How to Challenge Editors’ Edits: Choosing Your Battles and How to Approach it
Do tracked changes give you anxiety? Have you ever been in the Google Doc while your editor is in it as well? (The horror!) Do a lot of edits send you directly back to high school when your teacher handed back your essay on To Kill A Mockingbird generously covered in red pen?
Let all of that go.
Despite the fact that an editor approves your idea, edits, publishes it and typically has a bit of control over when you get paid, the relationship between an editor and freelancer shouldn’t be approached as subordinate and superior. You’re much more like teammates. Knowing how to challenge editors’ edits is key to sustaining a longterm business relationship, too.
“This is a mutually beneficial business relationship wherein both parties are providing something the other needs,” Digital Editorial Director of PrideMedia, Mikelle Street said. “Particularly, the freelancer is often providing a service in which they have some sort of related expertise.”
In terms of editing, the editor’s role includes editing for grammar and errors, of course, but it’s also to edit each story to their outlet’s style guide and tone. “The aim of a freelancer and editor is the same—to tell a good (factual, credible) story,” Samantha Leal, deputy editor at Well+Good, said. “The editing process should, in general, be a conversation and collaboration.”
Choosing your battles
Now that we’ve established freelancers and editors are collaborators, there are a few very obvious places you can – and should – inquire about edits.
“If an editor writes back that something is done a certain way because it’s ‘according to their style guide’ and it’s not factually incorrect or wrong, it should, in almost all cases, be left alone,” Leal flagged. “If you’re like, ‘I think it needs an oxford comma,’ and they don’t use those, or they use last names on second mention, or they don’t rely on secondary sourcing and cut parts of your reporting, live and let live.”
Street also pointed out the difference between phrasing and a concept you wouldn’t write. While sometimes editing can feel like your voice is being removed, typically, this is not the editor’s intention. “I don’t usually say anything if sentences have been reworded extensively, as long as the integrity of the fact remains,” freelance writer Rebekah Harding shared.
However, if the revisions start to take on an entirely different and distinct voice or perspective – for example, a story for Gen Z readers starts to take on the voice of a “Boomer” – it doesn’t hurt to ask about them. Freelance writer and content creator Courtney Houtz says to keep in mind, “Both of you are experts, so establishing an open dialogue helps pave the way for compromise.”
While there are edits you should absolutely accept and others that can at your own discretion, there are certain circumstances you need to address.
“The best instances to challenge, question or inquire about edits are when a piece becomes factually inaccurate as a direct result of edits,” Street said. “For me, the next instance is when edits cause a piece to grossly deviate from the writer’s principles.”
Disabled freelance writer and theatre artist John Loeppky said, “Generally speaking, the times I push back are most often when there’s a disability concept that isn’t in their style guide or is something that is misinformed.”
When saying something is better than nothing
It’s imperative you do not allow a lack of knowledge about a specific topic get published with your name on it because you were unsure about asking. Inquiring about edits should be in consideration of not only you as the writer whose byline will be on the story but for your sources as well.
Harding found herself in this position doing a major print profile with a transgender subject. “During the final round of edits, one of the executive editors tried to add an excerpt that included my source’s dead name, which would be extremely triggering and upsetting for both my source and transgender readers to see,” she shared.
Admittedly concerned about burning a bridge, Harding opted to address the edit with her editor. “At the end of the day, I decided that my integrity as a journalist has to include fighting for inclusivity and respectful language to address the sources that trusted me with an interview, so I approached the editor and explained my reservation with that edit,” she said. Ultimately, she found that the editor was unfamiliar with the sensitivity around this language and now she looks back on it as an opportunity to educate them.
Lastly, Leal says to make sure to ask yourself if you’re too close to the story. “We often get invested in the way we tell stories, the reporting we’ve done, or the turn of phrase we use. I try very hard to keep a writer’s voice, but that doesn’t mean I won’t streamline, move around, edit, and clarify where necessary.”
What to say, and when
“I think so many people feel that you have to present a case to an editor and I don’t know that it needs to be that intense unless you get pushback. I go back in [the document] and make notes on my editor’s notes as if we are having a conversation — a mutually beneficial business relationship,” Street says on the time he’s freelanced. “If an editor feels that they are above those notes or above that kind of conversation, personally that’s not an editor that respects my expertise or deserves my time.”
Loeppky says he often wants there to be edits and opportunities for dialogue. “I will sometimes make jokes about myself in document edits — particularly when I had a silly typo, or on first draft filing I will tell an editor that I’m not in love with a lede or a kicker,” he says. This allows his editor to get to know him and also initiates conversation about the story. He also recommends asking editors about their choices if you’re unsure about them and sending revisions back with questions like, “Does this get us closer?”
“Most editors are quite responsive to ‘Hey this is actually factually inaccurate now, it should be TKTKTK.’ I don’t ever remember a time in which I’ve gotten pushback on something that was fact based,” Street said. “In other cases I generally just mention I would prefer it to say something else and provide a work around.”
The editing process doesn’t have any place for your ego or your editors’. “If you take edits personally, you’ll never survive as a freelancer,” Houtz said.
It is simply part of the job. Establishing and maintaining a rapport that allows for dialogue around the editing process will not only make writing easier, it will make your work better.