When Editors Get Edited: Things I’ve Learned From Being a Freelance Writer and Editor
Updated: May 20, 2020
As a writer who also works as an editor, I get regular breaks from being trapped in my own head. Editing feels refreshing, especially if I’ve been locked into a writing project. When I edit, I can allow another writer’s style to wash over me.
Being a freelance writer and editor has also given me useful insights into both sides of the process.
When I’m in the editor’s chair, wielding my metaphorical red pen, I assess copy carefully and at a distance. I’m looking at spelling, grammar and adherence to house style, as well as the text’s internal consistency and flow. Any paragraph that doesn’t drive the story forward is under scrutiny. Names, places and dates are double-checked. Digressions in flowery language are snipped.
Where anything is unclear, I ask the writer directly. In the overwhelming majority of cases, querying a writer feels routine and doesn’t raise my blood pressure one bit. That’s because when I assess text as an editor, I’m doing so from a distance. I’m invested in the success of the final result, but I’m not emotionally invested.
But when I’m writing, it isn’t possible to have the same level of objectivity. Feedback still sometimes stings. Even after years as a journalist and copywriting professional, I still feel an occasional flutter of nerves when my editor’s name pops up in my inbox.
I don’t have to write a heart-felt opinion piece to feel deeply attached to my choice of words. Handing over microcopy for an app can also be nerve-racking. After all, it’s the result of intensive contemplation, research and re-drafting – my tears and sweat, in Google Doc format. But with experience, I have found it easier and easier to channel the adrenaline into a kick-ass re-write.
It’s natural for writers to want to defend their choice of words when an editor steps in with changes. But going to war over an intro paragraph doesn’t come across well over email. The trick, as one of my editorial co-workers once memorably put it, is to smile from the wrists down. However eager you are to ‘well, actually…’ in response to an editor’s feedback, it’s better to take a breath. Make it absolutely clear that you’re addressing their questions or concerns (even if you plan to push back...more on that later).
Being polite to your editor sounds obvious, like Freelancer 101. But I can tell you from teeth-gnashing experience that some writers are defensive of their work to the point of obstructing the entire editing process.
It doesn’t happen often, but I’ve had writers email me furiously within moments of receiving my edits, expressing outrage that their words have been changed. One author memorably told me that they were staggered to have undergone so many edits, and that never in their illustrious, multi-decade career had they received so many queries from an editor.
Later on, the author emailed me to apologise for losing their cool, but years later I still remember their outburst. I’m not one to hold a grudge (and I’ve worked with them since) but it’s hard to forget a contributor melt-down. So when your writerly brain is screaming ‘these edits are a chainsaw to my very soul’, force yourself to reply: ‘I hear you loud and clear’.
That doesn’t mean that writers should never push back against requests from an editor. Maybe the editor overlooked the analytics report that supports your approach. Maybe their cuts remove crucial historical context.
Or maybe—and this is an important one—their well-meaning edits risk causing offence. Freelance journalists working in the field are in a position to grasp local norms and nuances of language of which the editor may not be aware. So don’t be shy if you think your editor’s minor changes make a major difference. But always be clear and cordial, and treat your editor as you would (hopefully) act towards a co-worker in person: friendly and respectful.
From a freelance writer’s perspective, editors can seem like all-powerful pullers of strings and commanders of budgets. But it’s a mistake to see the power balance as entirely in the editor’s favour. Many editors are also working on a freelance basis (hello there!) and are editing to a very specific brief. An editor may even secretly agree with a writer’s gripe about house style (though we’ll never tell).
Writing and editing form a push-pull process. The editor adjusts the spirit level one way, the writer might nudge it back a little, and eventually the bubble is perfectly centred. The final balance is copy that is clear, fact-checked and easy to read, while retaining the writer’s distinctive flair.
Speaking of editing, did I mention that I commissioned and copy-edited this beast from scratch? Secret City is an insider's guide to the most interesting cities on the planet. It has been so gratifying to see it hit the shelves. You can order it online or find it in your local bookstore's travel section.