You may disagree with your editor, but they’re (probably) right.
Welcome to The Draft, an advice column about writing and life from Eileen Pollack, former director of the University of Michigan MFA Program. We’re here to answer your questions about storycraft, writing, and telling the truth.
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I’m using the lockdown to finish and send out a bunch of essays, but all I’m getting are rejections. You’d think with all these submissions, the editors would at least send a personal note. Can I write back to ask why they’re not taking my work?
Rejected and Dejected
I know I’m lucky to be getting published, but dealing with my editors is driving me even crazier than usual. Why do they accept my essays if they’re going to demand so many changes? They tell me what I’m saying isn’t clear when it’s right there on the page! Or they rewrite an entire paragraph in a voice that doesn’t sound like mine. Worse, they “suggest” revisions that go against my instincts. I don’t know how to stand up for myself without alienating the people I depend on to get published.
Not Rejected But Dejected Anyway
Dear Dejected x 2,
As a writer who has spent many years editing other people’s work, I can feel not only your frustration but your editors’. You can’t imagine how furiously most editors struggle to keep up with all the emails, manuscripts, and phone calls coming at them every minute of every day. Not only are they reading and responding to a staggering number of pitches and submissions, they are negotiating rates and contracts, editing the work they’ve accepted for publication, arranging for artwork to accompany each piece, sending essays and articles to fact checkers and copyeditors, and attending meetings with colleagues in other departments, all while sweating to meet their deadlines. Many editors are writers themselves and would rather be working on their own stuff than editing yours. And now, with most of them editing from their kitchen table while their children are bickering in the background, even ordinary transactions are going to be more fraught than usual.
I applaud you, Rejected, for using this time to complete your essays. But maybe you are rushing to submit your work before it’s ready. During such a catastrophic time, you might be tempted to splash your feelings on the page and send out the most visceral version of some experience. And yet, describing an emotion or intimate event is rarely enough to make a piece compelling. Why should your fear of having sex during the pandemic interest anyone besides your boyfriend? What larger question about your fears are you trying to explore? Have you organized your thoughts in a focused, organic way? Is every sentence polished? Have you let an unbiased friend read the manuscript and provide you with honest feedback? Have you researched the publication and made certain this is exactly the type of essay they want — not only in terms of subject, but also style and tone? Everyone thinks they are the exception to the guidelines. Oh, sure, the editors say they won’t read anything longer than 2,000 words, but once they start my 20,000-word essay, they’ll get hooked and accept it.
I don’t mean to make you feel worse, Rejected, but if you keep getting turned down by the same publication, maybe you should take the hint. Persistence is admirable, unless you are persisting in sending a personal essay about your lifelong struggle against bulimia to a publication that wants formal, well-researched articles on current events (or vice versa). Reread the magazine’s guidelines and write an essay that fulfills them, or submit the essay you’ve already written somewhere else.
And no, you shouldn’t give in to the impulse to ask an editor to explain why they didn’t accept your work. If editors were to respond to every submission they reject, they wouldn’t have time to edit the essays they accept. Besides, asking someone why they won’t publish you is like asking someone why they don’t want to date you. Do you really want to hear them spell out that they like you well enough as a friend but don’t feel the spark necessary to take the relationship to a higher level?
Given how many thousands of submissions most editors read in a month, the truth might be that your essay, as moving, original, and lyrical as it is, isn’t as moving, original, and lyrical as the two or three submissions the editors found room to print. Unless an editor is knocked out by your essay’s potential, they won’t offer advice on how you might revise it. Otherwise, you could spend weeks reworking the piece, only to have the editor turn it down a second time, and how furious would you be then?
If an editor rejects an essay but encourages you to send more work, you should be ecstatic. That means the editor considers you a professional and really wants to read what you send them next. I’ve heard editors complain that female writers and writers of color tend to be so discouraged by a rejection, they rarely submit new work, while white male writers immediately send another dozen essays. But no editor would risk getting buried in an avalanche of submissions from a writer they don’t respect, so take such invitations seriously and send that editor your best new work.
Which brings me to you, Not Rejected. All of us feel angry, insulted, frustrated, depressed, and sick to our stomachs when a draft we thought was ready for publication (if not deserving of a Pulitzer Prize) comes back covered with a thorny vine of comments. How dare you! we think. If you hate my essay so much, why did you accept it? You’re a sadistic egomaniac who’s trying to show who’s boss!
