Note: We’re pleased to announce a new regular Safety Harbor Writers & Poets feature by Nicole Caron, A Letter From The Editor. Published biweekly on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, A Letter From The Editor will address all aspects of editing fiction, nonfiction and poetry. We welcome your comments!
The greatest day of your writing life has arrived. Your story, essay, poem or article has been accepted for publication. Steak and champagne for dinner!
But wait, the editor wants you to make changes. What does she mean – changes? It’s perfect the way it is! What could you possibly change?
A lot, it turns out.
When an online or print newspaper, magazine or literary journal accepts your submission, an editor contacts you with that happy news, along with suggested edits for improving the piece. Editors show you how to further develop a character, explain ideas, add dialogue to a scene or clear up confusion. They may correct errors or tell you to tighten sentences for concision.
Why are edits crucial?
You want the audience to see your best work. We can lose objectivity when we’ve been working on a piece for while, whether months, days, or years, and as writers, we all lose that objectivity sometimes. Our fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays come from our minds, our hearts, and our souls. What we produce is a part of us and a piece of us. At times it’s difficult to step back, identify and execute changes necessary to make the work stronger and more compelling.
Editors have the perspective we lack. They assess a story, article or poem’s strengths and weaknesses and determine how best to develop, trim and shape that work to appeal to the audience. I have been edited on numerous occasions, by editors with a light touch who made minor suggestions and by editors who rewrote the entire piece.
Fifteen years ago a New York city magazine assigned me an article about significant couples in the LGBT community. After I conducted interviews then wrote and submitted the profile, the editor phoned me: “This is great! I love this! I have just a few suggestions.” She requested that we go through the piece together. I was flattered and happy.
Over an hour later, I was exhausted, stunned and angry. My piece had been rewritten, line by line. Why hire me to write it at all if she was just going to rewrite it?
Years later I realized it took the editor far less time to edit my piece than interview the subjects and do the writing herself. I had also gained enough perspective to see how improved my work was after the edits. I tended to write in a passive voice and in long sentences. The editor helped me find and use tight language, active verbs, and concrete nouns.
Today I’m grateful for that editing tutorial. I learned a great deal in our session together, and I’m amazed that she took the time to work through my article with me. That editor had her best interests at heart: she wanted to publish a strong piece that would move readers. But my best interests were also served: she didn’t want my work to suffer the worst possible fate of a writer – that of being ignored.
A few months ago, Julie Riddle, craft editor for Brevity Magazine, did a brilliant editing job on my recent piece, “Come On In: The Writing’s Fine.” She cut excessive words that I hadn’t even recognized were excessive – and that was after I had edited my piece several times! She cut out whole sentences. She asked questions that helped me clarify my ideas. Julie used Microsoft Word with Track Changes on so that I could see her cuts, changes, questions and comments, a trail I followed showing me why she made the recommendations she did. Julie’s goals were clarity, focus and a sharpened sense of vision about the topic.
As writers it’s our job, our responsibility, to welcome an editor’s suggestions and make changes that will strengthen our work. Sometimes those edits can feel like rebukes. But they’re not. Our job is to serve the writing, not our egos. We owe it to our audience to produce compelling, engaging writing. The editor owes it to the audience to make sure that every piece passing through his or her hands is edited to the best possible standards. We adhere to this code together.
I have heard from editor friends that a rare few writers take umbrage at being edited when their work is accepted. A couple have reported being “dressed down” by writers for making suggestions, and one writer even said to an editor, “I don’t want to be published if I have to make changes.”
I was shocked. Writers the world over would nearly kill for the opportunity to be in that writer’s position. Publication is rare. For every empty space in a periodical and every open “book slot” on a publishing house’s list there are thousands of eager writers yearning for their work to be the one that “makes it.”
Editors allow us to shape our ideas. Think of them as sophisticated personal teachers, experts in all aspects of writing, from the rules and conventions of grammar and punctuation to content development, structure and organization. Editors know how to bring forth an idea, and they know how to ask the right questions. For example, if you are writing for Bon Appetit, Popular Mechanics or Vogue, the editor of your specific section will be content-knowledgeable. Your editor knows what to ask to prompt you to dive deeply and explore. That input helps you make your writing professional.
The editor has thousands of submissions to deal with annually. When an editor chooses our work for publication, it’s an honor and a privilege. This person selected our piece out of all the others, elevated our writing by saying, “I choose yours.” That the editor would then take time to help us shape that piece into something even more remarkable than it was when we submitted it is nothing short of extraordinary.
Editors make us better writers. Editors make us better thinkers. Editors help our audience access and appreciate our work. Isn’t that what we want?
Nicole Caron’s nonfiction has appeared in numerous trade publications and regional magazines, including most recently CONTXT Magazine and Brevity. She is currently at work on her debut novel, a series of essays about writers and writing, and a poetry collection, This Is Life: 100 Tanka for Everyday Living, scheduled for publication by Chapter Two Press. She teaches writing and literature at Ringling College of Art + Design, where she coordinates the First-Year Writing and ESL Program. Nicole is also a freelance copywriter and editor. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @NCaron27.