Friday, September 14, 2012

Red Pen Redo

You’ve sent in your first article and surprise, surprise, it’s going to be published. A few months later you receive a copy of your published piece, but you hardly recognize it. What happened? Who could do such a thing? The answer is simple. It’s been edited, perhaps even rewritten.

At first glance you’re livid. “That’s not my work,” you say while gritting your teeth. Well, actually, it is.—it’s just been edited, mostly likely for clarity and length. Remember the person you sent your article to, the editor? That’s his or her job.

Your initial shock goes back to when you were in school. Academics guard their written words like gold and subconsciously—and in some cases consciously—impart that attitude to their students. So everyone comes out of school think their words are golden. However, in professional writing, there are two routes of editing—all non-fiction, especially articles, can be edited by an editor without consulting the writer while fiction cannot and the editor usually returns it to the writer without publishing it. If you write a novel, your editor will send the manuscript back to you with notations and suggestions for editing, but leave the editing, itself, up to you.

Writers relatively new to this business sometimes consider an editor's cutting or rewriting of their prose a loss.  The majority of editors will help you work by editing it, but there are some who do go too far.  There isn’t a writer out there who can't profit from that editorial red pen. On the other hand, there are some periodicals where as a general rule copy is almost totally rewritten in-house to fit the peculiar, well-recognized style of the magazine. If you object to your work being fitted into their prose style, perhaps you should consider another profession.

To proceed farther faster in this business, you’ll need to become your own best editor. The old salts say you should give even the lowest paying markets your best work. Frankly, if you ask any business person if they truly practice this, they’ll laugh in your face. Let’s face it, it’s just not good business. And editors of cheap publications know this. Their goal is to get your best work for as little money as possible. Remember the old saying, “You get what you pay for.” If you do run across a particularly miserly publication, ask what they can afford to pay you and then tell the editor what you can do for that amount. Giving your best effort on a shorter piece will take less time and will add value to your income dollar. Plus the editor will respect you for your professionalism, even if you don’t get your work published at that magazine. If the pay is low, you might negotiate for more regular work. The income from doing a bunch of short pieces can add up over time.

To make each piece you write the best you can do, you’ll need to do some revisions. It’s best to study a publication to see how long the articles or short stories are and write yours to match that length than it is to write whatever length you feel like doing. There’s only so much space in a magazine, and if you expect to get published often, you have to pay attention to the length of your works.

As human beings, we aren't organized to spout forth perfection. That’s what the first draft is for. But after you’ve gotten down everything you think is relevant, then it’s time to take a closer look. Those who seem to be talented writers have most likely spent years silently developing and editing their pieces.

To sharpen your editing skills, try some of these exercises. With your 3,000-4,000-word article or story in front of you, imagine you’re required to edit it to fit a magazine page that only allows you 1,500 words. That may sound like a challenge, but how about cutting a 12,000-word first draft down to 1,500! You've got to be extremely concise and pack a lot of essential information into as few words as possible. In fact, today’s print magazines are running more 300-500-word articles than longer ones, following the lead of those on the Internet.   

If you still need help, ask an editorially talented friend, sibling, or spouse to critique your work.  Your writing will improve, and so will your ability to undergo the scrutiny of an editor’s red pen.

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