an immediate follow-up...
November 8, 2021 2:09 PM   Subscribe

an immediate follow-up to my last question (please take a look before reading this one, sorry I can't link I'm on my phone).

Editor emails me proof of piece to look over/make changes based on suggestion.

Editor reiterates that they love the piece and the suggested edits are just suggestions, the final product is up to my discretion and will not impact their decision to publish the piece.

I accept literally all but one of her suggestions. I took the feedback referenced in my last question and cleaned up/shortened the section that she "Five pages OOF" commented on. The only suggestion I don't take is to change the tense of the introduction from the present tense to the past tense. To me, it reads better that way and the conclusion of the piece is also in the present tense and is an intentional echo of the introduction. I comment explaining as much in the "track changes" of the document. I send back the proof, edited, having accepted 99% of her suggestions.

This morning editor emails me demanding that I explain myself as to why I am insisting introduction should stay in present tense. Says that every editor at the pub who read the piece believes it should be changed to past tense, and she would "much prefer it that way."

I respond explaining my reasoning (I guess she didn't see my comment in track changes). I say if she feels that keeping the intro in the present tense genuinely weakens the impact of the piece I am happy to change it as I know that being so close to the material impacts my ability to be objective. I say I am at work now but if she wants me to change it to past tense, I will do so once I get home this evening.

Since then, crickets. I am confused as to why she originally told me suggested edits are merely suggestions and I am not required to accept them and is now pushing back this hard. I want the piece to be the best it can be, so I'll suck it up and change it if that's what she wants.

But is that what she wants? She never responded to my explanation of why I kept the intro in the past tense. I don't know if she found my explanation acceptable or if she's assuming I'm going to go home and change it.

I am new to being published, I am super naive about the process of working with an editor, and I am embarrassed to keep asking these questions, but I literally do not know how to proceed right now. The piece is supposed to be published at the end of this week and I have no idea how to read this interaction. Is she saying she wants me to change it so change it I must, period, end of story? Or is she ok with my explanation in the spirit of her original direction to me with the proof (that suggested edits are just suggestions and not required)? Is that just something that editors say to soften the blow of criticism and I am actually supposed to understand that the suggestions are not suggestions but requirements?

Please help. I feel like an idiot right now and I'm sliding down that anxiety slope that makes me wonder if she secretly hates this piece, or only sort of likes it kind of maybe.

What should I do?
posted by nayantara to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
Best answer: (I'm a book editor.) You're not an idiot! Editing isn't supposed to be so confrontational. I always tell my clients that we're a team, not adversaries. If I say my edits are suggestions, they're suggestions. (Some of my edits aren't suggestions!) I think you've learned something about this editor and/or this publication. Can you ask for a quick phone call "to clear up any confusion"?
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:16 PM on November 8, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I have worked with lots of editors. It sounds like the ball is somewhat in your court. She has made the strong suggestion that you change the tense, but she's not INSISTING. It's your call whether you stick to your guns or make the changes she'd prefer. I tend to defer to my editors, but I have on occasion pushed back on suggestions I could not get on board with. They usually still disagreed with me, but deferred to me anyway.

I think you should do what you think is best for the piece. If you opt not to change the tenses, you have to do so with the confidence that it's YOUR work and you are making the call. The editor might not ever agree with you, and you have to make your own peace with that. What I think you might have to let go of is the idea that you'll both get your way and have her agree with you. You might have to pick one or the other.

I'm sorry, editing is traumatic!
posted by attentionplease at 2:21 PM on November 8, 2021

Since then, crickets.

She is doing other stuff.

Is that just something that editors say to soften the blow of criticism and I am actually supposed to understand that the suggestions are not suggestions but requirements?

Generally no, but just because the changes are suggestions doesn't mean they're capriciously made. Editors generally have good reasons (which ideally they convey to you, but not always) for any change, and expect them to be accepted UNLESS there is an equally good reason not to.

You did exactly the right thing explaining your reasoning in a comment. I think she very likely didn't see it, because when you open a doc within your email, comments don't show up. You have to open it in your editing program (Word or Google docs), which it's likely she hasn't done because, again, she's doing other things. The vastly likeliest explanation is that she got your edits back, opened the doc in her email to give it a scan, saw that the changes had been (seemingly) ignored, and responded on that basis.

