Lost in translation: what to do when you’re heavily edited
Guest blogger: Yael Grauer
It always feels good to hit “send” on a story, but the work doesn’t necessarily end there. Even after publication, I’ve found some articles or blog posts — whatever the piece may be — occasionally requires some extra attention. For example, recently I turned in a blog post that was so heavily edited, I felt like I inadvertently misled my interviewee by promising something very different from the final product. The post came across in a way I work hard not to present myself, and I was extremely disappointed with the outcome. I tried to address it head on, yet tactfully. Here are some tips, below, to help you do the same should you find yourself in a similar predicament.
First, most editing is good at best and harmless at worst
Before I delve into some strategies I’ve concocted with my 20/20 hindsight, I just want to point out that although editing is common, editing that makes you cringe is not. I’ve sent out over 400 invoices (many with multiple assignments, since I typically invoice monthly) and can count on both hands the number of times I’ve been really upset with edits (other than minor typos).
Once I used every bit of hustle I had to track down a source and my otherwise exemplary editor insulted the magazine this guy (one of my heroes) wrote for. Another editor (also a very good one) rewrote my lede to quote a book I’d never read. It made for some awkward conversations with readers afterward. Yet another time I was asked to delete information from a story that could negatively impact sales of a product advertised on the website. Once a sentence was thrown in that contradicted a previous assertion in the piece. It undermined a point my source (who is also one of my heroes) had recommended based on her experience as an industry expert running a six-figure business. Yet another piece was re-jiggered so much that it read more like link bait than the nuanced piece I’d submitted. (Also, once a magazine allowed an advertiser representing a source I wrote to reprint my article as an ad. It made me look more like a corporate shill than a journalist, but that’s not exactly an editing error. Beware all rights contracts.)
But I digress. My point is that it’s important to recognize that most editors will make your piece a lot better or at the very least not do that much damage to it. I love good editors, and there are a lot of them. And the ones that make mistakes aren’t always wholly bad editors.
Before you accept an assignment…
Step #1: Follow your intuition
If you even have an inkling that something you’ve been asked to write might be dodgy, pay attention to that feeling. Even if you’re writing for a site or publication you’ve previously had a great experience with, if one particular assignment makes your spidey sense go off, listen to that. Of course, you may think you already do this, and some things are really obvious, but I’ve found that if I get really excited about a story and start to think how I’d write it I forget to do a gut check.
There are a million reasons you might ignore your intuition. Sometimes it’s money (either because the piece pays well, because it’s quick and easy or because you don’t have a lot lined up). Sometimes it’s prestige (wanting to do anything to get a certain byline or write about a certain topic or interview a certain person). Whatever the reason, moving fast and breaking things is fun, but after my most recent botched post, in retrospect I really wish I had sat and thought about the implications of an assignment instead of instantly accepting it.
Step #2: Ask around
If in doubt, you can always check in with other writers to see what their experience has been working for a specific publication. Sometimes writers will complain about a bad experience on a writer’s forum (like UPOD or Freelance Success or in a professional group like ASJA or on review sites like Freelancer’s Union). Many of these places have areas to post about experiences anonymously. I admit I don’t often listen to just one warning, but when I read that two or three people have had a bad experience with the same editor, magazine or site, In the past, I’ve assumed that another writer’s poor experience didn’t mean mine would be that way, and I’ve gotten burned.
If you can’t find a single person who’s written for the place you’re interested in, take a look at the quality of the content on their site. Does it seem like legitimate journalism, or is it sensationalistic? This won’t always be a telling factor (the sites where I felt edits damaged my articles were loaded with high-quality work, in my opinion) but may weed a few out.
After accepting an assignment…
Step #3: Don’t work too hard to get a source
It’s almost addictive to try to track down someone you really want to talk to. I love the thrill of the chase (the more high-profile and the more I love someone’s work, the better). I actually use a wide variety of tools to aid me in my quest–LinkedIn Premium, Twitter, Rapportive, Reachable, ‘chance meetings,’ etc.
I think being ridiculously persistent and having a lot of hustle is great, but I’ve also found that if someone really doesn’t want to do an interview and I manage to somehow talk them into one anyway, the results are usually not that great. Luckily, companies like SourceSleuth can help track specific sources down. I also ask for referrals, contact organizations (for example, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has spokespeople at the ready for health-related articles), look for Meetup hosts in specific topics I’m writing about, and so forth. Lastly, sometimes PR firms can help you find a match as long as you’re very clear with them about what you’re looking for.
