How Should Writers and Editors Work Together?

The writer-editor relationship can be a delicate one. I’ve had the opportunity to sit in both seats, and I know the frustrations that can develop on each side. Here are 5 reflections or pieces of advice to both writers and editors about how to relate to each other.

1) Writers, don’t be unduly resistant to editorial changes and advice.

Humility means we don’t just affirm in the abstract that we “we see in a mirror dimly” (I Cor. 13:12), but we genuinely receive this truth with our hearts, and put it into practice in our day-to-day interactions. Other people can see things we cannot see, and editors in particular are sensitive to things that writers cannot see—especially issues of formatting, publicity, and style. In dealing with an editor, as in all of life, we must heed James 1:19: “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

It can be really hard, especially when you are painstaking about the details of your writing, to receive editorial changes and comments that feel slipshod or insensitive to your voice or meaning. The temptation is to get annoyed and reject the whole thing. But “a wise man listens to advice” (Prov. 12:15), and “he who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Prov. 15:32). Even in relatively poor editing there are usually things we can learn.

My experience is that writers tend to either not care at all about edits (especially if it’s an interview or they don’t write regularly), or they get bent out of shape at any changes. The goal is to strike a balance between the two, and so we need to know our temptation. In so many areas of life it is important to “submit to the process.” If we submit to the editorial process, though it can be uncomfortable at points, it will strength and broaden our writing over the long-term.

2) Writers, don’t be uncritically accepting of editorial changes and advice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEditors (and peer reviewers) are people. They are not machines. And the editorial and peer review processes are not robotic and airtight: they involve subjectivity, bias, judgment call, evolving standards and protocol, and occasional misunderstanding or outright error. It is false to think that in order to be humble you have to accept every edit, just as much as it is false that humble people automatically cave in to every verbal criticism. Just as editors are sensitive to some things writers tend to be out of touch with, so writers are sensitive to some things that editors are out of touch with, especially when it comes to their own writing. It is not difficult to conceive scenarios where editors genuinely misunderstand or misconstrue the author’s meaning.

The simple fact is, sometimes editors are wrong. Michael Crichton got bad grades on his writing at Harvard (hence his switch to an anthropology major). C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet was originally rejected for publishing. Stories like this could be multiplied.

I have had more experiences as a writer where I have not put up a fight and regretted it than I have had of being too defensive. That is my personality. I don’t like conflict. But with time I’ve become more nit-picky and now insist on seeing the final product before it goes live. Like in any relationship, it is often healthy to have some “pushback.” The overall goal, I think, is to be wise and pick your battles. Try to learn from your editors and submit to their areas of expertise, but don’t allow them to impute ideas onto you or put out anything that you are not comfortable with—remember, it has your name on it!

My basic policy is this (and I have nothing to base this on, its just what has developed for me over time):

  • if an editor makes a change that I think is helpful, awesome (make sure and express thanks).
  • if an editor makes a change that I don’t really care about it one way or another, go with it.
  • if an editor makes a change that I don’t like, but its just a minor point of style or language, go with it (especially if its an isolated example).
  • if an editor makes a change that I don’t like, and it significantly warps my meaning, or consistently warps my tone, give some gentle, friendly pushback, explaining as clearly you as you can why you prefer the original wording. But even here, pick your battles, and be open to learning from the editor in the process.

3) Writers, take rejections with a grain of salt.

cartoon-publishingIt can be easy for an inexperienced writer to get discouraged when you submit something that is rejected. The truth is, the quality of your material is only one factor in its acceptance or rejection. In my observation, in many cases it is actually a fairly small piece of the pie. There are always political/ideological factors, in highly academic publications as well as everywhere else. The political dimension of publishing is not necessarily bad or inappropriate, but we certainly need to think about how it plays out when we submit something. Another big factor is if you have already published. It is always harder to break in than to publish more stuff, because bad books by famous authors generally sell better than good books by unknown authors.

What this means is, sometimes rejections don’t mean that your piece is unpublishable. If you have confidence in the quality of your work, if it’s honest work that you think deserves to be read, then keep submitting it elsewhere. In their helpful introduction to historical research and publication, just recently updated, James Bradley and Richard Muller write, “the quirkiness of some evaluations, to our minds, remains absolutely baffling…. Take the rejections in stride and turn immediately to other publishers” (6:10). Amen!

