeling defeated and stripped of what makes them unique.
That’s no fun for anyone involved.
I understood the plight of the writer wanting to be better, and a previous decade in corporate sales and marketing gave me the strategic editorial mindset that they were struggling against.
Setting out to figure out a magical place where writers and editors could co-exist, I tried to figure out some of the most common scenarios I heard from each side to create a solution that fixed them.
Writing takes a lot of effort.
If you are not a writer, consider how much work and time you think it takes to write something that is considered “quality writing” and multiple it by at least 7.
There’s all the mental work and research that goes into an article, the planning and outlining, the actual writing — and that’s all before it gets to revisions.
It’s a lot, and it shouldn’t be surprising that when someone pours that much of their intellectual energy and personal investment into something, they can develop an emotional attachment.
This is where the battle ensues.
Any time anyone says anything even mildly critical of your work, you become a wildly protective parent, lashing out that they could consider anything about your baby to be ugly. People don’t like to be told their babies are ugly, especially if deep down they have some insecure concerns that maybe it is a little off-putting the way their ears are approximately the same size on their own as the rest of the span of their head.
Further, since they have put so much of themselves into something, an insult to that article/essay/manuscript is an insult to their very being.
Of course, this isn’t the case at all, because a person is more than the things that they write.
Writers who can’t handle the edits and criticisms of others because they feel personally attacked should seriously reconsider writing for others. If you are that hurt by what other people think, get a diary — don’t publish for the world to read.
This battle, in a writer’s mind, is about how the editors are trying to change their writing… which means that the editor wants to change them.
Of course, sometimes an editor really is trying to change them. Which leads to…
If you are writing for academic studies or formal journals, then being able to cite the various grammar manuals is going to be nearly imperative.
Some industries will always require absolutely perfect and proper writing.
But the ways of writing and communicating are changing. Especially with more online writing, which is sometimes barely legible, let alone correct.
Of course, illegible writing is not the end goal, especially if an editor is involved. That is their name (and often their brand or publication’s name) on something that would kindly be described as a flaming pile of…words.
Alas, some editors and proofreaders (still) view anything that isn’t absolutely perfect and proper writing as that aforementioned flaming pile and edit it with a heavy red pen. Not only do they sometimes lose the intensity or personal voice of the writer, they can be known to strip it out of the piece altogether.
When the writer pushes back or simply questions the changes, the editor will come crashing down — they are the editor, they are the person who knows what good writing is supposed to be.
Truthfully, I think a lot of editors struggle with this for one (or more) of a few reasons:
Inflexibility is the big problem here. Well, that and being unable to accept that things change — and that includes the rules for writing and editing.
That inflexibility has to go both ways, and a lot of writers feel like an editor is being mean to them or stripping their words, when the reality is that they are doing their job…
Though this is definitely a battle that many editors will claim is waged by older and stubborn writers who are too set in their ways (and, as mentioned above, riding some solid literary egos at this point in their careers), I also see it a fair bit from newer writers.
I blame writers who write about writing, present company included.
As an industry, we’ve done a serious disservice to up-and-coming writers and folks trying to hack out a career or side-hustle in the writing industry by telling them that they are special snowflakes of creative genius that deserve to be published.
Idealistically, in a perfect world, I agree with this. I think anyone with something to say should have the opportunity and platform to say it. All hail the internet.
That being said…
As an editor of sites and brands, I have style guidelines and quality standards that we adhere to.
When someone reads an article on Craft Your Content, for example, they know they are getting a long-form, researched and/or well-argued piece that focuses on the craft and quality of writing and editing. (Well, that’s what we aim for, at least.)
Sometimes we’ll take pieces that aren’t a perfect fit if the writer is willing to work with us on revisions to get it up to speed. Sometimes we’ll take a piece that’s a great fit but will still need some editing work to make it a CYC article.
We strive to make sure that we aren’t slashing an original writer out of their own work, but the truth is that the CYC blog is not about an individual’s writing. My own articles sometimes get ripped apart in editing sometimes to make them a bit less about my writing voice and more about the CYC platform.
Some brands will be kind and attempt to work with a writer to save some pieces of their unique style and voice (that’s what we try to do here, at least) while others will rewrite it how they see fit. At some publications, it might just come down to the beat/editor.
Everyone’s ideas and writing certainly deserve to be shared somewhere. But if you are willing to give up your writing to someone else’s platform, then you have to be willing to let them adapt your writing for their platform.
