On Working with Editors, Seeking Guidance, and Self-Advocating
A few weeks ago I received an email from a literary journal concerning an essay I had submitted. The email said that the editors had read my piece and felt “very strongly about it” and that the editorial staff was “currently working on revisions to the piece” and would be in touch within the week with their suggested edits. If I approved their suggestions, the email went on to say, they would love to publish the essay in an upcoming issue.
Upon opening this email and finding a response other than the typical “thanks but no thanks” form letter, I was, of course, quite pleased. What a great way to start the day with my morning coffee! While it wasn’t an out and out yes, it was nonetheless a potential. Editors had read my piece and felt strongly about it, I thought. Yay!
Then the anxiety set in. What are they going to do to it? What if they butcher it? This essay was one of my prize creations: a thirty-page, triple-thread, braided essay begun in grad school and finished while in residency at the Vermont Studio Center. I had worked on this piece long and hard, and in submitting it to this journal, I had already cut five pages in order to fit their maximum length requirement.
Only a week earlier, I had received a response from an editor of a different journal concerning a separate essay submission. The editor said if I was “willing to do the work” to rewrite the piece accommodating her suggestions, she’d love to see it again. Essentially, this editor wanted an overhaul away from the style of its structure and also a change of title. I had already put this essay through the wringer with multiple drafts, but mostly I was disinclined to rework the piece because the very things the editor did not like about it were deliberate choices I had made in its construction. After seeking the opinions of several writer friends who had already given me feedback on the piece, I decided against a revision. While the result of obliging the editor’s wishes might have resulted in an acceptance, I felt strongly in the form and structure of the piece I had created and chose to stand by it.
So when I received that tentative “yes” a week later, I knew there was a very real possibility the suggested edits could be changes I would not be willing to make. The flip side was I really wanted this essay to be accepted by this journal, which made me contemplate what sacrifices I might make if I did not agree with the suggestions.
A little over a week later, I got the results. Tentatively, I opened the document to peruse the track changes. All was well for a good long while; the suggested changes were ones I could easily make—changing from present tense to past, adding a bit of structure in the form of numbered sections—but then on page seventeen, things began to shift, and by page nineteen, where it was suggested to move a section of the braided essay to an earlier position, I began to feel the weight of choice. And then on page twenty-one, where I discovered they had cut an entire section, I realized the very thing I was anxious about had manifested.
But wait! This is not a sob story about how yet again I wasn’t willing to make the changes, so I lost out on another potential publication. No. This is a story about perseverance, seeking guidance, and advocating for my work.
Once again I sought counsel. This time from two wise people: both writers who have worked with editors, and one an editor of a literary journal. Both advised me to approach the editors in an easy-going and friendly manner, exhibiting enthusiasm and appreciation for their time and energy in editing the piece and letting them know how helpful their edits were. Then in a gentle manner, succinctly explain my reasoning for wanting to keep in original form those edits I did not agree with. While waiting for their reply, I could decide whether or not I would ultimately accept the edits if the editors responded firmly. The editor of the literary journal ended by saying:
As an editor, I’m totally willing to hear the writer’s point of view and go back and forth. Don’t be afraid to have that conversation with them.
I must disclose here that my husband was very happy I had sought this advice because it tempered my natural fighter response, forced me to slow down my reaction, and encouraged me to play nicely with others. All in all, a very good lesson.
It took me all day to write that email. Although I tried to be succinct in explaining my reasoning, due to the nature of the suggested edits and the complication of the triple-threads of the braided essay, the explanation was not a simple matter of a sentence or two. But in the end, the result was worth it. Three days later I received an acceptance; the editors had agreed to my suggestions.
The big takeaway here:
- Slow down
- Take the time to respond with care
- Seek advice when needed
- Trust your writerly instincts
- Don’t be afraid to have the conversation
- And advocate for your work!
It’s not a guarantee of success, but it’s a possibility.