Editing – It’s Not Personal

Few things are as intensely personal as writing. It makes sense then that any comment or correction from someone else is taken personally. It should not be viewed that way. Your editor is there to help you succeed, not to engage in a mindless attack.

A magazine editor knows a periodical’s style, its past articles, and what its readers and advertisers expect. You may know your subject well, but the editor has the larger picture in mind. And the smaller picture. Grammatical corrections should be regarded as ways to improve as a writer, to keep learning a trade that will never be mastered. But what if major changes are desired?

Typically, you’re sent a contract, you write an article as directed, and you send in your piece. You don’t envision writing it again. But you may have to. Here are some comments I got on an article on gold mining I wrote for Invention and Technology. I had put an enormous amount of time into the work, thought I did a good job, and I was fairly happy with it. Then this came across the transom; suggestions that would demand, at least in my opinion, a near complete rewrite:

The main problem we had with your article was its organization. It seems to alternate between past and present with no real pattern, and as it goes along, the balance shifts more and more towards present-day mining. We think the point of the article should be to draw connections and parallels between the old and new, and as the article now stands, those connections are sometimes obscured.

One possible way to organize the article would be as follows:

(1) start with a vignette about modern mining, by either an individual or a company, since that’s the hook of the story–that they’re still doing it; then
(2) go back to the 1840s and 1850s and say how mining was practiced then, including panning for gold in a stream, which is the image most people will associate most strongly with the Gold Rush; then
(3) say how the basic principles of mining are much the same today, but the challenge has shifted; instead of using primitive tools to find relatively high-quality veins and extract small amounts of gold, today’s miners use very sophisticated tools to find low-quality veins and extract tiny amounts of gold.

It might also help to say a bit more about the social and economic background of mining past and present. We get the impression that Gold Rush miners extracted most of the gold that was easy to get at, so now it’s mostly companies instead of individuals, but this is never stated explicitly. It also sounds like today’s creative use of spoil makes the difference between profit and loss–is that a general characteristic of the industry? Has gold mining revived over the last few decades as technology has improved, or has it always gone along at a modest level? Our editors would also like to see more of a human element in the historical sections, explaining how things changed over the years and who changed them. We’re not asking you to provide a name and a sentence of biography for every advance you mention; rather, we would like to hear more about a few of the inventors who are responsible for the biggest advances.

Sheesh! The editor thought that none of these changes would require me to write “multiple pages of new material,” never-the-less, it sure seemed that way. Rather than being finished, or almost so, my writing seemed to begin again. So be it.

My contract was for a fixed price. I thought I had already put the hours in that justified me getting paid. I wanted, though, as any writer does, a long term relation with the publication. This was my second article for I&T and I wanted to write many more. It was logical to make this cadre of editors happy, for the future. After I completed this major revision I went on to revise it lightly two more times and I’m glad I did. The finished work was profusely illustrated by the I&T staff and it showed off my writing very well.

The published piece is at this link: Gold mining article. It’s an 18 meg download so be prepared. None of it would have been possible had I taken offense at all the editing recommend. The editors wanted the best work and so did I. Editing – it’s not personal.

Picture of article.
American Heritage of Invention and Technology.

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