How to Deal with a Difficult Edit

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Krista Langlois vividly remembers her most “absolutely awful” editing experience. A magazine editor had approached her about covering an environmental policy development. “From the get-go, it seemed like they didn’t know what they were looking for or what they wanted,” says the Colorado-based independent journalist and editor. Each time the magazine editor waffled, Langlois gamely made most of the requested changes—all the way up until the piece went for the final edit.

But when it came back from the top editor, entire paragraphs had been rewritten. The changes went beyond aesthetic adjustments, with new facts added, new framing introduced, and new conclusions drawn. “It was not my story anymore,” Langlois recalls. To make matters worse, the piece had gone to top edit after it had been fact-checked, and there was no time for Langlois to re-check the new paragraphs before publication. She asked her primary editor to pull her byline from the story. Her request was denied.

At that point, the only thing Langlois felt she could do was to grit her teeth. “My solution was, ‘I’m just going to freaking get through this, get my paycheck, and then work with publications that treat me well and just not ever go back to this one,’” she says.

Just as a smooth editing process can keep a writer coming back to an outlet again and again, a rocky one can turn even a dream assignment into a nightmare. Excessive edits, introduced errors, and scope creep can all result from a bad process, leaving everyone frustrated. Luckily, a difficult edit doesn’t always have to end in misery like Langlois’s did. There are tactics that both editors and writers can employ to smooth potentially spiky situations before they erupt into something worse.


Putting Your Best Foot Forward

The best way to deal with a bad editing situation is to avoid it altogether, if possible. Even before a draft is turned in, both editor and writer can lay a good foundation for a smooth edit. Editors should set clear goals and expectations in writing from the start, and both parties should agree what those are early in the process. That involves more than just story focus and direction, says Ehsan Masood, senior editor at Nature: “What’s the process going to be? Who’s going to be involved at what point? How many rounds of editing?”

After those expectations have been established, both editor and writer are responsible for keeping each other updated throughout the process. If your reporting reveals that the story requires a different direction or more words, you and your editor can revisit the original agreement and decide how to proceed. And if personal circumstances interfere or you’re about to blow through a deadline, let your editor—or your writer—know as soon as you can.

If things get tense once the draft is in, prioritize calm, compassionate communication. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call when you sense that wires have crossed.

When it’s time to file, writers should turn in clean, readable copy that meets expectations, including hitting the word count and deadline. “If you ask somebody [for] 1,000 words and they give you 2,000 words, [it’s] like, ‘I didn’t ask you for 2,000. You’re gonna have to go back and edit it.’ And usually when they edit down, it’s a better piece,” says Alejandra Cuéllar, Latin America editor at Diálogo Chino, a publication that covers the region’s environmental challenges and China’s influence.

Editing your own draft beforehand, if time allows, can help you recognize and preemptively address some of the issues your editor would have raised. When your draft needs extra polish or you’re having trouble trimming it, have a trusted friend or colleague take a read before you submit it. Their insights may help you smooth out problem areas, so your editor doesn’t have to. (A community of colleagues, such as an online writers’ forum or a sympathetic group chat, can also be a source of commiseration and morale-boosting, if an edit later goes awry.)

If things do get tense once the draft is in, prioritize calm, compassionate communication. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call when you sense that wires have crossed. This is especially important for freelancers and remote employees, who don’t have the luxury of popping into their editor’s office to ask a question. Talking on the phone “can help iron out a lot of miscommunication a lot more effectively than trading panicked emails,” says Rachel E. Gross, a science journalist based in Brooklyn.

It helps, too, to assume that everyone involved is doing their best. “The main thing is keeping in mind that we are all just people in relationships with each other,” says Katherine Bourzac, a freelance reporter and editor based in San Francisco. “You both have the same goal: It’s to make the story good for your audience.”


The Excessive Edit

No matter how much time you spend polishing your prose, you’ll almost certainly open up a draft one day and find your words awash in a sea of red. When this happens, don’t panic—and don’t dive in right away. Read through the edit. Take a deep breath. Close your computer and walk away. Sleep on it, if you have the luxury of time. Madeline Bodin, a Vermont-based freelance science journalist, is one of many writers who employs this strategy. She reminds herself: “I may freak out, but I’m not going to react to the editor.” Letting the draft (and yourself) breathe can help you see past the crimson to the problems that the editor has identified and is trying to solve, even if you don’t agree with their suggestions.

