Hey Freelance Writer, How Do You Respond When An Editor Asks for Changes?

by John Soares on February 13, 2013

As freelance writers we’re often asked by editors or clients to make changes in our writing.

The Big Question: How Well Do You Respond?

First see how the guy in this 44-second vid deals with the question (F-bomb alert):

(Big shout out to Tom Chandler, copywriter extraordinaire and the brains and brawn at The Writer Underground, for finding this.)

Three Ways A Writer Can Respond to That Change Request

#1: Like the guy in the vid

That’s not gonna help your writing career. Your client is VERY unlikely to want to work with you in the future.

#2: Obediently make any change your client asks for

This is a common approach and will make many clients happy.

#3: Make reasonable changes, but also defend your work when necessary

This is what I do. If the client is actually right (hey, it happens), I’m happy to make the changes. Otherwise I explain why I wrote what I did, and then I’ll ask the client why it should be changed. With good communication we typically come to agree on what should be done, and we both learn along the way.

Ultimately it’s the client who decides, and as long as the requested changes fall within the scope of the contract, I’ll usually do them.

But What If The Editor/Client Wants Major Changes?

It depends.

If the client is correct and you either didn’t fully understand what you were supposed to do (because you didn’t get clarification beforehand) or you turned in substandard writing, then you should make the changes, even if it takes a lot of time.

However, if the editor/client changes his mind about what he wants, then you need to point to the contract you signed and its clause about revisions and changes. (Make sure your contract covers these in detail.) Frequently you can negotiate more payment to implement the changes.

Your Take

How do you react in these situations? Like the guy in the vid? Better? Worse?

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Flora M. Brown February 13, 2013 at 4:42 AM

I choose Door #3. It only makes sense when it falls within the scope of the contract.

If a client switches gears on me, however, I would stop short of throwing a fit like the guy in the video and point to the contract instead. Fortunately I haven’t had this experience.
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2 John Soares February 13, 2013 at 7:31 AM

It’s always important to have a clear contract that covers all the bases, especially regarding revisions.
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3 Erin February 13, 2013 at 6:09 AM

To me, these are two separate situations: an editor who wants changes is not the same as a client who wants changes.

In the case of an editor, I give myself a minute to bandage hurt feelings and then read through her comments and requests. Then, I do it. An editor is a professional and – at least the ones I have worked with – knows what she’s doing. She’s targeting a certain editorial style or is an superior grammarian or ___. Whatever it is, she knows what she’s doing.

A client is a different story. A client hires me because *I* know what I’m doing. So when a change doesn’t make sense or is wrong, I say it. I say it politely, but I think it is a disservice to clients to almost blindly do as they please. They hire writers for our expertise, and it’s our job to give it to them. So I guess I’m #3, although a bit more proactive/assertive than you described.
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4 John Soares February 13, 2013 at 7:29 AM

Erin, you’re right: there are significant differences between an editor and a client. We could be writing an article for a magazine and be dealing with an editor, or we could be writing web copy for a company and dealing with a client.

I usually agree with editors for anything having to do with grammar and punctuation, but I have stood up for my writing on style issues.
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5 TC/Writer Underground February 13, 2013 at 7:51 AM

Clients are footing the bill and their opinions should be respected, but it does get sticky when a client rewrites your ad copy because he once took an advertising class in college (15 years ago), or the office grammarian removes every contraction because they’re the work of the devil, or the copy’s handed to the intern for review, or…

Finding a way back from a bad client edit is tricky, and my experience is the clients who don’t respect my expertise don’t remain clients very long. Life’s too short to face copy that’s been edited by fools.

I’m always open to feedback that a draft has missed the boat and really appreciate feedback that adds a layer of persuasive detail to a piece.

I rarely work with editors, but have a lot of appreciation for a good one — and a lot of loathing for those who insist on putting their mark on a piece, needed or not.
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6 John Soares February 13, 2013 at 10:03 AM

Excellent approach to both editors and clients Tom.

I recently did a large project for a company in which three different people edited my work, and they often contradicted each other. We got through it, but not without some frustration on my end.
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7 Cathy Miller February 13, 2013 at 9:33 AM

At times, it is a fine balancing act for approach #3 – knowing when to let it go and when to state your case. As we are interested in the client’s success, I ask myself if the change undermines their objective.

And I appreciate Erin’s distinction between editors and clients, although I have seen (as I’m sure we all have) editors who seem to make changes for the sake of change. Typically, I let it slide as different strokes , except if it’s inaccurate. Then I would speak up.

