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I was approached by a science magazine to write a long-form critical essay, and I gave them a 6000-word piece with extensive endnotes. After two months of being with the editorial team it comes back with the style altered to sound like generic science reporting, with whole sections removed along with the points they were making, with orphaned quotes now purporting to support points they aren't really related to, with quotes moved from being centered blocks to looking like hot takes or sound bites, some technical paragraphs are now just wrong, and so on.

I'm not so deluded to think that I don't need editing. I've been through the editing process for writing about subjects with a technical nature before, but was able to deal with the person editing my work in person. Now the editor I'm dealing with is on the other side of the world, and I haven't had contact with the copy-editor(s) themselves. I suspect English is not their native language, due to some odd things with the grammar and idiom.

It took me a month to write this essay, and it seems like I'm being rushed a bit to make 'corrections and comments' and send the document back; maybe as little as a few days. To get to a state of compromise from either direction (my original, or the edited version) will not be a short process. How do I deal with this?

  • Hi David! While Cyn's answer is very good, you might want to wait a bit before you accept an answer. That would give others a chance to see your question, and maybe provide you with a different solution. Writing, after all, isn't as cut-and-dried as mathematics. :) We normally wait at least 24 hours, to allow potential answerers from all around the globe to see your question. (You can always re-accept Cyn's answer later, if, after a while, that's still the answer you're most satisfied with.) – Galastel Feb 13 at 11:51
  • @Galastel yes, it did occur to me to wait, but I really did like the thoughtful answer. I have un-accepted, in case it makes others feel more welcome to add their takes. Thanks for taking the time to let me know (and check my background :-) – David Roberts Feb 13 at 12:15
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    tsowell.com/About_Writing.html "Pointing out unclear passages, or even suggesting a complete reorganization of a manuscript, are legitimate editorial functions. Becoming an unwanted co-author is not. ... If, through extra-sensory perception or some other miraculous process, a writer could determine in advance the copy-editor’s stylistic preferences and slavishly followed them in his writing, the manuscript would still come back with changes. Making changes is what copy-editors do. ... Having a rubber stamp made up with the word 'STET' on it can help." – jpmc26 Feb 13 at 14:03
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I think you have to decide what lines you're willing to cross and which ones you aren't. It's your piece; it belongs to you. Unless you have a contract for Work for Hire or something else saying it's theirs.

I suggest thinking of this as you having only two choices:

  1. Allow them to publish a version of your essay that will get you paid but that will not reflect well on you or give you personal satisfaction.
  2. Walk away ("this is the basic version I will give permission for you to publish").

There are other possible outcomes. The ideal one is you protest and they switch you to a decent editor and publish a good version of your essay. Another decent outcome is you withdraw the essay and find a different publisher for it.

I wouldn't even think of this as a negotiation because that implies you're going to stick it out and try to make the published work the best version of different bad options. But I don't know you or your situation and I won't tell you that walking away is better than accepting this hackjob. This is really bad editing and bad management. This is not about you; it's all on them.

If you're okay with this piece not being published here, you could (depending on any written or verbal contract you have) inform them that, after such and such date, you will send the article out to other publishers. Then do it!

Sometimes you make compromises. I'm having a piece come out in an anthology where the publisher gave us all contracts that are profoundly financially unfair. As in I'm likely to get back at most 20% of what I paid my artists. But I chose to move forward with it and I'm excited for when the book finally is published. Obviously this isn't something I'd make a habit out of, but it was worth it to me in this case.

Your deliberations are a bit different. I might lose money but at least my piece is going to be just as I want it and the book itself looks pretty good. Whereas you will get paid (I assume) if you say yes to them but will end up with a piece you won't be proud of and maybe will even leave off your CV.

In your shoes, I'd walk away. I'd give an ultimatum first, but one I planned to back up. Then I'd submit it elsewhere. But I'm not you.

Remember, the time you spent on this essay is not wasted time if this place doesn't publish it. You can submit it elsewhere. You can rework it for other publications. You can take your research and use it for other projects.

  • Thanks for the words of advice. The situation is complicated by other things depending on this appearing in a timely manner, but I have been able to come to a decision I'm comfortable with. – David Roberts Feb 13 at 9:24
  • Oh, and I have the contract in front of me, unsigned, with the accept fee and the kill fee. They know how to operate :-) – David Roberts Feb 13 at 11:02
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    If you have to sign the contract BEFORE the kill free is legally enforceable, maybe you overestimate how well they know how to operate :-) Walking away is always an option. Don't forget the proverb, "the first loss is the cheapest loss". The "other things depending on this" may just be digging the hole you are in deeper. – alephzero Feb 13 at 12:41
  • @alephzero no, the 'other things' are quite different :-) But thanks for the advice. I was thinking the psychological effect of seeing the difference in $ at this critical juncture. – David Roberts Feb 13 at 14:14
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    Yeah, it's hard to give advice not knowing the full situation. Honestly, my biggest concern is the hit to your reputation. If they published your essay with that level of editing, every last bit of it would reflect on you. Readers don't think "oh I bet that was great before the editors got ahold of it, too bad." They don't think "what a hackjob the editors did." They think "that writer, what a hack." Will the other publications/conferences/hosts/jobs/etc accept the altered version of your essay as the foundation for the subsequent things, as you're expecting? – Cyn Feb 13 at 15:07

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