You turn in your article, essay or short story and hear nothing for months. Finally the magazine is out. You eagerly open it to your piece and–“Holy cow, that’s not what I wrote!”
Ideally, this should never happen. Editors who have their acts together send proofs to writers so they know in advance what changes have been made. The rest will tell you they don’t have time. They’re still making changes right up until the pages go to print. In the old days, this was a better excuse than it is now. They might not have time to mail you galleys, but it only takes a few keystrokes to email a copy to the writer. Some editors, not the good ones, just want total control and don’t believe the writer should have a say after they turn in their work.
But looking at it from the editor’s point of view, lots of factors come into play. Some stories arrive nearly perfect. A few formatting changes, and it’s ready to go. Others are written so badly they need a complete rewrite. Some come in hundreds of words too short or too long. But it’s amazing how many changes have little do with the quality of the writing. “That section is too negative,” says the publisher. “Cut it out.” “The story is three inches too long,” says the art director. “Cut it.” “There’s a widow–a short line at the top of a column,” says the production director. “Rewrite it so the widow disappears.” Or, the magazine’s policy is to write everything in first person or past tense or contraction-free perfect grammar or with a sarcastic edge . . .
So what can the writer do to minimize the need for rewrites?
- Follow the guidelines. If they ask for 600 words, come as close as possible, ideally no more than a couple lines over or under. Yes, this is difficult, but if you don’t do it, someone else will, and you might not like how it turns out.
- Study previous issues of the publication to see whether their stories are done in first, second or third person, in present or past tense, with bulleted or numbered sections or free-flowing prose, in a narrative style or a just-the-facts tone, etc., and do likewise.
- Write your best every time, and don’t turn anything in without checking it carefully for errors in spelling, grammar, syntax or organization. Let it sit a while and take another look before you submit it.
- When you get the acceptance or article go-ahead, ask to see the edited version. They might say no, but your odds are better if you ask, and even better if it’s in your contract. When you do get to see it, go easy on any changes you request. Only demand changes on typos, editorial revisions that alter the truth of what you’ve written, and things that you absolutely can’t live with. Remember that editors do have the right to edit, and their changes often make your writing better.
Once your work is published, what’s done is done. If an editor hacks up your work too badly, don’t work with him or her again. There are plenty of other publications out there.
By the way, type your byline between your title and the body of your manuscript as you wish it to appear. Otherwise, surprisingly often, it can get left out, misspelled or not done the way you want it. For example, I want to always be listed as “Sue Fagalde Lick,” but editors have misspelled my name or omitted my middle or last name too many times. If you type it in, it’s there in the file and probably will stay there.
Next week: How come I didn’t get paid?