What is the typical editing process like?

How often do freelancers “get it right the first time”? How can you tell what a typical editing process is like at a publication if you’re on the outside? It seems to vary so wildly (for example, at [REDACTED PUBLICATION] I get barely any editing, not necessarily a plus either). But AT [DIFFERENT PUBLICATION] the various go-rounds are making me worry I’m a high-maintenance edit and they’ll decide they won’t have time for me in the future. I really want to be a dream freelancer for editors, and I think I’ve been pleasant, punctual with deadlines and open to suggestions and criticism thus far. But I also know how this works and if they have to spend too much time editing me and sending pieces back several times to further hone arguments, it’s not a good deal for them, no matter how pleasant I am. Are a lot of go-rounds ever normal? How can I maintain a good relationship when I didn’t hit this one piece I’m currently working on out of the park on the first (erm, and second) try?

Every editor is different and so is every publication. Some editors love my first draft and just publish it as-is. (When I was an editor, we used to call this a “code ‘n’ load.”) Other times, I do six or seven rewrites (true story– this is often the case at super-mainstream magazines where their editorial “tone” seems totally clear to the editors and totally opaque to me, even if I’ve read the magazine dozens of times). That being said, I still think the best way to prepare yourself is to READ the place you’re writing for. If I’m extra unsure, I’ll send a thesis graf or even a rough outline to the editor to ask if I’m on the right track. I also try to ask up front if an editor can send me a few recent examples of things they’ve published that I can use as a point of reference for the thing I’m writing. You can sort of break it down from there– ok, they like pieces that begin with the news hook, then come in strong with the argument, then reference the online conversation around this issue…. whatever.

But it’s still no guarantee. Sometimes the editing process is… a process. And it’s really hard to know what that process is going to be like before you’ve been through it before at a particular publication. Sometimes a lower-level editor is like, “it’s perfect!” then sends it back to you for a total rewrite after her boss takes a look at it. 

Nothing bothers me more than when an editor has prodded my argument into submission and totally changed my tone, then comes back with an editing comment like, “We need more of your voice in here!” Like, I want to throw my laptop across the room. Never do that– MacBooks are expensive. And also never reply with something snotty or angry. Wait a few hours or days and send a friendly, level-headed, accommodating reply. And take it under consideration before you accept the next assignment from this particular editor.

If you write more than four or five pieces with the same editor at the same outlet and you feel like you aren’t getting it right– ask for some macro-level feedback. The editor has as much interest as you do in making your words work! And if they’ve come back to you that many times, you’re obviously doing something right.

I think lots of communication–except for when you’re angry and frustrated and haven’t cooled off yet– is the key to being a dream freelancer. It’s always tough to find a balance between your own voice and opinions and preferences and the editorial mandate of the publication you’re working for, and good editors understand that.