What if I disagree with my editor?

If you’ve never worked with a publication’s editor before, navigating the relationship can feel a bit tricky. Every editor has a different communication style, and every publication has different editorial guidelines. What passes muster with one editor may not satisfy another. In fact, the same editor can sometimes send conflicting messages. While they might quickly approve an article featuring one expert, they might cut several paragraphs from a similar article about another.

What should you do if you disagree with your editor? When can you push back? When should you just let it go? And what will happen if you do push back?

Even professional writers get upset when their work is heavily edited and nervous when they have to push back. If an editor has already invested their time and energy into your work, they are unlikely to pull the piece simply because you respectfully disagree. Give your editor the benefit of the doubt and look at your writing from their perspective so you know the best way to address the issue.

Remember that your editor is your partner.

Editors are working with you, not against you. They want your article to be as strong and compelling as possible; most edits are made to accomplish those goals.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to see your article marked up and torn apart.

The first time I wrote an article for a magazine, you could barely see the words for all the red ink! Sitting in a coffee shop across from my editor, I was mortified. My writing career was over before it even got started. I was also angry. I told her I wasn’t a writer when she first mentioned the idea. Why didn’t she listen?

Before I could spin out further, she told me I did an excellent job with my piece and asked if I would keep writing for the magazine.

I took a deep breath and a closer look at the article. There was a lot of red ink. But by looking at each edit and comment individually, I started to see my piece from her perspective. I realized how a little bit of restructuring would make the piece a lot stronger.

When an editor asks a question, they really do want to know what you think. They are opening a dialogue with you and want to understand your perspective. Their goal is to make sure your piece is crafted well and will reach the intended audience.

The more closely you can work with your editor, the better your article will be. Good editors appreciate a healthy and productive back-and-forth, so be forthcoming with your thoughts, and if you disagree with your editor, let them know why. If you understand the editor’s concerns but disagree with their proposed resolution, offer an alternative.

Understand the competing interests at play.

An editor’s first loyalty is to the reader. Publications exist to serve their readers, and editors will review every article from that perspective. Readers are the lifeblood of every publication. Annoy, confuse, or belittle them, and they will go elsewhere.

One of the quickest ways to annoy your readers is to treat them like walking wallets and publish articles that are nothing more than thinly disguised marketing collateral. If your editor thinks something you wrote is overly promotional, they will cut it (and you should let them). If what they cut changes the tone of the piece, offer an alternative paragraph or two so you still make your point but aren’t promoting your work or someone else’s work.

Knowing what is and what is not overly promotional is more of an art than a science. What is approved and published today might be cut from your next article. Don’t feel bad if you cross the line; keep learning so you can become a more and more valuable contributor.

An editor’s second loyalty is to the publication, which can get tricky.

There’s always been a bit of tension between the advertising and editorial departments of magazines. Magazines have always relied heavily on advertising revenue, so keeping advertisers happy was in the best interest of the publication and the primary interest of the advertising department.

When I wrote for a now-defunct print magazine, some of my assignments were first proposed by advertisers. If they had a good project that fit into the magazine’s editorial calendar, we’d write a piece about it. The problem arose when the advertising department asked the editor to promote the advertiser in the article. In those cases, the editor had to negotiate with the advertising department and the writer.

You aren’t likely to run into this exact scenario, but you will still feel the tension between advertising and editorial.

Traditional business publications with an online presence still depend on advertising revenue. Online advertising revenue, however, is driven by the amount of traffic the website receives. Traffic is driven by search engine optimization (SEO), which is driven by a never-ending stream of high-quality content.

Because SEO is crucial to the publication’s business model, editors may change an article’s title, subtitle, first few lines, and subheadings to make it more compelling. So long as they don’t change the tone of your piece, understand that they are doing it to entice more people to read it. If you can’t stomach a change, contact your editor. Explain your position and offer an alternative solution.

Protect your reputation.

While you want to have a good relationship with your editor, at the end of the day, your name is on the piece, and you have to be able to stand by it. In other words, you are responsible for what gets published under your name.

Choose your battles. Not every edit you disagree with is critical, and editors are busy. If you can let it go, do so. Speak up if a name is misspelled or a factual error has been incorporated into the piece. Editors want your article to be accurate as much as you do, so they will likely rectify the mistake quickly.

When you raise a concern, be polite and respectful. If that means you have to walk around the block before responding to your editor, do it. You want a good working relationship with your editor, and polite disagreement is a sign of respect and shows that you take your work seriously. Be clear about why the edit doesn’t work, and offer an alternative solution.

As a freelance writer, I vehemently disagreed with an editor on only a handful of occasions. Generally, I want to offer my editor as much support as possible because they know I only object when it’s important.

Anytime my editor asked me to promote an advertiser in an article I wrote for the home and garden magazine, I would do my best to help my editor appease the advertising department. But I refused to write an advertorial (an advertisement that looks like an editorial article). As the person with her name on the piece, I got to decide what was overly promotional and what was acceptable.

Only once did I have to stand firm and flat-out refuse to make a requested change. I told my editor that I understood where she was coming from and that the changes could be made to the article so long as my name was taken off the piece. I wasn’t privy to the conversations my editor had, but I know she fought like hell for me. My article was published as written — with my name as the byline.

As a freelance writer, I could take my name off a piece because I would still be paid for it, and my articles weren’t about me. As an expert, however, you always want your work published with your name because it is about you, your expertise, and your perspective. So, while you may not have the option to take your name off a piece, you can pull a piece if you and your editor can’t reach an agreement. Most editors will respect your decision. And once you’ve pulled a piece, you are free to publish it on your blog, as a LinkedIn article, or on another third-party publication.

Navigating disagreements with your editor can feel uncomfortable, but remember that this is a conversation with a colleague, and the publication wants your content as much as you want to write for the publication. A good editor will welcome your questions and concerns and do their best to address them. Before you push back, seek to understand your editor’s perspective. Stay curious, polite, and respectful. And always offer an alternative solution.