Also keep in mind that a heavy edit is not always a bad one—maybe it significantly tightens copy or makes a shaky structure sound. The best editors can “take a piece of rock and cut a diamond out of it,” says Dilrukshi Handunnetti, a writer and the Sri Lanka editor at Mongabay.

Editors, too, have a responsibility to keep a level head, even if a story requires heavy revisions. Communicate edits well, and treat writers with respect.

Once you do start to tackle revisions, try to keep your ego in check. Most editors expect some pushback on their suggestions. When it comes to subjective changes, though, make sure to pick your battles. “I tend to try to step back and ask which ones I can live with, and which ones actually weaken or undermine the article,” Gross says. Make sure you show the editor that you’re “not just a writer who’s being precious about her prose.”

As long as you raise issues in a calm and respectful way, most editors will be receptive—especially if you explain why you think a change needs to be made and offer an alternative solution to what the editor proposed, rather than simply reverting back to your original copy. “As an editor, if someone corrects me or lets me know that they want something different, I’ll engage in a conversation,” Cuéllar says. “And if I can, I will accept a different view.”

Editors, too, have a responsibility to keep a level head, even if a story requires heavy revisions. Communicate edits well, and treat writers with respect. “Remember that there’s a person at the other end,” says Cuéllar, who makes sure to lead with something positive when she sends back a draft. Handunnetti says she always tries to discuss a particularly intensive edit by phone after delivery. Talking things through with actual voices can keep changes from feeling like personal attacks. And whatever you do, refrain from putting snarky comments in a draft you’re editing—or, at the very least, delete them before you send it back to the writer.


The Inaccurate Edit

Even the most careful editor will make mistakes. Sometimes editors inadvertently introduce errors if they’re in a rush, trying to wrangle a technical piece into a rigid house style, or trying to salvage a subpar draft.

Scope creep is one of the most common ways that an editing process becomes painful.

If you find factual errors in your piece, remember this is a common and often normal part of the editing process, especially if your editor is overworked. And most editors are overworked. “When I was an editor, I’d have a whiteboard of everything I needed to do, and sometimes I had to put ‘go to the bathroom’ on my whiteboard to remind me to stop ignoring my bladder,” Bodin says.

Keep in mind, too, that you’re likely more of an expert in the story’s subject matter than your editor. This distance helps editors see where a piece might lose the reader, but it also means that edits may result in mistakes from time to time. Still, your editor should be as highly motivated to correct inaccuracy as you are. Flag any errors you find, distilling your concerns into bullet points, identifying the issues and suggesting the fixes, Gross recommends.

For their part, editors can head off most errors by making sure every fact they insert into a story is backed up by research. “Do your best to be informed before you edit something,” Cuéllar says. And if you’re the last person who works on a story before it goes live, “you should never, ever publish” immediately after finishing an edit, Handunnetti says. “Stay away from that story and come back with fresh eyes.” Even better: Send the story off to a fact-checker or back to the writer for a final look, if possible.


The Expanding Edit

Scope creep—the way that successive rounds of edits change a story’s direction and expand the research it requires—is one of the most common ways that an editing process becomes painful. If each round of edits seems to push the bounds of the story a little more, gently point your editor back to the assignment letter and remind them of the terms you both agreed on.

Revisions can also become unwieldy when multiple editors get involved.

That said, not every ask from an editor can be filed under scope creep. If your draft is thin on details or lacking cohesion, the editor is well within their rights to ask you to bolster the piece. Although it might be tempting to dismiss these edits as scope creep, you should ask yourself if you truly met the assignment—or if the editor is simply asking again for you to deliver what was agreed on.

Editors should also remember that for freelancers, each extra round of edits is going to lower their hourly rate—so consider ways to compensate them for extra work when a story’s scope starts to spread. If the piece needs to expand significantly beyond the assigned word count, pay the writer per published, rather than assigned, word. Or talk to the writer and come up with a new fee for the piece based on how much extra work it has required. Similarly, if a story is developing too many angles as the edit goes on, Handunnetti says, she might suggest to the writer that they split it into two separate stories, with pay for each.


