ASK US WEDNESDAY: “How to deal with an editor who always (badly) rewrites my intros?”

by Leo Wiles
21 February 2018

I was intrigued by last week’s AUW advice, which included filing copy with a caveat that they are to send it back if there are ANY changes or tweaks to be made whatsoever. I’ve written a few articles for a magazine whose editor always rewrites my first paragraph with a cliched, sometimes preachy paragraph that I’m embarrassed to have associated with my name. I’m never consulted about the changes. I’m considering not writing for that magazine anymore. Any advice? Thanks! L

Copy changes happen to the best of us. Normally when we’re starting out – and it’s a good thing when seasoned subs tighten things up or fix typos that have slipped through. But there’s nothing like seeing your work slashed from the bottom because of layout issues, or tinkered with by someone throwing their weight around.

I know some editors will, as a professional courtesy, send final copy back to the writer just to make sure changes on the editorial side haven’t changed the meaning of the original copy or cut out non-negotiable bits that were required to stay in. But this isn’t a given. And while you CAN ask to see the final version, don’t be surprised if they’re annoyed by your request, especially with such tight turnarounds these days.

Thankfully, in my 25+ years as a freelance writer there have only been two times that my work has been butchered to the point where I’ve wanted to go and hide under the duvet. The first was a newspaper headline change that made me cringe – and the second time followed a lovely At Home lifestyle magazine feature I had written on John Paul Young and his beautiful family. I had no idea that it had been rewritten into a tabloid gutter article and published under my name, until the ARIA Hall of Fame singer rang and blasted me over the phone.

Once I hightailed it to the local newsagent and read the piece I was mortified and completely understood his anger.  The weekly title was one of my biggest income streams at the time, and I called the commissioning editor and warned them that JPY was on the warpath. I expected an explanation, an apology – something, anything! – but there was nothing. That moment taught me everything I needed to know about my rights to copy changes as a freelancer.

In short, there are none.

Once you file your copy, it is no longer yours.  The headline, strap /sell and main body are all theirs to tweak and distort. Maybe they’ll do to make it newsier, more in keeping with their house style or to fit a coverstrap idea they have, or maybe they’ve no ethical compass or desire to keep true to the story you delivered. Which sucks, but that’s publishing for you.

The only power left to you really is to decide you can live with it, and give them a pen-name (or ask that your byline is taken off the story). Or you can vote with your feet and find other titles to write for. However, even then you may find that unless you are writing to the house style guide, the careful prose and witty sentences you have crafted are still chopped, changed and left unrecognisable. Which makes it more important than ever to understand the titles that you are writing for, the style they demand – and to work on your relationship with the in-house point of contact.

Have you ever had your copy changed so much you weren’t comfortable having your byline on it? What did you do?

Leo Wiles

Leo Wiles has worked as an editor, journalist and PR for over 20 years before recently retraining as a photographer. These days, she spends her time behind a lens, juggling her own clients with her work at Rachel's List, and her three gorgeous but lively kids.

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