Don’t Make The Same Laughable Mistake I Made as a First-Time Editor

editor at work

A few weeks ago an editor of an anthology returned my short story for a quick final edit check. It was WAAAY shorter.

Cuts were needed, but I didn’t have the time to decide which cuts should be made. The story was still good, but it didn’t feel like the same story. It was like I’d sent my child to a disciplinary boot camp and it* came back a different person.

This got me thinking about the process of a writer and an editor collaborating. Having had experience of both sides I know of one thing NOT to do. It was a mistake I made the first time I was an ‘editor’, which got me into some embarrassing trouble with some passionate people. The kind of people that have easy access to weapons.

I’m not joking.

I was working as a (badly) paid intern as an Internal Comms Assistant in my university’s marketing department. It was a really great job, great team and the first time I was confident about doing copywriting as a career. As well as doing ‘internal comms’** I was assigned the project of producing a ‘community newspaper’.

Yeah, I don’t know what that means either.

But it was a pretty cool project and I worked hard on it. I researched dozens of university publications like The Gryphon and the business school’s Network, and defined it as a half-way house between the two. It’s main audience would be students, but it would be a good read for staff and visitors too.

Looking back I realise I was actually not bad at the job. I had a lot of good ideas on how to do it. I knew how to work with staff to get their news & info into a non-boring format. (In other words, I was writing advertorials before I had even heard of the term). I set deadlines to compensate for last minute submissions.*** I recruited and lead a team of enthusiastic student writers.****

team of writers setting to work

And I never resorted to phone tapping.

But I made mistakes.

I was shit at distribution. I once went around campus, re-living my paperboy days, and handing out the newspaper to bemused students.

I jumped onto trends without reason. I put an article and photoshoot about beards on the front page with a ‘Movember Special’ theme, forgetting to acknowledge the Movember Foundation and getting a lot of shit for it from socially conscious students. And rightfully so.

But these weren’t THE mistake. The mistake that’s both horrifying and hilarious. The mistake that could make you laugh and scream.

THE mistake was in the final edit, coming right up to the deadline. And it was pretty small too.

I was editing an article on the quirkier, non-sports related student union societies. It was a great article so it pained me to cut and edit it. I’d got the writer’s permission to do this, but I didn’t ‘have the time’ to email her the final edit to confirm. So, I hit publish and a week or so later we had printed copies to smell, savour and shove into the hands of any poor sod who walked by.

newspaper fresh off the press

One day I returned to the office from a meeting and a colleague told me that a group of students had come up to complain about the newspaper. It turns out it was the Role Playing Society who were very upset and felt they had been misrepresented in the article.

“Did they all come up with their swords?” I facetiously asked my colleague. And then after getting no response, tracked down the writer and apologised profusely to her. It was my error that caused her to get an ear full from the society. She was really good about it, which was more than I deserved.

On the other hand, when I apologised to the society by email – FOUR TIMES – offering an opportunity to write something, I never got a reply.

Here is what they were upset about.

I had rewritten a phrase that the writer had written to something I thought was quick-witted and punchy. It was something I felt would’ve spoken to me when I was a new student:

“If you’ve always thought you were a bit nerdy at school, you’ll realise that when you get to University there are many other people like you.”

Now, that doesn’t sound that bad. But that’s not the point. I could’ve got the writer’s final approval and she could’ve been fine about this. She could’ve have even preferred the line.

But I didn’t get her final approval.

Therefore I had take away her chance to be fully confident about the words attributed to her name.

If you’ve made cuts or rewrites of any phrases, no matter how close to the deadline, you should always get the writer’s approval.

Your writer is writing about something important to them, they’ll have a good idea of the message they’re trying to get across and the audience they’re trying to speak. Sometimes a small change could harm this. And it could be the difference between the audience hating or loving you.

As a copywriter I’ve had to consider this often with clients. Maybe a rephrase could mean something that’s technically incorrect or something they’re trying to avoid saying. Now, it’s not always easy negotiating this kind of area and sometimes you can only make decisions on instinct. But if there is something specific that you have changed, that could potentially change the message then get approval. If you’re short on time then don’t take the risk, even if it sounds better.

Now maybe some editors might disagree with me about this process. But I’ve taken on as a standard that’s important to me. I want people to be feel like they can understand each other better. But I know I can’t take full control of this.

So, if you’re editing or working collaboratively with someone else I would recommend making something to be more aware of. And you could avoid people coming after you with sharp objects.


*’It’ being the correct pronoun to describe a child.

**Philosophers have pondered what an ‘internal comms’ person actually does for centuries. I believe it comes from a Latin verb meaning ‘to plaster over low employee morale’.

*** I apologise again to my creative writing masters tutor for all those last minute submissions.

****These guys have gone on to doing some quite interesting things, but probably because they’re all enthusiastic people. I can’t claim credit for that. But I wanted to acknowledge that because it was really fun working with them and is exciting to see people move on to new ventures.

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