12 Winters Blog

When Not to Edit

Posted in May 2015 by Ted Morrissey on May 18, 2015

I’ve been writing for publication since high school (I graduated, ahem, in 1980), and I’ve been editing publications since then, including scholastic publications and the literary journals A Summer’s Reading and Quiddity. In 2012 I founded Twelve Winters Press, and I’ve had a hand in editing each of the books we’ve published (we’ll be releasing our ninth title next month). Editing a book is different, of course, from editing a piece for a journal — but no matter the context, I’ve come to believe that there’s a right time to edit someone’s work, and there’s most definitely a wrong time.

It’s the latter that has prompted me to write this post, and in particular an encounter with the editor-in-chief of a well-respected literary journal which ended in her withdrawing my piece due to “Author unwilling to cooperate with editorial process.” About two years earlier I had a similar encounter with a literary press — but in that case I had signed a contract allowing the press editorial control of the piece, never imagining how far its editor-in-chief would take liberties.

I’m not going to identify the publications and their editors.  Even though I disagree with their approaches, I respect that they’re doing important and largely thankless work.  I have no interest in blackening their eyes, but there are a lot of editors at work — what with online journals and print-on-demand publishers springing up daily — so I think it’s worth discussing when the right and wrong times to edit are.

I had very similar experiences with the journal and the publisher, so I’m going to focus on the more recent experience with the journal.  Last week I received in the mail the issue that my short story “Erebus” was supposed to appear in (I generally try to support the journals that publish my work by buying subscriptions).  It’s an attractive little journal, which no doubt contains some very good pieces.  It would have been a nice feather in my CV cap.

The problem, as I see it, is one of timing.  The story was accepted for publication with no caveats whatsoever on November 29, 2014.  Months went by, during which time I supported the journal by including the forthcoming publication on my website and in my bio to other journals — some free publicity if you will.  Then I received the following email with my edited story attached:

[March 21 — 7:16 p.m.]

Dear Ted,

I’m sending out copy edits for the upcoming issue, and have attached yours to this message.

My edits are made using the track changes feature, and comments/questions/suggestions are included in comment balloons in the document. Please make any changes within the document with track changes turned on. Please do not accept any of my changes or delete comments, as I will need those to remain in place as references. If everything looks okay to you, please let me know by e-mail (no need to send the document back unless you have made changes).

Thank you and I look forward to including your work in the upcoming issue! Just let me know if you have any questions.

It was obviously a generic email sent to all contributors (which is understandable) because when I opened the document I found there were numerous changes and requests for changes — so “[i]f everything looks okay to you, please let me know by email (no need to send the document back unless you have made changes)” didn’t even apply because there were places here and there where the editor (or another editor) wanted me to replace a word or revise a section to make some other aspect of the story plainer — things to that effect.  Also, someone must have read Stephen King’s On Writing and really taken his disdain for adverbs to heart because every adverb in the 3,300-word story was deleted, regardless of how it impacted the meaning of the sentence.  Moreover, I’ve developed a style for my literary work that uses punctuation (or doesn’t use it) in nonstandard ways; and the editor had standardized my punctuation throughout.

I was flummoxed.  Here are our verbatim exchanges over the next few weeks:

[March 21 — 8:31 p.m.]

Hi, [Editor]. While I can see some improvements here and there, in general the editing is too heavy-handed, for example, the addition of quotation marks and tinkering with italics.  I’m well aware of conventional rules, and I’m breaking them.  I’m not sure why journal editors accept pieces for publication, then find so much fault with them before publication.  I’m ok with considering a wording change or two, but I’m not comfortable with this amount of editing.

If you didn’t care for the story in its original form, you should have rejected it.  I’m not sure where that leaves us.  Thank you for the time and thought you’ve put into my story, but I disagree with much of what is suggested here.  Not angry, just disappointed and a little frustrated.

Ted

* * *

[April 1 — 12:09 p.m.]

Hi Ted,

While I’m aware that you were intentionally breaking stylistic conventions, I added things like quotation marks because they were needed for clarity, i.e., to separate narrative from dialogue. There were some sections where the distinction wasn’t clear without them. Many of the other changes I implemented were for our house style. However, those edits are minor in light of many of the other edits that are suggested, notably in the comments. I edit every piece before publication…that’s what editors do. So, that is to say that the edits aren’t personal, and in my experience, that is the reaction of many new writers, to take edits personally somehow. So the bottom line is that if you’re not comfortable making any changes to your work, then I’ll withdraw it from the issue and you’re free to shop it elsewhere.

Let me know.

* * *

[April 1 — 1:42 p.m.]

Edit “Erebus” however you see fit, [Editor]. Thank you for including it in the journal.

* * *

[April 1 — 1:50 p.m.]

There are editorial suggestions in the comments that require your feedback. I have attached the piece again. Below are the instructions for editing in track changes:

Edits are made using the Track Changes feature in Word. Please look over the edits and changes I have made, and let me know if you accept these or have any questions. Of course, if there is anything you disagree with, please let me know and we can discuss it to try to reach a mutually agreeable solution. If you make any further changes, please make sure that you do so with Track Changes toggled on, so that I can be sure that your work makes it into the final copy; otherwise, I may not see it.

