On Feeling Weird With How One’s Work Is Edited (And How to Not Be a Big Fucking Baby About It)
So, this morning, I got into an email exchange with a relatively new writer who wanted my opinion on dealing with edits, accepting them, etc. I thought my response might be useful to other people and kinda gets at some stuff I’ve been telling a lot “young” writers lately. Below is one of my emails to this writer, with some additional thoughts crammed in there, expounded upon, clarified, and all that. Maybe it can help some of y’all out there? - b
I think that edits are both very frustrating and really good for this kind of writing. You’re totally right to be annoyed or even bummed out by them, but you are also totally right to kind of feel like you’re being a bit unprofessional by being bummed out by them, which is ultimately good! Like being of two minds about it is healthy. This is sort of a complex issue, but it’s of my opinion that publications tend to be a little harsher on new writers, whether they realize it or not. I think you get less of the benefit of the doubt early on (in part because writers of note are essentially tiny “brands” and editors understand the language of that “brand” and give it a longer leash) but also it will help you get a thicker skin too. A friend of mine started writing recently and had similar responses that you’re expressing here.
Ultimately, getting edited, even harshly (and sometimes wrongheadedly, for sure), is a good experience. Even if like, it kinda pisses you off or makes you wanna cry. Edits I received early on used to make me feel so fucking bad about myself. I still feel that way sometimes with certain editors I write for, but almost always, I’m the one who didn’t put enough work in or didn’t put the right kind of work in and it also sucks to realize that. It’s like being in an argument with a partner and like slowly realizing halfway in that you’re indeed the dick here who did something wrong and not them and so, you better cop to it like a grown-ass person.
Sucks! It’s good to talk these things out though because edits can fuck you up and make you lose your confidence AND THEN YOU NEVER GET BETTER AT WRITING HOW THEY WANT YOU TO WRITE AND/OR FIND A BALANCE BETWEEN YOUR STYLE AND A PUBLICATION’S VOICE B/C YOU FEEL LIKE SHIT FROM THEIR MEAN EDITS. Oh, brother.
Of course, I have been doing this shit since 2007 so I am maybe a bit brainwashed by clarity and the who, what, where, when etc. of journalism/”professional” criticism, but I also think I’ve gleaned a lot from figuring out the tension between style and delivering information clearly and it has ultimately helped my writing a ton. I think that the trick to writing for publications that still edit and value editing (which is preferable to no editing or lazy editing, in my opinion) is to get good at the structural demands (lede, nut graf, kicker, all that shit) and if that’s in place, then the edits will become lighter.
From an editor’s point of view, they are probably super fucking busy and stressed. And when you’ve written something that isn’t structurally sound or appropriate, well, that’s when the edits get rough or extreme because they’re crunched for time, and have a lot on their plate and have to start rearranging a piece and massaging it into like, the structural demands of proper criticism/journalism, so clarity takes precedence over your turn of phrase and style.
I don’t know what the “problems” with your piece were, but usually it has to do with the information not being presented in an orderly or clear enough fashion. Which is in my opinion, reasonable. The other thing is just turning in really clean and combed over copy. I’m not sure how you write (and I am not saying I hand in super clean or even um, grammatically correct copy) but for me it’s a matter of writing the thing and then editing, editing, editing, editing, and then editing some more. I probably read a piece I submit 30 times before I send it over. I read it a lot and then take a break from it and walk the dog or get in the shower or whatever and return to it a few more times.
But to put a little bit of an onus on the editors here: You gotta do all of this because a lot of editors don’t really edit these days so much as they minimally change your shit after you hand it in. There’s not as much time being spent showing writers how they fucked up (because no one has the time) or where they went wrong (or even, what they did well!) and so it just becomes a stupid loop of decent writing being handed in to overworked editors forever and ever fixing the same problems for the same writers day in and day out. Ultimately though, it’s on you to see a piece you handed in and internalize the changes made to it and figure out why and learn from them.
Not pimping my own work here, but below is something I wrote that was lightly edited. It was published almost exactly as I handed it in. Not saying it’s perfect (no doubt you could find some issues with the prose or clarity still) but I think it really captures my voice well and I don’t think it reads too dry and I think the reason I was able to get away with a fairly conversational, and at times weird ass piece, is because my structure is all there. When those core structural elements are there, editors are less apt to edit you aggressively: "Bmore Club Year Zero" from the Baltimore City Paper