Many editors who won’t accept without edits, or who change your own words, are keeping an eye out for their brand. That doesn’t mean they always have an eye out for your personal style. Good news is, unless you are in an iron-clad contract or have already been paid, if you really don’t like it, you might just be able to pull the piece.
You might not get the byline, but principles don’t often come cheap.
Of course, especially for newer writers, you may just be working with someone who isn’t in the business of new talent…
“The successful editor is one who is constantly finding new writers, nurturing their talents, and publishing them with critical and financial success. The thrill of developing fresh writing makes the search worthwhile, even when the waiting and working becomes months, sometimes years, of drudgery and frequent disappointment.” – A. Scott Berg, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius
Max Perkins is considered by many (who actually know who he is) to be one of the most important figures in early-20th century American literature.
An editor with Charles Scribner’s Sons (now Scribner, an imprint owned by Simon & Schuster), he is credited with discovering and publishing such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Marcia Davenport, Thomas Wolfe, and more.
Apparently, many a modern editor has grandiose visions of being the next Max Perkins, though I imagine that has a lot more to do with their desire to have a similar narcissistic lasting impact on literature.
What made Perkins so legendary in publishing and university lecture halls was not the legacy he left. Instead, it is what he did for words. He was devoted to great ideas, brilliant writing (even when it took hundreds of hours of revisions to get there), and serving as an aide to help writers get their best writing out to the world — the vision he had for his role and service to his authors guided his work, and his work is what guaranteed him a place in history.
So while lots of folks (especially glassy-eyed in the start of their careers) dream of being this type of editor, reality doesn’t seem to support it. Instead, you are chasing views and audience through shallow metrics, publishing sensational work that spreads like viral wildfire, harassing your authors to get off Facebook and turn in their re-writes, the list goes on.
Add to this the fast-paced 24-hour news cycle and instant publishing capabilities of the internet and putting in so much work and effort with writers just doesn’t happen. In a newsroom, there aren’t rounds of back-and-forth improvement — your work is submitted, rewritten, and you sign off to post within the hour. Everyone is chasing “the scoop.”
Finding new writers (either to the craft or to your brand), working with them and coaching them, taking the time to collaborate and put fantastic words out for people…it’s exhausting.
Unfortunately, this means that, too often, an editor will pass on something with potential because they just don’t have the time and energy.
One of the most annoying phrases I’ve heard is this trope of believing that those who devote themselves to coaching and teaching are somehow “less than” the pure souls who create.
If anything, someone who is good enough to coach and teach is probably better than the novice working to figure it out. Sure, Stephen King might not be offering online masters classes, but he did write a book that teaches his own insights into and the process of the writing craft.
Does that mean he’s not a good enough writer? I suppose since he wrote a book on writing he’s in some weird caveat category.
Yet I’ve heard this joke/quip/ridiculousness from too many writers, noting that editors are writers who couldn’t hack it.
Frankly, I wouldn’t be anywhere in my life without some amazing teachers in my past. Sure, the majority were…not. But without these people, often willing to put aside their own pursuits to cultivate another generation, most of us wouldn’t be where we are today.
I wish I were a real editor, someone like Max Perkins. Alas, I moonlight as an editor, but in that silvery nighttime glow, I’m nothing more than a writer.
A person who loves words and stringing them together to create beautiful things.
At the times I get to flip to the other side of the pen, though, and pour over those strung-together words, it is a wonderful experience of a different kind. And I’m in awe of the folks that are full-time devoted editors because their understanding and level of work is just next level.
The perceived battle, warfare, and conflict between editors and writers really comes from two very dangerous places:
Regardless the reason, the end result is writing that quite possibly could be a lot better. We’re all the worse for not having it.
Rather than imagining that others are against you, no matter what side of the argument you are on, you might just do better work if you focus on communicating and striving to make a difference on this planet through whatever you can do with words.
Elisa Doucette is a writer and editor who works with professional writers, entrepreneurs, and brands that want to make their own words even better. She is the Founder of Craft Your Content, and oversees Client Strategy and Writing Coaching. Her own writing has been featured in places like Forbes, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yahoo! Small Business, and The Huffington Post, among others. She also hosts the Writers' Rough Drafts podcast here on CYC. When she isn't writing, editing, or reading words, she can usually be found at a local pub quiz, deep in a sun salutation, or binging TV shows for concept ideas and laughs.