A few weeks ago I queried the editor of an environmental journal with the idea of writing up a review of “The Descendants.” I felt that an important and intriguing part of the film’s message was being ignored: its environmental imperative. I wanted to write an ecocritical review, something about how the film uses human drama to bring attention to the importance of conservation, as opposed to showcasing human drama merely for its own sake. The idea was well suited for the journal and its mission.
The editor said yes, and I was thrilled. It was the first thing I’d written since I had my surgery, and it felt fantastic to be writing again. Not only that, I was guaranteed to have it published. And finally, it was a journal I’d wanted to get published in for awhile – I thought it’d be a nice stepping stone for getting published in bigger nature journals.
I saw the movie again, took notes in the theatre, wrote up the piece the same afternoon, and sent it to the editor, who through correspondence was very nice to me. And then, something totally unexpected.
The editor sent the tiny little essay of 640 words back to me with “mostly minor changes.” I opened up the file with the disposition to accept whatever adjustments had been made without question. What I found was a more mangled, hideous, and distorted version of my writing than I would have ever been comfortable publishing, complete with an entire column of red commentary on the right side of the page with the most asininely workshoppy comments imaginable, such as “needs verb variety here” in reference to when I used a ‘to be’ verb in a place where only a ‘to be’ was appropriate.
I was shellshocked. Every little bit of my own personality had been smothered and suffocated. Every edit except two had made the writing worse, changed the meaning to something I didn’t mean at all, or was simply wrong. For instance, I’d referenced that “The Descendants” the movie was based off a novel by the same title, The Descendants. A novel must be italicized, a movie is in quotes, but the editor had changed it so both were in quotes, which is wrong.
What pissed me off the most was that this editor deleted my last line, which was a reference to something that Clooney’s character had said during the movie and I’d quoted in the essay. I thought it resonated. Now my ending was totally blah, and good endings are something I take pride in.
I’d worked with a different editor before who would routinely make a few corrections to my writing that mostly just made it a little worse, but because they were always so few it didn’t bother me. I was happy to concede, especially in order to get my work published. I wrote a bunch of articles for that editor’s site, and for free.
This time I was also working for free. I’m more than eager to begin receiving compensation for my writing – I consider it a milestone, and a sign of respect – but I’ve published a lot of work for free because I want to build up my credentials and get experience. Most of all, I just want people to be reading my writing. I worry all the time that if I don’t start refusing to write without compensation – even if only a token amount – then the fantasy that editors will eventually start offering to pay will remain exactly that.
This time, the editor hadn’t even shown me a semblance of respect by allowing my words to actually be my own. If you’re paying me, fine, fidget with my words, but if not, let me have my voice at least.
After a sanity restoring consultation with my girlfriend, whose opinion I immensely respect because she’s, first, very smart, and second, happens to be a (get ready for it) editor, I decided what I would do. I would accept only the changes where I could still see myself in my writing, which was less than half. I sent it back to the editor with those changes. The whole exchange felt so absurdly passive-aggressive that even if it had ended right there I would’ve been uncomfortable. But it didn’t end like that. The editor took my changes, threw a bunch of garbage back in, and then published it.
For some, maybe the essay looks perfectly decent. But when I can’t even see myself in my writing, when I’m writing for free and my words can’t even be my own, then I don’t see the point anymore.
The experience was a major reason why I decided to create my own blog. If I’m going to write for free, it’ll be for my own website, and I’ll be in control. I don’t want to be doing others the favor of providing free content and drawing visits to their website, even if only a trickle, and be disrespected in return.
But in the end, I’m happy how it all went down. My site looks better than theirs.