Ask TON: Are Edits Suggestions or Demands?

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

I’m never sure if it’s OK to “just say no” to an editor’s edits. Do you view the edits more as decisions that have been made, or as strong suggestions that can be discussed or negotiated? And how late in the editing process can a writer feel comfortable making substantive changes to a story?

Freelance science writer and editor Liza Gross:

Most every writer has suffered the indignity of seeing her (obviously) pristine copy hacked to bits at some point (usually by an inexperienced editor). But all the horror stories notwithstanding, most every writer can benefit from a skilled editor. And skilled editors usually don’t tinker with prose for no reason.

Ideally, editors and writers work as a team, each contributing their own expertise. Editors know what their outlets and readers need and might tweak the angle, point of view, voice, style, or focus of a story to serve those needs. But writers know their material better than anyone else. After all, we do all the reporting, background research, interviews, fact checking, and obsessing over details. Still, sometimes what we think is on the page isn’t. That’s why I look at an editor’s changes as an opportunity to improve my writing. As Truman Capote once said, “Good writing is rewriting.”

How I perceive and respond to edits depends on how well I know the editor, but, in general, I view any changes as suggestions subject to negotiation. While I don’t typically “just say no” to an edit that I’m not comfortable with, I never hesitate to question the rationale for an edit I disagree with. Chances are the editor was trying to fix something that wasn’t working. If I can see the problem, I’ll always suggest an alternative. If I can’t figure out what the problem was, I’ll ask. If an edit inadvertently introduces an error, it’s my obligation to say so and suggest a way to resolve the issue. You aren’t doing an editor any favors by ignoring an introduced mistake.

A fruitful editor-writer relationship, like any good relationship, depends on keeping the lines of communication open. A good editor expects at least some pushback from a writer. But you should choose your battles. If you think a change destroys your carefully crafted prose without adding any value, by all means, speak up. But don’t make a habit of contesting inconsequential edits.

You should be very careful about making substantive changes late in the process. How late is acceptable depends on the type of story and deadline you have. Longer features with long lead times tend to have more leeway for major changes and rewrites than news stories with tight deadlines. The only time I made substantive changes late in the game was when new data came to light that required recalculating several figures in a follow-the-money feature story. If you happen upon new facts or events that you think change the story enough to warrant significant revisions, you should tell your editor. But asking for late changes runs the risk of introducing errors, especially for outlets with a small staff. If you find errors that change the focus of the story, your editor will want to know. I wouldn’t ask for late changes lightly, especially if it’s just a question of style rather than accuracy. When in doubt, approach your editor with a sense of humility and respect, explain any concerns you may have, and your interactions will likely go smoothly.

Freelancer Mark Schrope:

I once interned at a newspaper where there had been a writer who was so convinced of each of her story’s perfection that she got angry and even fought with her editor if he changed anything at all. And the editor told me he had to admit that for the most part, there really wasn’t anything that needed changing. Neither that editor, nor any of those that have followed would say the same about the drafts I’ve sent them, and I’ve never had any illusions of such perfection in my writing. But figuring out the right balance between my first draft and an edited version can sometimes be a challenge.

One of the first things I do if I get back a story that is covered in questions and virtual red ink, assuming there’s time, is to let it sit. I’ll give the edited version a quick read, maybe flag some items that are going to need follow up with sources, then leave it alone for a night or so. On first read, an edited version might induce much grimacing—it might even feel like a gut punch. But as any shock fades, I often realize that the editing wasn’t nearly as heavy-handed as it first appeared. And I usually realize that at least some of the changes really helped. As it turns out, there’s a reason we have editors.

Whether possessed with the self-confidence to believe your work nearly flawless, ready to accept every change as needed, or somewhere in between, there are some general guidelines that can help you through the editing process. I try to keep a few things in mind throughout. In the absence of very strong evidence to the contrary, I’d suggest assuming:

1) Your editor wants (just as much as you do) to end up with a good story of which everyone can be proud.

2) Your editor is not a buffoon.

3) Your editor is not mean and has no particular interest in hurting you or making your life miserable.

4) Your editor doesn’t think you’re a buffoon just because he or she felt compelled to do some editing. (Note: Your editor may in fact think you a complete buffoon. The relevant point is that the editing is not necessarily the indicator.)

With those principles in mind, you’ll be looking at your editor as partner, rather than foe. The issue becomes one of picking your battles wisely, though I hate to even mention that cliché, not only because it’s a cliché, but because if you’re really thinking of these things as battles then you’ve left behind one or more of the principles above.

Because a sentence, paragraph, or the entire story looks different than it did when you wrote it is not a good reason to argue over edits. So when my instinct is to challenge, I have to decide if it is a battle worth fighting for some concrete reason.

The most obvious concern is a factual error. The writer is obviously going to be in the best position to spot these, so I try to decide whether an edit has introduced anything even a shade off. If so, I’ll add a note explaining the problem and usually suggesting a correction. This is the kind of thing you have to come back to as many times as it takes to make sure the factual error is corrected.

