Editorial Requests: When to Say Yes and When to Push Back
Every writer knows the drill: You write your draft, polish it the best you can, and send it off to your editor. If all goes well, you might not have to do any extra work at all. The editor will make final, superficial tweaks on their own. But if your draft still needs work, particularly if it’s a longer manuscript, turning it in might be only the start of a lengthy revision process. Although a few editorial requests are normal, there’s a point where you have to confront your editor and resist making additional changes. Here are the points I use as a guide.
1. The editorial requests dramatically alter the original intent of the work.
Good developmental editors can see how to improve your plot, characters, or thesis in a more sellable or interesting way. But they don’t try to take over the manuscript by telling you how it “should” go. Instead, they collaborate with you to strengthen the draft without destroying your message or aesthetic. If the editor tries to dictate their version of the work, turning you into their ghostwriter, stand up for the way the bones of your story hold together.
2. The editor is working based on their preference.
Just about every editor has in-house guidelines they have to adhere to. Don’t make a fuss over these stylistic shifts. But sometimes an editor will make a request that has nothing to do with the publisher and everything to do with how they feel. They’ll split hairs over word choices. Alternatively, they’ll ask you to add something that, although nice to have, doesn’t help the draft’s clarity, enjoyability, or influence. Stand your ground on this issue, because at its worst, it can trash your original flow and voice.
3. You’re flip-flopping.
This means that your editor doesn’t have a clear sense of what they want. They’ll request a change, you’ll do it, and then they’ll second-guess everything. You’ll revert at their request, and then they’ll flip again. There’s nothing wrong with an editor realizing something else works better, especially if new data comes to light. But for the most part, they should make a call and stick to it.
4. You’re doubling work.
I’ve lost track of the editors who, rather than making a simple tweak, left lengthy instructions for the tweak. They routinely wrote out exactly what to do in the in-line or side-line comments, word by word. They didn’t bother to amend the draft itself, however. At that point, all I could do was insert their shifts, which they could have done on their own. If you see an editor doing this, tell them you trust their judgment and that they have your permission to make those basic changes independently. Then offer to do a final read-through of their changes.
5. There’s no rationale for the editorial requests.
The best editors are also teachers. They will explain the reason behind every change they suggest for your work. If the editor can’t give you a reason for their editorial requests, do what you can to keep your original wording. Keep in mind here that not providing a rationale is not the same as giving you a rationale you don’t agree with. If you understand where the editor is coming from but merely have a difference of opinion, then take the time to weigh the pros and cons of the change together. Getting into these kinds of details can pay off big in the long run. It can help the editor understand how you think and what you like on a significantly deeper level. In many cases, an editor will change their mind if you can present a clear logic around what you wrote.
6. You’ve been misunderstood.
Editors typically know their sh-t. But they’re not experts in everything. I’ve had plenty of cases where the editor made changes simply because, as a layperson, they didn’t have the insights I knew the intended audience would. If you run into this type of instance, it’s worth considering whether adding a line or phrase could eliminate confusion and support additional readers. But there’s a fine balance to maintain, as you don’t want to seem condescending to your expert readers, either. If you’re confident that your readers would breeze through your original wording, explain that to your editor in a compassionate way.
As writers, we often see editors as powerful gatekeepers who can decide whether or not the world views our work. But they’re just people. They can make bad calls and are prone to the same knowledge gaps and biases writers have. So, although you don’t have to treat them poorly in the process, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. It might be that you have to shop around a little to find an editor who gels well with you. But typically, by expressing both kindness and confidence, you’ll be able to advocate for yourself while still leaning on all the expertise they can offer.