Not debating with editors

Finally you finish a piece and turn it in, only to have your editor announce that he wants to “talk about it.” And you’re locked into a debate over how to do this and that. If you consider it a debate or a contest, you’ll lose, because editors outrank you. By the way, if the editor “wins,” you both lose.

How do you discuss changes with editors without losing your voice, your mind, and your soul?

(First, a disclaimer. You can’t write risky without a good editor to ask you sharp questions. I write risky without any editors, which scares me to death.)

There are good and useful debates between writers and editors that get down to real issues, but many such discussions turn into “It doesn’t work for me” versus “Well, I think it works.” The ranking editor wins.

The likes and dislikes of the two of you are irrelevant. You need another person in this discussion: your reader. All debates over copy should keep the target reader in mind, and that target reader is never the editor or the writer. So instead of debating what you like or dislike, you talk about what your readers need.

First of all, you build on a baseline of quality. Ask “What works?” and “What needs work?” That first question usually removes 95% of the piece from the discussion, the part that you both agree works. By asking “What needs work,” you acknowledge that the rest can be repaired.

The magic question is always “What’s this about?” That question refocuses both material and thought. If either of you can’t answer it, the piece is not finished, and is not organized. The writer should take it back and rework it. In a newsroom, an alternative version of the same question might be “What’s the headline?”

Individual passages should be discussed in terms of the readers’ understanding. Does the reader have enough information at this point? And here we run into a problem of humility. The writer understands the passage, so what’s wrong with the dopey editor that he doesn’t get it? The problem is often that the key information is still in the writer’s head, but not on the screen. At this point, I read the problematic passage aloud, cover it up, and ask the writer, “What did that say?” And the writer says so and so, and I uncover the text and ask, “Where does it say that?”

Keep your focus on the text and not on the personality of the two players. If you say something like “Maybe you just don’t like description,” you’re now debating character, not the writing. Focus on the screen and the readers.

With ethical questions, you need to ask first, “Do we know enough?” Many apparently ethical dilemmas are solved with one phone call. Then you ask each other, “What’s our professional reason for doing this?” The key word here is “professional.” Ethical debates often stray into emotion, especially fear, not professional practice.

Wording questions often turn around voice. If you think a suggested change violates your voice, read the paragraph aloud to the editor and see if it sounds like what’s around it.

Now for the real secret of not debating. Debates assume that one side is right, and the other is wrong. In good decision-making, usually the right answer, the useful answer, is an amalgam of both sides. By talking about what readers need, you escape your egos and find common ground.

When you resolve the problem, thank each other. The way to get editors to discuss rather than argue is to thank them when discussion reaches a good conclusion.

[Got any good tactics for discussing text without spilling blood?]

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Published in: on September 17, 2009 at 4:19 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great advice, Don. Your publishing experience shows.

    I’d merely add a comment about any short writing likely to be published more than once. This advice is adapted from Michael Bugeja’s Poet’s Guide: Let the editor have his/her way; you can always change it back in later publications, crediting it as “appeared in a slightly different form in . . . “

  2. Thanks, Lester. In today’s web world, the readers serve as editors, and the text has got much more fluid. Once you get something posted, neither yours nor the editor’s version will last long.

  3. I just found your blog, thanks to Lester Smith, and am impressed with the advice you give. I’m an editor and a writer, and can appreciate your advice from both perspectives. I look forward to reading more of your words of wisdom.

  4. Thanks, Mike. I also post a daily writing tip on Twitter, under “donaldkfry.” Take a look.


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