Because of the political and personal dimensions to getting your stuff accepted, I have two suggestions for those trying to get published:

  1. work hard at style and presentation and clarity. Being a pleasure to read and clear is in many ways just as important as having sharp insight and important content.
  2. study to know the ethos and ideology of the people to whom you submit your material. Every journal and blog and publishing company has its own feel, its own aims, its own views, etc. (Remember, peer reviewers and editors are people, not robots). This is not a reason to write something in order to fit in somewhere—still less a reason to alter your work to make it fit in somewhere. But it is a factor to consider in terms of where you submit it.

4) Editors, don’t forget to communicate.

I am sometimes appalled by the way editors fail to communicate with their writers, especially when they make changes involved with not only style and tone, but with content and meaning. I suspect this will become all the more common as writing on the internet becomes more common and the whole process speeds up and becomes less professional in some ways.

Remember, editors, it’s going out with their name on it, not yours. Whatever is there (including the title) the readers will generally impute to the author, and it is the writer who is most directly accountable for what goes out. The least you can do, if you are going to make changes, is let them see it in advance so they are not blindsided when the piece appears. Getting blindsided is a huge source of frustration. From the author’s standpoint this is shocking, but editors are usually very busy and it is easy to forget to follow up. Extra communication and care goes a long way.

5) Editors, don’t strangle the writer’s voice

When in doubt, don’t change it. You must distinguish between (1) what do I think is better? and (2) what do I think is better and is in my purview as the editor to change? To make every change you think will improve the writing is too heavy-handed. Your job is not re-write the piece according to your own sensibilities and convictions and style. Your job is to enhance the author’s voice and clarity and argument, not add your own; to do this you must be nimble and stay in the background.

What I have found is that in some cases this requires a lot of heavy editing work, but in others it requires very little. Editor, if you always make a lot of changes, you are probably being too heavy-handed. Really good writers usually need far less editing.

Above all, editing requires humility! Being an editor is a classic “behind the scenes” job. Most of your labors will never be publicly recognized and rewarded. There is freedom in that, and joy. It reminds those of us involved in the world of Christian writing/editing/blogging/publishing that the real substance and joy of life is in advancing His name, not our own.

So if you’re a writer who never edits, my advice is to do informal editing every now and again by offering to look over a friend’s writing to provide constructive feedback. It’s a healthy practice for improving our own writing, and it also provides an opportunity to tune our hearts to the gospel.

6 Comments

  1. All good points, especially as more and more people without prior experience are getting a chance to write outside of personal blogs. The writer/editor relationship can be fantastic, but it requires a good dose of humility all around, or else it quickly becomes miserable.

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  2. Great advice here, Gavin. I’d just add, in regard to your second point, that when the writer-editor relationship is working ideally, neither party insists on his or her wording, but the give and take produces a new and better way of making the point.

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  3. Reblogged this on Katherine's Chronicle and commented:
    This is very helpful…

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  4. […] How Should Writers and Editors Work Together? […]

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  5. I’ve had very good experiences with editors at major publishers, and I actually welcome their push-back. I assume that their “ear” represents the way readers “hear” what I write, even if they don’t always get my point. Rather than getting irritated, I figure that if an idea is as great as I think it is, there must be a better way to get it across to my audience. If the editor doesn’t appreciate it, then others won’t either. Once I do revise my writing, the whole thing is much, much better.

    I appreciated professional editing even more when I wrote a short ebook and then asked volunteers on my email list if they’d like to edit it. About a dozen people edited the same manuscript. Two were professional editors, and some of the amateurs said that they had done editing for small publications. The pros were excellent at finding typos and uniformly gave good advice where writing was unclear. The amateurs gave some pretty good feedback, but often they missed typos and some of them suggested stilted stylistic changes and even introduced errors. There was a *huge* difference in quality. The good editors really stood out from everyone else.

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  6. […] found this great post by Gavin Ortlund that gives very helpful advice for the writer-editor relationship. It is […]

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