Q: I just received edits from the literary magazine that is publishing my story, and while some of them are improvements, I don’t agree with all of them. Do I have to make every single one? — CG, New York City
A: First, congratulations! Most literary journals publish only a small percentage of the submissions they receive, and having a piece accepted is a big accomplishment. So first — celebrate.
Then, you’ll need to deal with the edits. How heavily a story is edited depends entirely upon the magazine and the editors — sometimes you’ll find that editors make a lot of suggestions; other times they’ll accept a story with very few minor changes. It can be jarring, at first, to have your story returned with a lot of changes — so my first tip would be to read through all the edits, then put the story away for a bit (deadlines permitting). It often takes a little time to absorb the idea of edits as well as the edits themselves.
Next, go through the edits and see which ones you agree with; these are the easy ones to make. If there are still a few suggestions that you don’t agree with and would like to stet (stet=let it stand), then you’ll have to make choices. In my experience, I’ve found that most editors are fairly flexible and that their suggestions are usually just that: suggestions. So if you’ve reread your piece, given it a little time and space, and still disagree with an editor’s suggestions, go ahead and make a case for keeping these sections as is. Reply to the editor and thank him/her for the suggested changes and explain why you want to stet the edits. And have a good reason, not just “I like it better this way”; editors usually have a good reason behind every edit, even if it may not be immediately clear to you. And being polite and appreciative will go a long way — thoughtful editing takes a lot of time and energy, and before rejecting any changes, you’ll want to show that you’ve given the changes some thought and have good reasons for asking to stet them.
You may get to keep your darlings — but you may find that your editor is adamant about the changes. In this case, you’ll have a couple of things to consider. First, how much do you feel the edits change your story, and second, can you live with these changes? If you don’t agree with them but find that the heart and soul of your story remains intact, it may be worth it to let go. There’s quite a bit of give-and-take involved in the editing process, so think about which changes you can accept and which you absolutely cannot. Then, pick your battles.
If you find that there are certain changes you absolutely can’t accept, be prepared for an editor to stand firm — sometimes publication is contingent on your making certain changes. I once had a story accepted that was contingent upon my changing the ending. After careful consideration, I felt that changing the ending in the way the editor suggested didn’t fit the theme of the story as a whole, and I declined to make the change. As a result, the magazine withdrew its offer of publication, and the story wasn’t published for many years. Still, I don’t regret the decision I made — endings are a big deal, and I would rather have waited than to have had the story published in a way that didn’t feel right.
On the other hand, there have been many other times in which I’ve given in to changes I don’t love because I wanted to see the story out in the world. These changes have been easier to make because even if I don’t love or entirely agree with them, in the end, I realize that the changes don’t affect the story in a big way and are likely noticeable only to me.
At the risk of sounding snooty, another thing for you to consider is the caliber of the magazine in question. You should always be submitting only to journals that you like, respect, and would be proud to see your work appear in — but again, you don’t know until you’ve been accepted how heavily your work might be edited. If you’re an emerging writer and The New Yorker is asking you to make a couple of changes prior to publishing your story, I’d say be open to that (be very open to that). If it’s a smaller, lesser known journal and you feel the changes alter your story in a way you’re not comfortable with, you might consider declining to make the changes so that you have a chance to see your story published exactly the way you envision it.
So in the end, it’s a bit of a balancing act. You’ll want to 1) pick your battles in terms of which changes to make and which to fight for; and 2) be as flexible as possible and hope your editors will be the same; and 3) weigh the pros/cons of your story appearing in the magazine a little differently than you’d like versus it not appearing at all.
And, finally, keep in mind that it’s always going to be your story. Even if you make minor changes per one editor’s tastes, the rights will revert back to you after publication, and you can publish the story exactly the way you want it in your own collection.
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