How to edit a writer’s story you disagree with

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Dr. Freelance: I was recently given a freelance editing assignment for a magazine, and it was painful to edit on a couple of levels. First of all, the guy was a terrible writer and therefore the story was a challenge. Second, I had issues with some of the pseudo-science that he used to defend his opinions. (I have a degree in the field in which he’s a so-called expert.) What’s your thought on how to edit a writer’s story you disagree with? — Science Stickler

S.S.: That is ugly, isn’t it? Unfortunately, you may not like my answer: Your job as a freelance editor of a magazine article is a bit like the job of a defense attorney. In other words, your goal needs to be defending the guilty, no matter how egregious the crime, to the best extent of your abilities. You need to make the story as good as you can. If there’s something empirically wrong, you can do your best to suggest an edit that would make it more accurate — but it sounds like your situation came down to irreconcilable differences of opinion.

The issue is that you’re not the editor of the magazine. That’s who makes the final decision on what runs in the magazine and what doesn’t. (Extending the legal metaphor, editor=judge.) It’s quite possible that the editor didn’t like the story, either, but someone else in the chain of command wanted it to run. An example: A few years ago, I was working with an animal-rights publication that suddenly chose to expound on larger global political causes that were far, far removed from protecting and saving pets from cruelty. I believed their positioning was completely quixotic, but I held my nose for several hours while I edited each issue, moved on, and collected my check.

Going forward, you have a couple of things you could do:

  • If your relationship with the editor is strong, you could gently open a conversation about your concerns and ask how to edit this particular writer’s articles. (That’s what I did with the aforementioned magazine’s editor. She heard me out, but the message was coming from above her pay grade.) In your case, you might let the editor know that you’ve got some expertise in the subject that could help improve future articles with a little more lead time to edit.
  • If your relationship is new or not terribly strong, you could also try to open a conversation, but you need to be very careful. It sounds like this was a politically charged story, and that’s dangerous territory. Again, empirical evidence is one thing, strongly held beliefs are another. Sometimes people read “facts” differently.
  • If you find yourself chafing at an increasing number of articles — i.e., if the magazine is changing its editorial slant — you’re either going to need to tough it out or seek assignments elsewhere. No need tilting at windmills; take your free lance elsewhere.

I suppose the main thing to keep in mind is that you always reserve the right to NOT put something in your portfolio. As long as it’s not illegal or unethical, and as long as you can sleep at night, being a mercenary and collecting a check is sometimes part of the business.

Freelance editors: Do you agree, disagree, or would you handle the situation differently? In the comments, please share your thoughts on how to edit a writer’s story you disagree with!

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  1. Mike says

    I’d add that you can’t get emotionally involved with whatever you’re editing. You’re not really doing yourself any harm by making someone else’s story read better, even if you hate what it says.

  2. says

    I’ve been in similar situations. The way I have made peace with it is to remind myself that my job is just to help the writer make his/her case as clearly as possible, so that their argument has an opportunity to stand or fall on its merits after it leaves my hands.

    In other words: sometimes all you can do for a piece is to make sure that clarity is not the reason that it will shortly go down in flames. Like Mike says above, you have to be dispassionate about that.

  3. Dr. Freelance says

    @Mike, you’ve hit on something important with the word “emotion.” Best leave your emotions for your own writing and editing.

    @Paul, I really like your take on this. Let it live or die of its own accord. Heck, making it clear might make it go down in flames faster!

    I appreciate the comments — thanks!