Great topic, John.
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8 John Soares February 13, 2013 at 10:05 AM

I have occasionally been saddled with an editor that felt like he had to do something to my work to justify his existence. Typically I accept these changes, unless they truly change the message or how well the message is conveyed.
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9 Jodi McMaster February 13, 2013 at 10:22 AM

As both an editor and an author, I’ve been on both sides of this issue. I think John and Erin make important points: it depends on the context. And clear communication between the editor and author is essential.

As a writer, as John pointed out, sometimes you have to clarify the difference between style and other kinds of issues that arise in any given piece. When I’m purposefully writing in an informal style, it bugs the hell out of me when the editor keeps making corrections that take the informal tone out of the writing.

In addition to defining style issues, you should probably ask up front “What standard are you using?” Do that before you get into a contract with a new editor. Lengthy explanation to follow (no one’s editing me at the moment).

There are editors (and writers) who don’t realize that the standards have changed since they last took an English course (for that matter, neither do some of the English professors). When I started out, I was using the 13th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. The current hardbound version is the 16th. One of the other technical style manuals I use frequently has gone through eight editions during my career.

I always specify what standard I’m planning to use (stylebook and dictionary) and ask the client if they’re* okay with that. There are a lot of stylebooks (aka style guides) out there; the most commonly used one in the US is probably the Chicago Manual of Style. (This is based on completely unscientific surveys.)

To illustrate the point, here’s an unreasonably contentious issue: the serial comma. The serial comma is used (or not) whenever you have a list of three or more items: “ham, bacon, and other pork products.” The comma before the “and” is the serial comma.

The AP Stylebook’s general rule (with exceptions) is to omit the serial comma. The Chicago Manual of Style’s general rule (with exceptions) is to include it. So there’s not a “right” or “wrong” answer to the serial comma rule; there’s preference.** If you’re working for a periodical or publishing house, they should tell you which one they prefer.

If you’re the one making the decision about standards, just make sure you and your editor are on the same page.

One thing that editors often do (particularly with long pieces of writing), but don’t always tell their clients, is make up a stylesheet for the particular work. If, when I have on my editor’s hat, a writer is using a term consistently but not in a familiar way (perhaps I’ll find it in the Urban Dictionary), I’ll make sure the author is aware of the choice and note it on my stylesheet as something to leave alone. If you’re having problems with a particular editor, ask for the stylesheet. If they don’t have one, ask what standard they’re using. If they still don’t have one, reconsider using them.

As an editor, I may be working with inexperienced writers (particularly those who are looking to self-publish) and I won’t do a proofread/mechanical edit only (the kind Erin is describing) when I feel strongly that there are far more basic issues at stake. I feel like I’m trying to put a band-aid on a broken arm.

T/C Underground remarks “I rarely work with editors, but have a lot of appreciation for a good one — and a lot of loathing for those who insist on putting their mark on a piece, needed or not.” I have a feeling the loathed editors are ones who insist they are right, but maybe not.

I will put “unneeded” changes to alert the writer that there is an alternative, but I always tell them that consistency is key, and if they don’t want to change it, that’s fine. Ultimately, it’s the author’s name on the piece, and the author’s call.

A really good read from the copy editor point of view is “The Subversive Copy Editor” by Carol Saller.

*Yes, I know I don’t have number agreement between the referent and the pronoun here and throughout the piece. My personal belief is that number agreement will become passe and that the indefinite gender “they” and “them” will be used when the subject could be either.

**That’s a slight exaggeration; the passionate advocates before and against the serial comma have specific arguments for their positions. I won’t bore you with the details; I kid you not, I was stuck for twenty minutes in a meeting listening to an argument over one.
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10 Cathy Miller February 13, 2013 at 10:31 AM

Fabulous tips here, Jodi! Let us know when the e-book is out. ;-)
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11 Jodi McMaster February 13, 2013 at 11:13 AM

Thanks, Cathy. You’d made these points already, but I couldn’t resist elaborating. (And, yes, I’ve considered writing a short ebook to give to the writers I work with. It’s on the shelf with all the other imaginary books I’ve written.)
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12 John Soares February 13, 2013 at 11:23 AM

Jodi, I’ve written at least a hundred imaginary books!

Thanks for the detailed comment. It’s important for writers to get the editor’s perspective.