Sometimes an editor will be bound and determined to take a story in a direction it really can’t or shouldn’t go. They may ask for quotes or facts that simply don’t exist and you have to explain why. When you have this kind of discussion (as with any changes and corrections): if you’ve worked with your editor as a partner and not behaved like a horse’s arse, you’re much more likely to find an editor willing to work with you towards a mutually acceptable solution.

The writer should also consider whether what he or she wants is realistic. In print especially, an upper word count may be set in stone. No matter how much you whine about your limit and contend it should be raised, if that’s not an option, you have to quit worrying about the world you’d like to live in and make the best story you can within the pesky confines of reality.

Another important consideration is if there is something that’s absolutely essential to the story that’s been lost: that usually happens when the editor, like you, is trying to get down to the right word count. If space is an issue and you’re going to make the case for essentiality (I have to confess I didn’t even know that was a real word and fully expected a red squiggle line to appear), then remember reality. It’s generally a good idea to make suggestions about some way to cut an equivalent number of words somewhere else to make room for your essential [pieces]. Sadly, though, unlike factual errors, this is a situation where you may have to give up and let it slide.

Those are the two main categories that have to be dealt with most aggressively, though there are plenty of other possibilities. If I think something sounds goofy, or otherwise doesn’t fit, I’ll try to fix that, but I’m not going to waste a lot of energy if the editor isn’t willing to budge. I assume I’m not the only one among us who has at times received copy back that seems to hardly resemble what I wrote. In those cases, I usually assume it’s unlikely I’m going to get back to something that feels like my own voice.

If you’ve done all you can to address the most important stuff, to fight the necessary battles, and some intractable concerns remain, just remind yourself of how sick you are of reading the blasted thing. Once you accept the remaining edits, then you get to finally move on.

Freelancer Amanda Mascarelli:

I view edits as strong suggestions, but I absolutely see the editing process as one that is open to discussion and negotiation. After all, my name is on the story, and I need to be able to stand behind what’s written there. I am the one who reported the story, did the background research, and best understands the nuances of the topic and what the sources said to me.

However, that said, I try to choose my battles wisely. If I’m going to feel sick at my stomach when I see something in print, or ashamed to send the link to my sources, then I attempt to explain to the editor why I feel so strongly about the edits in question. I’ve been quite fortunate in this area and have never had an editor make substantive changes that I couldn’t live with.

In a couple of cases, with quick turnaround news stories, I’ve had editors write headlines that I thought were misleading or that missed an important subtlety. In one case, an editor changed the title based on my input; in another, the editor pushed back and said that the title wasn’t technically wrong and that the subtleties were explained within the story. I thought he made a valid point, and I moved on.

In another story that comes to mind, I questioned an edit that was made because I was concerned that it might be worded too strongly and may have overstated a potential link. I registered my concern with the editor, and I checked in with a source for a second opinion on the wording of the sentence. After some back and forth with the editor and input from the source, the editor and I agreed to let her edit stand. Although I felt that the story could have benefitted from some additional detail to explain the nuances, we didn’t have the space. I let it go and overall felt fine about it.

When it comes to timing, obviously the earlier in the process you take issue with an edit, the better. I try very hard to do all I can to make my editors’ jobs easier, and I know they appreciate not having last-minute surprises. The further along the story is in production, the harder it gets to make substantial changes without having to do significant rewriting. But sometimes small things jump out at me upon the final read—such as when the story is laid out in galley form and I’m taking a broader look—and I absolutely point them out to the editor. Neither of us wants the story to contain errors, and both of us want the story to be its best. I try to see myself as part of a team with the editor; while doing everything I can to avoid being a pain in the butt, I will speak up when I need to so that I can be proud of the final product.

Helen Pearson, chief features editor for Nature:

I hope that writers will discuss edits with me and push back—within reason.

Writers should always speak up if an edit has made something factually incorrect, or if the edit creates the wrong impression about a subject. If a writer disagrees with the structure of the story, or the style of the writing in the edit, then I’m happy to discuss and negotiate and I’ll try to accommodate changes if I agree they are important. (I actually worry if the writer accepts an edit with barely a murmur, because I wonder how carefully they’ve read the edit and how much they really care about the story!) There is a limit to how much the edit can be negotiated. I edit features, in which we’re lucky enough to have one or two weeks to perfect an edit, sometimes more. After the first—and biggest—line edit, I expect to have some discussion and push-back. That’s the time for the writer to speak up.

But as the story nears the final version, I really want to keep changes to a minimum. When the story is about to go to press, then changes should only be very minor, for accuracy. (News editors with much tighter turnaround times have much less time for negotiation.) I try to be sensitive to the writer’s words and voice; I really want them to feel happy and confident about the story. At the same time, I hope that the writer will appreciate that I’ve spent many hours working out how best to edit a story, and that edits are made for a reason: to make something clearer, more logical, more suitable for our audience, or to fit on page. Most writers understand this very well and are a pleasure to work with.

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