The Whiplash Edit

Revisions can also become unwieldy when multiple editors get involved. After all, editing “is an incredibly subjective profession,” Masood says. Two editors might have vastly different editing styles, and most publications will have multiple sets of eyes on a piece during the editorial process. In most cases, the primary assigning editor works with the writer until they think the piece is done, then they may pass it off to a top editor. A copyeditor and fact-checker may also work through the piece. And new players may appear if one of your editors departs the publication or takes time off.

Editors should tread lightly and check in frequently with the writer when it comes to sensitive stories.

If you’re experiencing editing whiplash as a writer, your options are somewhat limited. You can grit your teeth and just power through the edits, as Langlois did. Or you can try talking with your primary editor, who may be able to help you figure out which edits you can push back on.

Editors who are offloading pieces to others should be conscious of the work that the writer has done already, and take the time to get the incoming editor up to speed on where the piece is heading. Primary editors can also head off surprises down the line by consulting with the top editor early in the process—and keeping them updated as the story develops. Langlois likes the “BS test,” a practice she picked up while working as a correspondent for High Country News. After the first edit, the assigning editor sends the piece to another editor, usually the top editor, to have a less formal read. That second editor confirms that the story and its edits’ direction make sense and offers feedback on any further large changes it may need, so that they don’t come up during the top edit. “It does take a little bit of extra up-front time, but I think it really pays dividends in the end,” she says.


The Sensitive Edit

Sometimes the difficulty of an edit arises out of the story’s subject matter. When editing a delicate story, “you really want to make sure that you’re being nuanced and sensitive,” Langlois says.

If an edit becomes difficult, let the dust settle once the piece is published.

Editors should tread lightly and check in frequently with the writer when it comes to sensitive stories to avoid accidentally introducing outdated or harmful language. And they should also be careful not to let their own biases influence their edit on a particularly touchy subject. Enlisting the help of a sensitivity reader can also help both editor and writer make sure they’re handling a delicate subject tactfully.

Writers should keep a close eye on sensitive stories even after the copy is finalized. Art choices and headlines can be especially fraught parts of the editorial process, since many publications do not consult with writers on those decisions. It’s perfectly reasonable, Gross says, for writers to ask to be kept in the loop about how the story is being framed—and to speak up if anything makes them uncomfortable. “If you get that twinge that ‘This isn’t the right way to frame it,’” she says, “you’re probably right.”


After the Edit

If an edit becomes difficult, let the dust settle once the piece is published—take some time and get a little space from the project before you evaluate it. Having some distance from the experience makes for a less emotionally charged interaction when a writer goes back to an editor for feedback, or when an editor wants to talk through how to make future edits run more smoothly.

After some space, writers can also consider whether they want to work with that editor or publication again—and editors can decide whether they’d hire that writer again. Not every relationship has to be salvaged. But that’s not a decision you should make in the heat of the moment, Bodin says. “A lot of times a couple of weeks go by, the bank account drains a little, and all of a sudden that horrible experience that you never wanted to experience again doesn’t seem so bad anymore,” she says, laughing.

At its core, the editing process—good or bad—hinges on the relationship between a writer and an editor. Maintaining a good writer-editor relationship can take a lot of work, especially if the editing process has been particularly painful. But if the relationship has the potential to be a fruitful one in the future, it’s worth putting in the effort to smooth out any kinks and reestablish rapport. After all, it takes both a skilled writer and a compassionate editor to get the best out of a piece. Once you find a good fit, hold on tight.


Giuliana Viglione Courtesy of Giuliana Viglione

Giuliana Viglione is a Washington, DC–based science and climate journalist. She is currently an editor at Carbon Brief—where she leads the team’s coverage of food, land use, and biodiversity—and a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Her work has appeared in Nature, Chemical & Engineering News, Gizmodo, Discover, and other outlets, and she was a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at King 5 News. Giuliana earned her PhD in oceanography at Caltech, where she co-founded the science communication outlet Caltech Letters. She is happiest being on a boat or reading a book, and preferably doing both at the same time. Follow her on Twitter @GAViglione.

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