When to Accept Editorial Changes

Editorial changes to your writing can be difficult to take, but if they are of benefit they should be embraced.

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You’ve submitted something, perhaps a short story or a poem, to a publication and just got a response. Your heart rate increases as you open the email. You hope it will be an acceptance, you suspect it could be a rejection, when in actual fact it is neither. Instead, an editor has said they want to change some things. You are in limbo.

Every writer who submits their work to a publisher—whether short or long form, poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction—will experience this at some point. On some occasions the work is accepted but then the changes are asked for, on others the acceptance is conditional upon the changes being made. Either way, you are faced with a choice: to change, or not to change?

The last two occasions I had changes specified took place under very different circumstances, and in almost opposite ways. My reaction to each was different, and in both cases the decisions I made I would still stick by.

The first example is a short story. I submitted it to a reputable and established magazine with a substantial readership. After a waiting period of only a couple of weeks I received a response from an editor, saying:

“I enjoyed the opportunity to read this piece and would like to consider it for publication with some edits. Below you will find the proposed edits.”

The edits themselves were, in my opinion, worthy changes. They improved the telling of the story without changing the story itself, meaning the essence of what made it remained, despite alterations to the text. The edits were not major, and although they included a few grammatical changes to bring the story in line with the magazine’s overall style, there were none that felt unnecessary.

My response was to sign off on all the edits. There was only one change I did not agree with, as such, but I could see the benefit to the story and the reader’s interpretation of the relevant paragraph, so even that I accepted. A few months later the story was published and I am very proud of it. It is still my story, just fine-tuned and the best version of itself that it can be, which is thanks to a good editor.

My second example is a poem. I submitted it to a newer magazine that was building its reputation but had not gathered a large following yet. I felt—based on the output of the magazine—that it would be a good home for this particular poem, so I submitted and, after a few months, received a response:

“We are excited to have your piece as part of our magazine. We have assigned an editor, who will read your piece and give you some comments about what they think you could do to sharpen your piece (if anything). Once you are both happy, it will be passed to our copy editing team.”

I replied, thanking them for accepting the piece. Around a week later the editor emailed me something which no longer resembled my poem.

Unfortunately, the editor had decided to rewrite half of the poem, including the ending, resulting in it no longer being written in my voice, nor delivering the same point or message that it had initially. As far as I was concerned this was no longer my poem as it was not something I would ever write.

Normally I would not argue with editors, as most of the time their advice is sound. That being said, they are also usually flexible and open for discussion, so disagreements can be worked out through compromise. Then again, I had never experienced an editor rewriting my work to the point where it no longer resembled something I would write, doing so in their own voice and style. Along with being shocked, I was disappointed. I replied, stating my case as to why I felt the majority of the changes were not right for the poem, and attempting to open a discussion where a compromise could be reached.

I received a reply, stating:

“Without the suggested edits, I’m afraid we will not be able to publish your poem.”

I immediately withdrew the poem from consideration, and then submitted it to a different magazine with a larger readership, who replied within a matter of days to accept it. Interestingly, they did so without asking for any edits.

To compare the two, then, is to compare the benefits of the edits themselves. In the first example, the editor improved my piece and the end result was something I am proud of. In the second example, the editor changed my piece and I would not have been proud of it.

When editors edit, they should do so to improve the work whilst retaining the voice and style of the writer. Almost all the editors I have ever dealt with have done that. When you get your response from an editor, asking to make various changes, you need to weigh up whether those changes improve your piece or are simply altering it. This is not a question of ego but of principle. How much you can compromise is down to you—and you should be able to compromise for the benefit of your writing—but remember there is a difference between changes for the better and changes for the sake of changes. Make sure you stay true to yourself. Just because one editor wants to alter something, doesn’t mean others will; but at the same time if that edit will make your work stronger without losing its essence, then make the change and reap the rewards.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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