Asking for a phone call is a slightly aggressive move if the editor is under 40* but you absolutely can do that and I've found that talking through edits on the phone can make them go over much better and generally increase understanding between the editor and author.

* or over, I'm 41 and I HATE when authors do this because I do not like to talk on the phone but I always say yes and it's never been the wrong call and I don't hold it against them for asking
posted by babelfish at 2:51 PM on November 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I guess she didn't see my comment in track changes

I'd guess so too. You'd be surprised how many people who should know that change tracking comments are not only a thing but the right thing, don't.

You'd implemented everything she suggested except the tense change, so that's the only thing that failure to read your tracking comments could possibly have left her in doubt about, so she asked you, so you told her, and now she knows. I'd assume that nothing more needs to be done here.
posted by flabdablet at 3:02 PM on November 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Get on the phone or on zoom! Asynchronous communication like email and text can severely erode an at-risk relationship. Synchronous communication at least has a chance of strengthening it.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 3:10 PM on November 8, 2021

Response by poster: I guess I should clarify that, in some combination of being socialized female and therefore used to softening language in email communication and also feeling pretty intimidated at this point, I worded the end of my email as such and I am now realizing that I may have given the impression that I'm going to take the suggestion:

I'm certainly not married to keeping the beginning in the present tense if you feel it weakens the impact of the piece overall - I obviously want this to be the best it can be, and I am probably too close to the material to evaluate the effectiveness of which tense affects how it reads in an objective way. I'm at work at the moment but if you can wait till I get home this evening I can move the first section into past tense and send the piece back to you.

I mean, I was writing this on the fly on my coffee break trying not to be too thrown by how aggressive she was in demanding why I didn't do the tense change and wanted to respond to her ASAP but I wish I had phrased this differently to indicate that I was asking for her to make the call here. As I re-read what I wrote it sounds like I am capitulating, and now if I go back to her and say sorry no I'm keeping it in present tense I worry that it's going to make this communication more antagonistic.

To be perfectly honest her explanation for why she wants the intro in the past tense makes sense to me, but only to a certain degree. Moving it into the past tense means that the conclusion is the only thing that will be in the present tense and that feels lopsided and random to me. I could put the conclusion in the past tense but then I feel like I'm fundamentally changing the intention of what the conclusion is supposed to do. If I change the intro, it also changes the intention of what the intro is supposed to do. I wish I could be less vague in describing this and I don't want to sound overly defensive here but her reason for wanting me to change the verb tense in the introduction only makes sense if she's interpreting the whole piece in a way that isn't inacurate per se but also isn't necessarily what I intended the piece to be about, so basically now I'm feeling like I have failed at actually writing what I wanted to write.

At this point I kind of feel like I should capitulate because she's making me uncomfortable and my flight impulse is in overdrive, but I don't like the way the intro reads in the past tense at all. She began her email with "the most important change in the edit was unifying the tense throughout the piece" but 1) that was not at all what she conveyed in her notes on the proof 2) she said these were only suggestions, and 3) she did NOT ask me to change the tense in the conclusion so tense unification will not be the end result if I make the change. Can anyone suggest any verbiage I could use to politely push back on her pushback? I don't harbor any fantasy that she will agree with me and we both will get what we want here, but I also don't want to piss her off.

I don't have her contact information beyond her email address and I feel like requesting a phone call or a Zoom will take this to a really confrontational level that I would like to avoid, plus she's busy, plus I'M busy - I can't be ducking out of work to debate this with her, it will not go over well even if I pretend it's a call with my doctor or something. I just want this to be resolved with as little unpleasantness as possible.
posted by nayantara at 3:31 PM on November 8, 2021

I suspect you are getting crickets because you said if she waited to evening you would send her a 'corrected' tense version.

If you are convinced you actually want to keep the past tense as is, then just send another email saying that on reflection you think it's important to the piece to remain in the past tense and would like to proceed as such. You could offer a call to discuss if she disagrees, but be clear what your preference is for the tense.
posted by knapah at 3:56 PM on November 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Your piece, your call. Especially in the light of

Editor reiterates that they love the piece and the suggested edits are just suggestions, the final product is up to my discretion and will not impact their decision to publish the piece.

and double especially given that you already know from the whole "oof" thing that your editor skews terse and direct.
posted by flabdablet at 4:03 PM on November 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ok, so you have all been wonderful, thank you. flabdablet's most recent comment made me feel pretty confident in standing my ground. I just emailed the editor back with a more extended explanation of why I would prefer to keep the introduction in the present tense. I acknowledged her feeling that the tense change in the middle section reads as jarring to her, by which I mean to say I didn't tell her I thought she was wrong/stupid/incapable of reading by having that reaction to the tense change, simply that I disagreed that it ruins the piece.

