Ask TON: How Much Editing to Expect?



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

I’ve been a journalist for nearly a decade, but just recently went freelance. The first two stories I’ve had accepted, both about 1,500 words long, went through several rounds of editing over the course of several days. While I benefited from this process and my stories came out stronger because of it, I’m worried. Is this process normal? I’ve been commissioned to do a 3,000-word magazine story, and I’m seriously contemplating getting a professional editor to look at it before I submit it. I’d appreciate your advice.

Helen Pearson, chief features editor at Nature:

Yes, this process is normal, and the aim is always to produce a beautiful story. The time spent and blood spilled on editing will depend on the publication, the deadline and how good the copy is when it comes in. Yes, editors would love to get immaculate copy that they can wave through onto the page while they mix another martini, but it very rarely works out that way. When editing a Nature feature, I’ll typically go through several back-and-forths with a writer, over two to three weeks. And then, just when you think the worst is over, I’ll send it to a top editor, and then a sub-editor, who will each read it with fresh eyes and who may have a whole new set of queries and changes.

Now, this might seem like prolonged agony but it’s important to remember that we’re all trying to make the story the best it can be, as well as to avoid any mistakes or legal wrangles.

I wouldn’t advise a writer to send a story to another editor before submitting. It seems to make sense to send it to the editor who commissioned the story, as they can best guide you on what they want. On the other hand, it can be worth asking a friend or colleague to read a piece through for clarity and comments before you submit.

It’s not necessarily a poor reflection on a writer if a story goes through lots of rounds of editing. Probably the best thing is to develop a good working relationship with your editor, so you can learn from each other; then the editing process gets easier with every story.

Michelle Nijhuis, freelance writer and editor:

I don’t know what kind of journalism you did before going freelance, or what kind of publication you worked with on your first two freelance assignments, but I can say that in general, the editing process at a daily newspaper or any kind of news-related website is much less intense than that at a magazine. At a news outlet, the emphasis is on telling the story accurately, clearly, and quickly; at a magazine, accuracy and clarity are just as important, but a magazine editor also needs to make the voice and style of your piece compatible with the magazine as a whole. That can mean several rounds of editing, even for very experienced and skilled writers, and editors may ask for anything from a complete restructuring of the piece to additional reporting to extensive fine-tuning of the language.

There also tend to be more layers of editing at magazines than at news outlets: During a magazine assignment, you may be asked to handle edits not just from your assigning editor, but from managing editors, copyeditors, fact-checkers and others—and those editors may not all agree with one another! The editing process does tend to get easier after the first assignment for a publication, since the writer gets more and more familiar with the particulars of the magazine, but even writers who have worked with a publication for years can go through heavy edits on a story.

That said, there are ways for writers to make their (and their editors’) jobs easier. If you’re writing for a magazine that’s new to you, make sure you know the magazine well. Read back issues and study how their articles are structured and written. If your assigning editor doesn’t tell you how he or she wants you to approach a story, ask for specifics before you start reporting and writing. All editors should be able to articulate what sets their publication apart and what their readers expect, and it’s very helpful if they can put those specifics in an email.

I don’t think you need to hire a professional editor—it sounds like your experience was quite typical—but it never hurts to get some fellow writers or perceptive friends to read and comment on drafts before you submit them (just make sure you offer to return the favor). Finally, if you do have concerns about the editing process, ask your editor for some quick feedback after the story is put to bed—are there ways you can make the process easier next time? Your editor may have some concrete ideas that will be helpful to both of you—and the question may just open the door to your next assignment.

Susannah Locke, senior associate editor at Popular Science:

This process is normal, and it’s called editing. That’s my first thought. But of course, it depends on the editor and the publication. If you’re concerned that your editor is displeased, I’d simply ask him/her if the amount of edits has been ok and if there’s something you could do better next time. I’d avoid getting too many cooks in the kitchen. (If the assignment changed drastically along the way, you should consider whether your fee should be raised to cover the extra work.)

Valerie Jamieson, features editor at New Scientist:

It’s normal. Don’t waste your money. That’s my short answer to this problem.

Perhaps you’re still puzzled why your articles were edited so heavily when you researched the hell out of the story and so carefully crafted it. There are many possible reasons. Commissioning editors often don’t know all the ins and outs of a story at the early stage. And if your article touched on an issue that the editor found much more interesting, he or she might want to re-angle the story in light of your findings. A changing news agenda, new developments or a sudden change in page layout could all affect how your story is edited too.

Then again, it could be that your style of writing doesn’t quite match the publication’s. Editors always think about who their readers are and it’s often their job is to get your article to conform. Agreed, that makes things difficult for writers because every publication has its own quirks. What’s vital detail to one publication’s readership is a boring distraction to another.

That’s why hiring a professional editor to look over your work would be a waste of money. Better to learn what different publications want through experience and building up a relationship with editors.

And, hey, you’re getting the commissions. You must be doing lots right, right?

Melinda Wenner Moyer, freelance science and health writer:

Two rounds of editing is absolutely normal. The first time I write for a publication, my drafts sometimes go through more. That said, I find that the editing process varies tremendously by publication. Sometimes an edit will involve a few minor changes. Other times I’m re-working the entire piece over and over and over again.

There are many reasons for these differences, I think. One is how well my writing style and approach mesh with those of the publication. I feel very comfortable writing Slate or Scientific American stories; learning how to write for women’s magazines has been, let’s say, a journey. A little more freelancing experience will probably tell you which publications your writing is most compatible with, and chances are, editors at those pubs will want to work with you a lot, too.

Another factor affecting the editing process is how the publication is structured. Is only one editor going to look at your piece before it’s published (as happens sometimes for online pieces)? That’s usually straightforward. If my draft is going to make the rounds with multiple editors, is the editorial team cohesive or does everyone want something different? Yuck if the latter. The worst is when there’s an EIC who changes his/her mind eight times about what s/he wants, or when my assigning editor has misjudged what the EIC wants. Then I feel like I’m being put through the wringer even though I know I delivered what was originally asked. (Worse, in these situations, my stories sometimes end up killed.) Finally, I have also had easy editing experiences with one editor at a magazine and much more difficult experiences with another, even when I’ve been working on similar types of pieces. So sometimes it’s just about whether or not you get a good or compatible editor.

And no, I wouldn’t hire a professional editor. That will cost you money you don’t need to spend—the pub has given you repeat assignments despite these lengthy edits, right? That means they have been happy with your work. Plus, “generic” editing may not solve problems you might be having matching the publication’s tone/angle/scope.

The good news is that, in general, the more I write for a publication, the easier the editing gets. I start seeing the differences between my initial drafts and what eventually gets published, and then my first drafts become more like final drafts. So don’t despair that your first experiences have been difficult and lengthy—although again, two edits is pretty reasonable for 1,500-word stories. Maybe it’s a matter of asking yourself, as you ponder each assignment offer, “Will the terms/pay be worthwhile if I end up needing to re-write this piece three times?” Work the editing time into the financial equation from the start; doing so may help you stay calm the next time an email pops into your inbox at 5:02 p.m. with the subject line “URGENT: revise needed by tomorrow a.m.”

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