Please have edits back to me by 4/5, if possible

* * *

[April 1 — 2:09 p.m.]

Gosh, [Editor]. You guys seem to be making this as difficult as you can.  I don’t agree with any of the editorial suggestions/questions, so it’s difficult for me to find a better way of saying things.  I did all that work before I sent it to you, so now we’re into potay-to/potah-to, and I don’t know how to say things the way you want to hear them.  I looked at your comments again to see if I could get into the spirit of things.  I’ve been publishing my writing (fiction, poetry, academic writing, essays, reviews) for thirty-five years, and I’ve been editing and publishing other people’s work for nearly that length of time, and I’ve never experienced a process like this one before.  I disagree with your comments on the story, but I’ve given you free rein to edit it however you like.  If you feel like you can make the story better, please do so.  I’m generously putting my faith in your editorial skills.  I don’t know what more I can do than that.

* * *

[April 1 — 2:10 p.m.]

You can consider “Erebus” withdrawn from the issue.

* * *

[April 1 — 2:40 p.m.]

Thank you.  That’s been my inclination too.

All the best,

t

In offering her carte blanche, I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass (ok, maybe a tiny bit).  After all, her original email said I didn’t need to return the edited document.  But, truly, I didn’t see the point of attempting to guess what wording would make her happy, like trying to sell shoes to someone — “Something with a heel perhaps?  No, a loafer?  Maybe a half-boot?”  There were two aspects of the exchange that I found particularly baffling (and they parallel the experience I had with the literary publisher a couple of years earlier).

One thing I’m baffled by is her surprise (and irritation, I think) that I would take the edits personally. She characterizes it as a shortcoming of “many new writers” (rather condescendingly, I feel).  Well, I ain’t no new writer, so that’s not the problem. I think all writers and poets of literary work take their diction, syntax, and punctuation choices seriously, so why wouldn’t they be emotionally invested in those choices?  And having those choices edited to conform to “house style” is especially irksome, which brings me to the second thing I’m baffled by:  house style?!?

Why in the world would a literary journal have a house style that applies to the actual content of its stories and poems?  Of course they would have a style when it comes to things like the font they use for titles and authors’ names, and they should be consistent in placing a translator’s name at the head or foot of a published piece — things like that.  But a style for the content of the literary work itself?  It’s, well, ridiculous.  “Dear Mr. McCarthy, please insert quotation marks in your dialogue … and Mr. Joyce, no more dashes in your dialogue … and Mr. Shakespeare, stop making up words! — if it’s not in the dictionary, we won’t publish it … Sorry, our hands are tied, house style and all.”

The publisher I had a run-in with two years ago insisted on editing my literary book according to the Chicago Manual of Style.  The CMS, really?

All right, so I disagree with editors imposing arbitrary styles on literary work, but that’s their prerogative, I suppose.  What I find downright unethical is accepting a piece for publication without any reservations, waiting several months, then making significant edits that the author is supposed to accept or else (the publisher flexed her contract language and forced CMS on my work, while the lit journal editor-in-chief withdrew my story, in something of a snit I think).

A better approach, I believe, is the one we use at Twelve Winters Press.  Our editors and readers offer authors feedback — food for thought, as I call it — but the decisions when it comes to the final presentation of the work rest with the writers and poets.  If there are reservations about some aspect of the work, those should be ironed out before it’s formally accepted.  There should be no surprises and heavy-handed editing months and months later.  When our contributing editor John McCarthy was reading submissions for his Extinguished & Extinct anthology, he had some suggestions for authors in a few instances, but they were made up front, before offering publication.  Obviously there are many editors and publishers who operate this way, and as a writer I’ve had the good fortune to work with several of them.

What is more, in the case of the literary journal editor, she took my story out of circulation during the peak reading months of the year, from November to April.  Most lit journals, due to their being affiliated with universities, follow an academic calendar and many begin folding their tents for the year in April or May.  It seems odd to me, also, that the editor felt I was over-reacting to changes that were, in her view, minor — yet she couldn’t see fit to letting the story run in its original form when I expressed my strong preference to leave the story be.  Pulling the story after five months due to a disagreement over minor edits could be seen as an over-reaction too.

It’s my impression that with both the literary publisher and the editor-in-chief, the problem arose in part because another editor had acquired or accepted the work; then someone else took charge of it before it was published.  If so, then the problem is in-house.  If the readers and editors acquiring and accepting work have different artistic sensibilities from the top-dogs on the masthead, it’s going to create problems for the authors they’re publishing.  Ultimately, though, I’d like to see all editors respect their authors and their authors’ work enough to give them the benefit of artistic doubt.  In the commercial, mass market world of publishing, I can see where publishers and editors may feel the need to pull rank since capitalism drives their decisions.  They may well know better than the author what phrasing, what title or what cover image may enhance sales.

But literary publishing isn’t about sales — and don’t I know it!  It’s about being true to the work and respecting the author’s artistic vision . . . or at least it ought to be.

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