And I always use the serial comma. For me it’s about clarity. I never want a reader to have to stop and re-read one of my sentences.
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13 Cathy Miller February 13, 2013 at 3:05 PM

We could probably all retire from the revenue of our imaginary books. :-)
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14 Jodi McMaster February 13, 2013 at 10:48 PM

I think anyone who has interacted with more than ten people in his/her life has probably wanted to go with option 1.

And I’m also a fan of the serial comma. One of many reasons AP Style gives me hives from time to time, but nobody has asked me to help them revise it, and you do what the client wants.

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15 Lori February 13, 2013 at 11:37 AM

Usually the second point, John. But I have had to pull out that third approach once or twice. I try to get it very close to what they’ve asked for so that they can get the second reaction out of me. In one or two cases, the client and I have been quite far apart in approach and understanding. That’s when I’ve had to rely on the third reaction.

And I’ll admit to having that first reaction once. It was after the fifth or sixth round of edits and I was DONE with the nitpicking. If there are that many revisions, there’s a big communication gap.
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16 John Soares February 13, 2013 at 2:51 PM

I hear you Lori.

I had a situation awhile back where a client decided they wanted a quarter of the project redone from scratch because he had changed his mind on what he wanted. He said it was part of the rewrite process. There was a stand-off for a couple of weeks, but I finally figured I wouldn’t get any of my money if I didn’t do what he wanted, so I caved and just quickly cranked it out.
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17 Adrienne February 13, 2013 at 12:17 PM

Working almost always as the editor, rewriting is ALL that I do. I’m grateful not to have to slave over the first draft. It’s almost unbearably hard.

Sometimes, I am the writer being edited. The universe hasn’t folded in on itself yet because the editors always seem to identify the phrase I struggled with most, and suggest a fix that I just couldn’t work out on my own.

When an editor suggests a change that just gets it wrong, I consider these possibilities:
– they aren’t the right editor for this project (e.g., raising the reading level 8 grades above the target reader, or removing all the meme language from a blog post)
– my writing was unclear. Their change isn’t right, but the line obviously needs work.

Allow yourself that moment of tantrum, contempt, superiority… Then get over the paralysis and find your professional self; get on with the task of making the client’s life easier. Short of breaking a law or putting someone’s life in danger, I’ll write whatever they want however they want it. I am no auteur, I am a business.

*Can I make one request? Don’t argue with changes that are made to match house style: preferred spelling, colon use, spacing, citation style, and such. The content of what you write is important – those minor style choices are not worth fighting over and are largely non-negotiable.
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18 John Soares February 13, 2013 at 2:55 PM

Adrienne, I really appreciate your editor’s take on this subject (and Jodi’s comment above).

I’ve also had editors take my clunky or pedestrian sentences and make them much better. Overall I’m very happy to have a good editor give my writing a thorough edit.
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19 Anne Wayman February 13, 2013 at 4:11 PM

Well… I’ve wanted to choose option number 1 and, in my home office with the doors, windows and phone all closed, have done something like that from time-to-time, so I know the feeling.

I usually go for a combo of 2 and 3 – I’ll tell the client/editor, and yes, I know the difference, but I’ve successfully pushed back with both, why I think it shouldn’t be changed, or suggest a change that incorporates some of what we both want. With a client I’ll always defer, not always with an editor.

Fun vid John
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20 John Soares February 13, 2013 at 4:22 PM

Thanks for sharing your perspective Anne!

I think we’ve all wanted to do option #1 at some time or another.
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21 Sherryl Perry April 14, 2013 at 9:03 AM

Hi John,
I haven’t dropped by here for a while but now I see what I’m missing! I thoroughly enjoyed the video and I sat up in my seat when you mentioned having a ” clause about revisions and changes” in my contract. I do not do that but then again, I wouldn’t call myself a serious freelancer. Up until now, when someone has approached me to write content, they’ve pretty much let me do my thing.

There was one article that I wrote where there were more edits than I had expected but I explained that the article was more complex than we had originally thought. (My editor wanted me to go into much more detailed explanation that we had originally discussed.) That article turned into a 3-part series and tripled my original fee. Maybe I’ve just been lucky up to this point but you definitely have my attention! Thanks.
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22 John Soares April 15, 2013 at 6:36 AM

Thanks for stopping by Sherryl. You handled your situation very well and wound up making more money — good for you!

It’s always a good idea to address changes/additional work in the contract, even though it may only rarely be an issue.
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