Every editor has had experience with the freelance writer who wants his article printed “just as it is written.” Every editor knows that if he granted the writer’s wish, the publication would quickly lose uniformity and consistency, resulting in lower editorial standards.
It is a sad fact that even professional writers will not strive to write “perfect copy.” Many do not know the rules for punctuation or style for that particular publication. Some writers who could write grammatically and punctuate correctly are careless sometimes.The result is that editors find errors and must make changes before publication.
An article or submission is almost never printed exactly as it is written
Punctuation is not an exact science, and there is no such thing as a “general writing style”. Every publication has its own house style to which outside writers must adhere. Every major publication has a similar set of typographic rules, which vary widely from the rules of other publications printed at the same office or elsewhere.
For instance, one magazine has a rule to introduce direct quotations, inside a paragraph, with a colon. Some other publications use a comma; others use a colon and a dash. Some use a dash alone. The freelance writer who writes regularly for a certain publication may become accustomed to its editorial style and revise his copy accordingly. Careless or casual writers do not expect themselves to know such details.
To lighten the printers’ task, the copy editors must make the writer’s copy perfect—from the editor’s point of view—before they send it to the composing room. Most editors have rules barring certain words or phrases from their columns. The editor of one magazine for which I contribute was trained in college to dislike the phrase “as though” and finding it in copy anywhere, he always substitutes “as if.” Every careful editor has similar likes and dislikes based on some personal reasons, rhetorical rules or his observance of good usage. He edits copy for his publication to suit his taste.
All Manuscripts are Subject to Scrutiny
As a general rule, editors do not and cannot print articles exactly as they are written. The chances are that the proofreader, correcting the proof, may have observed some unnoticed variation from the established publication’s house style. All manuscripts are subject to scrutiny and revision, more or less. This being so, the question comes: “How much revision by the editor is justified, and when should editorial changes stop without the input of the writer?”
Theoretically, of course, the editor should not revise a manuscript without the approval of the writer. The editor or a member of the editorial team seldom consult the writer. The editor is the final decision maker unto himself. Of course, regular contributors, in some cases, may have an opportunity to read their proofs. Editors give them liberty to accept or reject minor changes. In the majority of cases, the editor does not approve editorial changes with the writer. The editor must use his own judgment in each case.
The Special Case of Magazine Writers
In the case of magazine writers—who have returned their corrected proofs—mechanical requirements may force the editor to make last moment changes without the writer’s approval. For instance, magazine articles usually have to fit a certain space. Although the editor and layout artists expertly arrange copy to their best advantage, sometimes it is absolutely necessary, for mechanical reasons, to cut out a few words or lines, or a paragraph; or sometimes the editor finds it necessary to write in something on the final proof.
Regrettable as such changes are, editors cannot invariably avoid them. When the editor needs to make changes, the writer has no just reason to find fault. He is a victim of circumstances, not of the incapacity or malice of the editor.
An editor’s judgment guides them
In every case of editorial revision, the editor’s good judgment guides him as to what changes he must make. Minor alterations, like changes in punctuation, modifications of wording, ordinary condensation, or other style faults, the writer should accept without a word of protest. The editor is supposed to be fit for his job, and if he is, his revisions are almost always an improvement. Such revisions are the editor’s prerogative, whether or not the editor is sensitive to the writer’s feelings.
Beyond this, the editor should use extreme caution, remembering always his responsibility to the writer. The editor is in a position to make changes that the writer cannot see until the article appears in print or online. No general rule can be made to cover the great variety of cases. Each manuscript must be considered by itself. The general rule of the editor is not to make changes that he does not deem essential, to cut as little as possible, and to add new content as a last resort. In a word, the editor should put himself in the writer’s place; he should make only such changes as the writer would make himself if he had the editor’s experience.
The Difference Between a Good and Bad Editor
The difference between a good editor and a bad editor is perfectly shown by the difference in the ways in which they handle copy. The bad editor will slash and cut at random, spoiling the sense of the article, and making the writer say the very opposite of what he intends to say. The good
editor exercises good judgment, changing an expression here and there, writing in a well-considered sentence to take the place of a paragraph and retain the sequence of ideas; he seldom injures a manuscript in any way, and usually improves it to notable extent.
With such careful, judicious, intelligent editing, writers have no reason to find fault. Writers should thank the editor who devotes his time and his talent to polish their work. Writers should do everything in their power to make their articles brief, strong, organized, and from a mechanical point of view, “perfect copy.” The editor might not be so compelled to mess around with every writer’s manuscript.