Wednesday, April 01, 2009

When Change Isn't A Good Thing

Question of the day: I have a question about big-time magazines...Last year I got an FOB assignment from one of my dream publications. Obviously, I was thrilled, and worked my booty off to make a good impression, do what the editor wanted, etc. It seemed like all went well. But when the article came out, it looked 80% different than the piece I sent in. The editor hadn't asked for any rewrites. I guess I'm this normal? Should I be discouraged or just chalk it up to the editing process? I'd like to send the editor more ideas, but am a bit hesitant to do so. Do you have any advice/thoughts on this?

Ah, yes, I have so been there, done that. You file a piece that you think is perfect, receive positive feedback, and then voila, rush to the newsstand when it comes out, only to find that it's nearly unrecognizable! And your stomach drops because you think it must suck.

The surprising truth of the matter is that often times, it doesn't mean a darn thing. Some magazines and editors - and the only way to get a feel for this is really through repeat work - are very, very, very into making it look like "their" mag, with "their" voice, in "their" format. These types of mags tend to edit just about everything, even from long-term writers.

That said, certainly, there are some editors who want their writers to nail the voice, etc, right out of the gate, so that they have less work to do (fair enough request), so sure, at times, this could be an indication that she wasn't pleased with the work. But, given that she didn't ask for revisions, I wouldn't necessarily infer that in this instance. It could be that once they had the info that you drafted, they envisioned the piece differently or as a box, not a narrative, etc, and it was just easier for her to repackage it. There are a lot of reasons why she might have changed it.

I think the best thing to do is simply to keep pitching her. If she assigns you something else, I'd just chalk it up to her/the mag's style and not give it a second thought. You could also easily send her an email and say, "Hey, I just wanted to be sure that you were satisfied with this, given that the published version was so different." I HAVE done this with one editor in the past, and she was totally pleased with my work (and I've since gone on to work with her many, many times) but had to make some changes to it for reasons that were out of my hands.

So don't be discouraged...this isn't a big red flag...and definitely, you can investigate and find out more. Anyone else out there been in this situation? What did it mean in your case?


Philip said...

I was a magazine editor for about five of my last years as a journalist, and used a lot of freelance writers. I would say, if your piece has been being heavily altered (presumaby by your editor) it means, basically, one of two things. Either a.) the editor was insufficiently clear about what he or she wanted (a common problem); in which case the fault is the editor's, not yours; or b.) you didn't follow the brief closely enough; in which case the fault is yours. This is definitely worth investigating, in either case. If the fault turns out to be largely yours, at least you will have demonstrated some professionalism, and shown that you aren't just interested in completing the word count and banking the cheque. As an editor, I used to hate that sense I sometimes got of being taken for granted.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Philip -

Thanks for the perspective from an editor. This is great to hear!


Philip said...

You're welcome. And congratulations on a great site.

PS - I should just add to the above that the wisest slant on an inquiry to the editor should be along the lines of "I'm so sorry you had to spend so much time re-working my piece. Did I misunderstand what you were looking for?" Sort of thing. Then you get into a cosy chat about what he or she really is looking for, swapping recipes, etc. And the next thing you know you have another gig.

Nadia Damon said...

Hi there,
I'm a freelance (UK) journalist who has also edited a few national mags. I agree with Philip's points - as an editor, I would have been impressed with people coming back to me for feedback after changes, provided of course, that it wasn't in a prima donna fashion, so as he suggests, I think an 'eager to improve' tone is required. :o))

I have to admit that as an editor I dreaded contacting some freelancers for rewrites and found it quicker/easier to sometimes do the work myself, but I doubt that case applies here - especially if it was a first-time commission. As bizarre as it sounds, some editors consider it a normal thing to do - although it's clearly an inefficient way to go about things.

As a writer who has received some pretty vague commissions in her time, I have always found this type of thing very annoying - particularly when you have no idea that changes have been made and head down to the newsstand expecting to see your words staring back at you - only to find some alien piece with your name on it.

But I can tell you that every time I've asked for feedback in such an instance, it's been positive - and the editor has always come back and said that they had changed their own plans for the piece and didn't feel it was appropriate to request a rewrite from me on that basis.

Whatever your editor comes back with - either positive or negative - will be useful.

Hope this helps...

Sandy K. said...

There is a lot of useful information in this conversation. It's always good to hear from the other side of the desk. Thank you.