Step #4: Don’t make promises you can’t keep
This is where I really failed. I thought I could balance a story with nuance, but my editor had a different post or article in mind. Sometimes when a writer tries to get rid of something taken out of context, the editor sees it as burying the lede. Solution: Unless your editor specifically stipulates in writing (ideally in your contract) that you have final approval over edits, don’t bet on it.
You may write a great article that’s fair and well-researched, but when it gets rejiggered to fit someone else’s agenda (or for page views), it’s a really powerless feeling when you can’t do much about it. If this is a source you care a lot about, recognize that they’ll likely think the final product is exactly what you wrote and won’t care about your good intentions. You are the one who will take the heat when the information is inaccurate (or whatever), either because you don’t want to run your editor under the bus or because nobody believes you. So before you’re promising someone the sun, moon and stars because you really really want to interview them, make sure you can deliver.
Step #5: Consider taking the piece back
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see a post or article before it goes live. If you have strong (factual or ethical) disagreements with the changes, and your editor isn’t in agreement, remember that you can always take your piece back. Yes, you’ll lose a check, but believe me that it’s never worth it to sell out your sources or write inaccurate or misleading articles. It’s your byline. I recognize that saying this is somewhat privileged, in that I have enough clients that I have the luxury of turning down work or taking back submissions. This is why it’s really important to have a savings account and 2-3 anchor clients, or a part-time job. You don’t want to have to decide between paying your rent and making sure every piece with your byline is something you’re really proud of. And spending days doing damage control isn’t cost-effective either.
Step #6: Compare edits to improve your writing
Assuming there are no factual errors or other issues with your piece, you can really improve your writing by working with your editor. One of my favorite things to do is compare drafts to published pieces to see what was reworked. It’s helped me in the past with my transitions, conclusions and context, and it’s what’s made me realize more recently that I really need to work specifically on strengthening my ledes. If your work has been edited, especially if it’s to the point where it doesn’t even feel like something you wrote, comparing drafts to final pieces can help you realize why they made those changes and what you need to do to continue writing for the site (if that’s what you want to do). If you’re lucky, your editor will use a site like Draft so it’s easy to see changes, but in any case, you can always print out the two versions and use a highlighter.
Make sure to look at specifics when comparing pre- and post-edited drafts. Freelancing means changing your tone for different sites and publications, and it’s hard to remember everything. I keep notes for each publication, noting when anecdotes are removed, internal links are added, and so forth. I try really hard not to take edits personally and to learn from them. We can always get better at our craft, so make sure you take the time to see how edits might strengthen your piece and what an editor thought was missing.
After it’s posted
Step #7: Discuss edits with your editor.
As I mentioned, getting to compare my draft to an edited piece before an article gets posted or published and hashing out the differences with my editor(s) has really helped me improve my writing. I’ve even hired a freelance editor to work with me on this before submitting a piece to a new-to-me client, when working with absentee editors on sites I care about, or when working on something very emotional or that I feel strongly about. You can do this after the assignment’s been posted, too. Barring any issues (like the ones I mentioned), ask your editor what they felt was lacking in your piece. This step isn’t about asking for changes or getting super defensive, but just about understanding where your editor is coming from. Assuming they have time, their suggestions could be very helpful.
The reason I mentioned discussing edits in this step and the last one, aside from its obvious benefits, is because having a good working relationship with your editor makes it a lot easier to address concerns. Bringing up a problem with an editor who knows you as a reasonable person who cares about their work means they’re less likely to think you’re crazy when you react strongly to edits you are embarrassed by or find unacceptable.
Step #8: Ask the editor to make revisions or remove a post
Obviously this doesn’t work for print media, but just for websites and blogs, though print media will sometimes print a retraction. I always ask for corrections if there are factual inaccuracies (whether they’re editor-introduced or my own), minor typos or outright distortion.
Sometimes sites won’t change a post, and I’ve never had anyone agree to take a piece down (I’ve only asked once), but if it’s something you feel strongly about, it’s always worth a shot.
A version of this post originally appeared here.
Yael Grauer is a Minneapolis, Minn.-based freelance writer and editor whose work has been featured in numerous consumer magazines, trade journals, custom publications, blogs and websites including Experience Life, Men’s Journal, Costco Connection, Sherdog, Taste for Life, Pulse, T-Nation, and the Performance Menu: Journal of Health and Athletic Excellence (where she also serves as the Managing Editor). Grauer has also contributed to a number of books, including Blue Jean: What Young Women are Thinking, Saying and Doing and The Bust DIY Guide to Life: Making Your Way through Every Day. Her twitter handle is @yaelwrites.
Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the publics right to know either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.