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ASK US WEDNESDAY: “My editor asked for a rewrite months after I filed! What the…?”

by Leo Wiles
12 December 2018

What is a reasonable timeframe for an editor to come back to the writer requesting a rewrite? When I submit work I say ‘please let me know if it’s OK’. But I’m submitting work to an editor who says it will appear next issue, it doesn’t, and then months later says can I do a rewrite. If the editor asked for a rewrite months after I filed how do I handle it? P

Knowing why the story was bumped can help you understand why these requests happen – although often, as writers, we’ll never know.

Reasons why rewrites are requested

From my time as an editor, I can offer some insight: the story may have been laid out for the next issue but the editor got cold feet. Perhaps you either didn’t deliver the piece they envisioned, or the brief was so poor they weren’t really sure what they wanted but like all of us knew what they didn’t want… when they saw it!

Other reasons a story doesn’t run when scheduled include not being able to locate the right images or a PR asking the publication to hold off. Or perhaps the overarching editor felt the house style or angle wasn’t quite right for the title or conflicted with other content.

The worst-case scenario is when the department head and/or editor becomes bored with a piece if they’ve seen it laid for the past month. While this is of course completely unrealistic and unfair to writers (especially as the readers haven’t eyeballed it), it’s still often viewed as stale by the in-house team. Which is why I would always recommend delivering features 24-36 hours before the deadline at the earliest to avoid this scenario.

Why the onus is on writers

Of course, no matter what reason the feature stalled, if it’s been on the back burner for more than a fortnight chances are a rewrite or at least a new hook or re-nosing is inevitable for most magazine features (unless it’s a quarterly). Newspapers are even worse as their lead times are now minutes, not hours. Rewrites, therefore, are essential to bring a piece up to date, make it newsier, add in salient details that deliver an attention-grabbing coverline etc.

Once upon a time this new material would have been generated in-house either by the original commissioning department head or reworked by a down-table sub. Sadly nowadays subs are viewed as a luxury rather than the integral part of the team they should be, and time-strapped editors are so time-poor that rewriting has become the responsibility of the originating writer.

Agree – or kill fee?

I get it: it’s a pain to be asked to do a rewrite of a piece you considered done and dusted, but if you want to write for that editor again, I would suck it up. That is, unless it’s a) been more than six issue dates since you filed, or b) is a complete overhaul.

And at a bare minimum, I’d be asking for clear guidance in writing (so that there is only one rewrite!) as well as querying, politely, what the hold up was with the story or where the delay came in. If you can get that information, you’ll understand more about your client, and hopefully be able to avoid rewrites reoccurring for this piece or future stories.

If however you feel the whole deal is beyond unfair and you’re prepared to walk away, you can either ask for a kill fee or explain that for a complete rewrite you would need to be compensated for your time.

Listers: over to you. How do you deal with requests for rewrites months after you’ve filed and moved on?

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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