Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Paying Attention Pays Dividends

By J. Harlowe
2003, J. Harlowe


here is one technique that has helped me polish my skills, write sharper copy, and sell more articles than anything else I've ever tried. It is better than a book on writing, far cheaper than a course or workshop, and best of all, it is highly interactive. 

Pay attention to the changes your editor makes in your copy.

Wow. What a profound statement, huh?

Like all good advice, it is under whelming when you hear it. Yes, it does sound too simple, and I know you are all thinking the same thing: "I always check my article for changes!" 

True. But do you really analyze what the editor changed, and why? Do you actually get out your original article and evaluate which version is better?

Better? Even suggesting the editor's changes could be better seems outlandish to many writers.  Any assault on our precious words, each one chosen with care and placed with precision, requires us to gripe, doesn't it? Mostly to ourselves, or our friends, since we can't gripe to the editor!

Very few writers willingly accept changes. The editor makes his changes, and writers shriek. But for those of us who aren't yet recognized as writing gods, perhaps we should agree we can learn from the people who take the time to read our copy. Here are some basic rules that will allow you to get the most out of the experience.

First Rule: Don't rely on your memory to tell you the ugly truth about what you submitted.

Whether there are numerous changes or only a few words, once the article sees print compare it to the original submission to see what actually changed.

You can do this with a line by line comparison of each version, but if you are using Microsoft Word, you can quickly see check the differences. If your article saw print on the Web, it is an easy cut and paste job to make a copy, and save it as a new file. Otherwise, scan the print version, convert it to a text file, and save it. Once you do, you are ready to use Microsoft Word's Compare function. (To find the Compare function: In Word XP, select the Tool Menu, and pick Compare and Merge files, and make the result a new file. In Word 2000, Compare is under Tools, but then choose Track Changes. Compare Documents is in the sub menu.)

This powerful tool will show you every change between two files. Why is this so important, since these items might be so small you don't notice them in the actual final copy? 

Perhaps you'll learn the editor prefers APA style for titles, or other conventions you don't know about.  Perhaps you overuse certain words, and the editor has taken them out every time - and replaced them with a sharper word that carries more weight. Maybe your comma usage is inappropriate, or you have other habits you don't realize, but they are changed in every submission. Now that you can actually see the problem, you can recognize it, and fix it before submitting the next article.

What's the big deal? They must have bought it, so who cares, right?

Yes, they bought it this time. But next time, the editor may not be willing to invest the time to fix things for you. Also, another editor may not be so forgiving, and turn it down. But more importantly, don't you want to do it the right way?

The editor will notice making fewer corrections, which means he will stay 'in the article' longer. If the magazine is the right market for your story, you have a much better chance of a placement, or if it needs re-worked, he has a reason to believe you will make the changes. 

Better yet, if the editor does notice when you send your next submission, it shows them you are someone who is worth working with, since you obviously are willing to learn. That definitely translates to more sales. 

What if the edits seem substantial, with huge changes to the article?

That should tell you something, too. But don't assume the editor doesn't like the writing. Extensive edits to an article might mean you didn't write the article your query promised, or the one the editor requested based on changes he discussed with you after reading your query.

Check your notes - which should also be on your computer - and see who changed course. Did you meet the basic items the editor outlined in their response to your query, or if they simply accepted the query, did you meet your own goals?

Most likely, when you check this, it is you, not the editor, who headed in a new direction. Thus, the editor used his extensive changes to try to lead the article back to the original destination. He made the changes not because your article was badly written, but because it did not meet the need the editor wanted to fill.

If this often happens to you, it is a good thing to recognize, so you can take control of the situation. This is one of the unpardonable sins in article writing. Your new article may be great, but if it isn't what the editor agreed to purchase, he isn't obligated to buy it from you. If you can't write the article you promise, editors will stop buying. They know they'll have too much work to do when you turn in the article.

If this is happening to you, I have two suggestions: take better notes when the editor is outlining the article; and post those notes clearly by your computer. Refer to them while you are writing. Are you fulfilling the outline?

If none of that works, stop agreeing with the editor to write the article they want, and continue to shop your original query around to other magazines.

Finally, double checking your work using the original submission can also help you make a bad situation better, when an edit goes wrong.

Goes wrong? First I defend editors, and then I'm suggesting they can mess up an article? Which is it?

Both. Can a good edit result in bad copy? If you're writing non-fiction, it can! It is too easy to have a single word change make a factual statement into a glaring error.

Remember, it might be a number of weeks, or even months, between the time you file your copy and an editor calls to check a detail. An editorial discretion can far too easily result in an accidentally distorted fact. Since continued sales in non-fiction require the article to be factual, nothing can be more detrimental in your writing career than a few inopportune edits!

So here are some important hints for controlling this problem. First, recognize that we have some ability to control this. When an editor "assumed" a word change was ok, and made it without my approval, he was well within his rights. That's what an editor does. My goal, then, is to make it less likely to happen by turning in the best possible story, requiring the fewest changes possible. Check and double check the submission.

Second, realize that had you turned in the submission on time, or even ahead of schedule (another blasphemy, right?) the editor might have had plenty of time to send you their proof copy, or at least call to check it. It is also important to let them know you are available for such last minute checks. (My manuscripts all include both my email address and my phone number.)


Finally, treat the editor as you'd like to be treated.

Just as you'd like the checks to be on time, turn in your articles on time. Just as you'd like to know if things are changing, either in the scope or style of the story, make certain you make a call or drop a note to keep the editor informed. And finally, realize how you react to problems might decide future options.

Occasionally, I've faced simple word substitutions by editors that completely changed my intended meaning of a sentence. I might have been justified in making a scene, since the result made me look dumb in the eyes of a knowledgeable reader. But then again, I know how I feel when someone harshly reprimands me for a simple mistake.

My choice? I notified the editor immediately, so the magazine could place a correction in the next issue. This also allowed me to say that perhaps I'd allowed the error into the copy. I offered my apologies, and suggested we check it. When it was clearly added during his copy edits, he reversed the apology, and I simply accepted. I also contended it was still partially my fault, since obviously, he felt my copy needed clarifying. Also, I noted I could have gotten the final version to him earlier.

Yes, I've placed many more articles with this editor. More importantly, on anything questionable, he emails me proofs to check their veracity -- and even tracked me down by phone when I was away from home, just to verify a few proposed changes.

So, is it worth checking your copy line-by-line after the final version is out? It has paid dividends for me. I consider it "on the job" training, as comparing the editor's choices to my original ones constantly improves my writing.

There is also another important benefit: by making these comparisons, I learn to write an article to fit a specific editor's needs. Once the editor realizes you will turn in copy that is truly tailored to his interests, he will call you with ideas of stories they'd like in their magazine.

That's an important step in increasing your writing income. Make use of the free lessons your editor is providing, and you'll reach that lofty goal!