(I know workshop group feedback is not the same as having a professional editor give feedback, but I do feel that it is noteworthy that everyone who read the piece up till now, in workshop, and individually, never flagged the tense issue as an issue. I also showed the piece to my former creative writing instructor from college who is now a relatively famous, award-winning writer of nonfiction himself, a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, and a former editor of an online magazine and he helped me clean up a lot of the prose but also didn't flag the tense issue. (Not trying to humblebrag, just saying I've run this piece by a wide variety of literary-inclined folks looking for feedback.) I am at the point where I remember Tim Gunn on Project Runway Season 1 or 2 saying "chacun à son goût" - everyone has their own taste - in response to his disagreeing with a designer's choice for a garment challenge, and I really feel like this interaction with the editor is falling into that zone; this is an issue of taste, and we don't have the same taste in regards to the question of unifying tenses in a story. Or maybe I'm delusional and defensive. Who knows. I of course did NOT write any of this in the email to this editor.)

I reiterated that I appreciated the other suggested edits she gave me on the piece and was happy to accept them (99% of them! even the one note that was kind of rude! don't worry I didn't point that out either) as I did feel they strengthened the work.

I concluded with I hope this explains my thinking behind the present tense in the opening a bit better, and I hope this doesn't end up lessening your enthusiasm overall about publishing the piece.

Ball is in her court.

Thank you all for your kindness, encouragement, and advice for how to handle what has turned into a surprisingly antagonistic interaction with this editor. And yes, BlahLaLa, your first comment is correct - I have learned a lot about this editor and potentially this publication. I won't say that this makes me want to avoid them in the future, but now at least I know that if I ever end up publishing with them again (assuming they'll ever WANT to publish me again after this!) what to expect from their editorial process and to mentally prepare.

Thanks again all. You are the best, and if I ever write a book I really feel like I'll need to dedicate it to all of the Mefite writers and editors who have jumped in to help me with all of my writing/publishing neophyte questions over the past year or so as my writing career (such as it is) has begun to gain some traction.

Much love from long-winded nayantara. (7 PARAGRAPHS OF ASKME COMMENT! OOOF!!!)
posted by nayantara at 6:18 PM on November 8, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Glad this worked out well. Just a suggestion on how you are framing it- you perceive this as being antagonistic but to an outsider it does not read that way. She made a suggestion, she thinks you ignored it and asked why, you explained why you wanted to keep it. That sounds just like...editing, to me. I do understand that these things can be emotional experiences but it might be worth considering that your anxiety about the whole thing is making you read things as combative or antagonistic that might otherwise not read that way. Additionally, something else to consider is that of all the other people you mentioned who helped you with your work, none of them were actually professionally and financially invested in improving it. An editor is the person who is most passionately, rigorously involved in improving the piece, and thus much more likely to make suggestions about details like tense. It doesn't mean they are right! But it would not surprise me that peers or kind, accomplished friends who are supporting you are not giving you the same kind of really specific, granular advice as an editor

Fwiw your explanation about tense sounded totally reasonable, too.

Good luck! Such an exciting time and congratulations.
posted by jojobobo at 3:21 AM on November 9, 2021 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: She accepted my explanation and has agreed to leave the section in question in the present tense! Another proof to follow, hoping this round will be less stressful for me. Anxiety is a bitch, y'all.

Thank you all again for your help.
posted by nayantara at 6:16 AM on November 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: ... you perceive this as being antagonistic but to an outsider it does not read that way. She made a suggestion, she thinks you ignored it and asked why, you explained why you wanted to keep it. That sounds just like...editing, to me.

Exactly this. Something it might pay for you to chant inside your mind a few times the next time you start feeling a bit attacked in circumstances like these is "it's not about me, it's about polishing the piece".

Also bear in mind that polishing is abrasion. If you're identifying the piece with your essential self, it's just going to feel a bit rough.
posted by flabdablet at 8:33 PM on November 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

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