Wake Up Call for Freelance Writers: Yes, You Will Get Revisions

By Linda Formichelli

A couple of months ago I hosted a Redbook editor on a Freelance Writers Den call about breaking into the women’s magazines, and I asked her to address revisions.

The problem: Writers take courses like my Write for Magazines class, hone their idea, write a kick-ass query, sell the query to a newsstand magazine, write the article — and then are shocked when the article comes back bleeding with red ink.

Three editors looked at the article, and each of them has different terrible things to say about your work. This tip isn’t working. This lede is trite. You need to find a better source. This paragraph doesn’t fit here. Oh, and can you find an attractive Hispanic woman in her mid-30s who went through this issue and has a good story?

And: Some of the comments contradict one another!

If your goal is to write for a major newsstand magazine, I want to say: This will happen to you. I’m 100% sure of it. And it has nothing to do with the quality of your work.

Even the Redbook editor said it: You need to be ready to do extensive revisions no matter what. You have several editors looking at your work, and each one has a different viewpoint. Each one has a boss she needs to impress. And typically, there’s some huge deadline coming up so you need to get this revise turned around like asap.

Some people, like me, have a thick skin — so I never take it personally when I get like 50 comments on a 1,000-word piece. If you want to write for the newsstand magazines and you don’t have a thick skin, you need to develop one.

Or, you can make a perfectly fine living writing for smaller magazines like trades and custom pubs, which is what I mostly do because, though I don’t take it personally, I don’t enjoy the length and timeframe of the revision process at the consumer magazines.

How about you: Have you ever been gobsmacked by a revision from a newsstand magazine? How did you get through it? Post your experiences in the Comments below!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
32 comments… add one
  • I don’t write for newsstand magazines, but I’ve definitely been smacked in the face with a laundry list of revisions on web content articles that I thought were God’s gift to writing.

    Usually, I’m pretty good about understanding that the writing isn’t about me – it’s about the client. If he or she doesn’t like my work, it’s not a personal commentary on everything I’ve ever done or will do in my career. It just means that I need to make some changes to make the writing right for the client.

    Of course, that realization is usually easier to achieve after a 20-minute break from the computer, a sound verbal thrashing of the client to my husband and a glass of wine 🙂 Your results may vary…

    • I love that you can keep a sense of humor about it all! And yes…I have a thick skin but I certainly don’t enjoy revisions, so my husband and best friend get to hear ALL about it.

  • Having grown up on a steady diet of art critiques and writing critiques (from elementary school through college and in front of the entire class), I’m pretty spiffy with edits. When I write, it’s with the expectation that it’s going to happen. As a brilliant colleague of mine put it, “Don’t marry your work.”

    On those few occasions on which it catches me off guard, I have a nice little rant to my desk toys and lemme tell ya—it’s hard to stay too mad for too long when all your desk does is smile back at you. I even have a stuffed Happy Pill that laughs when I squeeze it. Works every time.

    Currently, (like right this moment) I’m in the middle of revisions that, summed up, go like this: “We love what you did. Now please replace it with this exact copy instead.”

    Awesome. I get to spend this morning copying and pasting. (Squeezes toy – all better.)

  • I’ve definitely had edits happen with a newstand mag. What makes it easier for me is never allowing myself to fall deeply in love with my words. It makes the editing process so much harder. And if there is something I do love, I always save it. It may not have made the cut for print, but at least I know it lives on in my hard drive.

  • Thanks for this! I used to worry this was a reflection of my work, and then I had an opportunity to meet one of my editors in New York. She’d just come from a meeting with a new editor in chief, and because that editor liked different things than the last, that weekend’s travel story had just been pulled for revisions. It made me realize that my editor is answering to many other people–and she’s navigating what they want and don’t want just like I’d been working on getting to know her. it was honestly a relief.

    • Yes, exactly! It looks like a lot because it’s the input of like the entire editorial team.

  • As you may recall from my post in the Den, this just happened to me for the first time. And boy was I thankful for that call with the Redbook editor, because otherwise it would have been a SHOCK! I’ve been writing for newsstand magazines for a while, but none of them were paying high rates. And I had never been asked to edit, ever. So it would have been really upsetting when I got that revision request to basically start from scratch and rewrite the whole thing — if I hadn’t been expecting it.

