I have never taken a professional editing class. I have never been formally instructed on how an editor is supposed to treat another writer’s work. But I have worked as an editor for four years now, and I have never been told it’s OK to change someone else’s words.
When I say this, I don’t mean an editor is only allowed to modify spelling and grammar. It’s the job of an editor to make sure a piece of writing fits into a publication. Occasionally as an editor I will rearrange words in sentences to help them flow better. I will remove unnecessary words (that, very, double or triple adjectives). But there is a big difference between editing a piece of writing for clarity and flow … and rewriting something someone else has already written.
I’ve encountered several – yes, more than one – occasions in which an editor rewrote enough of my original piece before publishing – without consulting me – that my initial reaction was simply, “That’s not what I wanted to say.” As an editor, I can understand why that might end up happening. But as a writer, it’s not OK. Just because I can see why you’d make a mistake doesn’t mean I can accept it and walk away.
You know it’s not OK to change a direct quote – or at least, I hope you do. Really, what’s the difference between rewriting a quote to say something completely different and changing my words so the piece as a whole has a whole different meaning?
So a sentence I wrote didn’t make sense. Ask me about it. So it wasn’t long enough. Ask me to add more. Too long? Help me trim it down. Not a good lead? Help me write a better one. I’m tired of the editorial process always being rushed so there isn’t adequate time for improvement. When you rewrite even part of my work, it’s not mine anymore. You might as well take credit for it, because you never explained to me what went wrong or allowed me to fix it in my own words, and therefore, I’m not going to be satisfied with the final product.
Stop changing my words. That’s not your job. If you don’t like the way I’ve written something, then don’t publish it. This may be “the way it’s done” in whatever organization you work for, but I don’t care. I think it’s unacceptable.
I get that time restraints often prevent you from doing things the right way. I’ve been there. But unlike you, I care about the writer and what they have to say.
When I have the freedom to edit according to my own parameters, I will make sure to work with every single writer on their work until it is exactly what I need for my publication without adding a single word that writer didn’t write.
You are an editor now. If you want to write something, write something; do the work on your own. Don’t rewrite my work and call it mine. I may have chosen the wrong words or done something differently than you would have preferred, but if it’s that much of a problem, I can’t keep writing for you. If you want to stifle all creative freedom – everyone else’s but yours – I can’t be a part of it.
Writers – stand up for your words. They matter now more than ever. If someone else won’t let you write what you want to write, write on your own. Say what needs to be said. Write what needs to be written. If it’s that important to you, let it be heard.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.