And yet, my experience as both an editor and a writer is that at least 85% of the time, the editor is right in pointing out the weakness in a manuscript, even if their suggestion for how to fix that weakness isn’t as effective as the solution you might come up with. When I was younger, I would get so upset by an editor’s response that I would dash off a heated argument or jump right in and start revising. But even in less stressful times than these, you should allow your emotions to cool before reacting. Nearly every submission that’s accepted for publication, whether by the New Yorker or an online zine with a hundred viewers, requires a lot of editing. An editor friend of mine expressed his dismay at writers who think his heavy mark-ups are meant to demonstrate contempt. “We’re editing hard because we believe in the piece,” he said, “not because we’re trying to punish you!”
Editors may spend hours, even weeks, editing a submission, only to have the writer get so angry, intimidated, or scared they refuse to work on it further. Not only does the editor lose the time they’ve invested — and a piece they truly wanted to see in their magazine — the writer loses the chance to see that essay in print.
Instead of jumping in with a quick response, allow an editor’s comments to filter through your consciousness. Some suggestions will resonate with what you suspected. Didn’t you already know you should cut that digressive paragraph, smooth out those awkward sentences, fill in that missing context, or include a scene or two to relieve all that exposition? Be grateful to your editor for forcing you to admit what you knew was true and meet — or exceed — your own high standards.Forget the Idea That Writers Must Write AloneHow to launch a writing group that inspires and motivates you (and your friends)humanparts.medium.com
Other suggestions will strike you as too daunting to carry out. How could you possibly find the wherewithal to take your essay apart and restructure it? Or carry out even more research than you’ve already done? Or rethink your argument? And yet, as you rant and sob, you already can sense that following your editor’s suggestion will improve your work. You might even find your heart racing as you imagine how much better your essay will be once you revise it.
Even if you accept what your editor suggests as warranted, you might be unsure how to accomplish a particular revision. Don’t be afraid to ask the editor for more direction. This is what editors do: They help their writers revise their work. As long as you don’t send five emails in a row or require too much hand holding, your editor will help you as best they can.
Even if an editor’s advice seems wrongheaded, arguing does little good. Suppose the editor points out an aspect of your essay that seems unclear. You moron! you want to scream. Can’t you read? The explanation is right there on the page! Remember: You are much closer to the material than your editor. They might have read too quickly to catch the brief mention in paragraph five that your soccer coach was your mother’s brother. But most people will be reading even more quickly than that editor. And maybe you are so adept at fixing a transmission you don’t realize most readers won’t even know what a transmission is.
As an outsider, your editor can provide invaluable perspective, alerting you that an argument isn’t logical or you’ve omitted a detail that is crucial to our understanding of your narrative. You can argue all you want, but that won’t make your editor not see the flaw. Of course, their suggestion as to how to revise your essay might be misguided. But if you can come up with a more elegant way to fix the weakness, your editor will probably thank you.
The same is true for passages your editor rewrites using their voice instead of yours. If you acknowledge the original sentence was awkward or confusing, then you can tactfully point out the new version doesn’t quite mesh with the tone or style of the rest of the essay and then tweak the editor’s version so it sounds like you.
That said, try not to get too precious about your prose. An editor might alter or destroy the cadence of a sentence by cutting a word or phrase. But the benefit of eliminating all that wordiness and repetition usually outweighs the loss of a rhythm only you can hear. In some cases, the editor is required to make your usage conform to the publication’s style guide. Unless you are a poet, such tiny changes usually aren’t worth the argument.
The advantage of not fighting with your editor over the difference between a semicolon and a comma is you can save your firepower for the one or two suggestions that run counter to your instincts. Even then, your instincts might be too fuzzy to hold up in court. If your editor pushes you to take your piece in directions that run counter to your intentions, that might be because you haven’t made those intentions clear. Before you begin drafting a defensive email, make sure you can articulate the essay’s central question and line of thought your reader is meant to follow. Is that line of argumentation right there on the page? If not, thank your editor for pointing out the lack of focus or clarity and promise to revise accordingly.
If your editor does push you to make change you can’t abide, then politely, gently, hold your ground. Let’s say your editor wants you to cut a scene that is emotionally moving, beautifully expressed, and essential to the essay’s meaning. Even then, you might want to ask a friend to verify that the editor’s suggestion is misguided. If you remain certain you are right, wait to bring up this disagreement until you have fulfilled all of the editor’s more reasonable requests. Express your gratitude for the suggestions that improved the essay. Then, point out how and why you disagree with the advice to cut that scene. Offer to add a sentence or two to clarify its importance. If the changes your editor has suggested might come across as racially insensitive, sexist, or cliched, tactfully point this out.
If you treat your editor with respect, they most likely will back down from their suggestion. I have even known an editor or two to admit that they were wrong.