About working with editors who change your words

A beginning writer asks:

My editors keep messing up my stories. How can I keep that from happening?

My advice: If your skin is the least bit sensitive DON’T READ YOUR CLIPS AFTER THEY COME OUT.

Don’t. Really.

All sorts of awful things are in there, and if you don’t know about them, you won’t get upset.

If a source calls you up about a factual mistake, just apologize to the source, take the blame, promise to try to get it fixed, and pass the request for a correction up to the editor.

If a reader calls you up and says that the article doesn’t have any factual mistakes, but misses an important part of the story, tell the reader she’s absolutely right –then pitch it as a follow-up article to the editor.

But, you might say: “I know that there are mistakes in there, even if no else is bothered by it. I can’t just let it go! What if another editor sees the article? I’ll never work anywhere again.”

Now, if you’re writing about a topic that requires specialized knowledge, you can ask your editor to let you see the final proofs before they go to print, just to double-check that everything is accurate. And you can also train copy editors to not retype certain things, like numbers or names, because typos can creep in.

But, admit it — you’re probably less concerned about factual mistakes than about stylistic changes. Factual mistakes you just fix. Style, you can argue about for days with no results.

So don’t do it. Really. Just don’t do it.

But what if you can’t help it? What if the editor is one of those sadists who makes you look over the final proofs for mistakes before publication, and you can’t help noticing that all your best metaphors are gone and the structure is rearranged to the point of silliness

Here’s what you do: first, glance over the words in quotation marks and make sure that they are true to the original (some cleaning-up permitted, but nothing that makes the source look as if he said the opposite from what he really intended). Then scan over the statistics, and the spelling of names and places.

Finally, check the chronologies — mistakes sometimes creep in here during editing.

If you happen to come across a grammar mistake or typo, that’s fine too — but it’s not really part of your job at this point. The copy editor should have caught that, you’re just doing him a favor.

Your *only* job is to make sure the facts are still correct.

Do NOT read over for style. It’s the newspaper’s or magazine’s style now. Don’t read for structure.

And don’t ask them to put back your original words — if they liked them in the first place, they would have left them in. Remember that the customer is always right, and the customer is the editor.

Eventually, if it’s important to you, you’ll get good enough and famous enough to be able to dictate style terms. By then, though, you’ll probably also be wise enough to know that an editor is the writer’s best friend. As a general rule, it’s the stuff that you like the most in an article, those fancy turns of phrase and lofty comparisons, that are really the worst and distract the reader from the content. Just let it go.

And when you cut out your clip, don’t read it over for a few years. When you finally do, after getting a bit of distance, you might be amazed at how good you sound.