    Fortunately, the editor told me afterward that the rewrite was “exactly what we wanted,” so I guess I passed!

    And yeah, thick skin is key. I don’t know how anybody can write without a really thick skin. I know most writers don’t have one. But I don’t know how they do it. Me, it takes a lot to upset me. Just don’t introduce a comma splice into my article. That will tick me off. It’s happened once, and I’m still bitter about it. Even though the magazine went out of business years ago.

    • LOL…I’m still upset about the time my 20-something editor at a nutrition magazine changed “It’s summertime, and the living is greasy” to “In the summer, the living can be greasy.”

  • Just finished a rewrite — to take out what the editor had thought was a good idea when I asked her if I could add some details she hadn’t requested. What helped was a while back, I created 3×5 cards to help me get over my thin-skin-hatred of criticism! Here what I had on those 3×5 cards: Handling criticism well helps me turn a negative situation into a positive situation. Handling criticism correctly helps me move on from mistakes and get the best results in my professional and personal life. I focus on the good qualities in the people around me to help me learn. I know that criticism is given to help me improve, not given to hurt me.
    So when I got the request for a rewrite, these phrases came to my mind right away. But I love the ideas of desk toys, too! You can never have too much good stuff for you get a rewrite request! Now for the kicker — the rewrite actually made the piece better! Wowza.

    • That’s a great idea. I actually have index cards I look at when I’m feeling to depressed to move…they have great sayings given to me by a therapist at Canyon Ranch!

  • I’ve never really had huge revisions on consumer magazines. Sure the editor has made minor changes, sometimes after emailing me first to clarify a couple of things. My romance novels are another story. My publisher’s editor is the first person to tell me I’m a head hopper so I really keep an eye on the POV now. The editing process is all about making a good book (or article) outstanding.

    • Wow, lucky you! I want to know who you’ve been writing for. 🙂 But of course you’re right — their goal is to craft the best article.

  • Linda–I was on that call with the Redbook editor and so appreciated what she and you had to say as I was in the middle of a major revision of an article I sold to Parents. To complicate matters, there was an editorial change in the middle of things so in many ways I felt like I was starting all over again. What I did to take away the sting was to set it up as a challenge–I was determined to win this editor over. And in retrospect, I have to admit that the article turned out stronger than it was before.

    Your comment in a recent webinar with the editor of a trade magazine was interesting. You said that while the higher paying markets may pay more per word, when you factor in the time involved considering revisions, the actual pay may come closer to trades. I hear ya!

    • Wow, sounds like the Den call came at just the right time! And yes…I’ve never actually calculated it, but the consumer magazine articles were often so involved that my hourly rate plummeted.

  • Not taking revision requests personally is something I still struggle with, whether it’s for a website, trade pub or client. I definitely personalize these things and take it as a sign that the editor doesn’t like my writing (worst fear!). I’ve never had totally asinine requests, though. Almost always, the revisions make it a stronger piece. I just worry that not turning in stellar copy makes the editor think I’m a hack! Ah, the life of a writer.

    • I hope this posts helps you out…in many cases it’s not you, it’s them! And keep in mind that almost everyone gets revise requests, sometimes extensive ones.

  • This is why I’ve moved away from women’s magazines. I’m willing to put in the time to revise a piece but even at $1 or $2 a word, the hourly rate can be frustratingly low after several rounds of editing by committee. In one case, I rewrote a women’s magazine article six times (they wanted to double the word count, try a different format, etc) before it was finally killed. Now I mainly write for websites and trade publications and while there can be requests for revisions, it’s usually more minor and there are fewer of the contradictory edits you mentioned.

  • As a still-new freelancer with only six articles sold so far (and all to the same editor, bless him), I was indeed a bit gobsmacked when my first article appeared and I discovered that about half of it had been revised. I was far too green to realize that this was not atypical, though I suspected such. Fortunately, the changes only improved the piece, and this has been the case almost every time – so I’m trying to learn from them. I’ve also had to rewrite twice, but in both cases the rewrites were accepted, and I appreciated the opportunity to do so.

    But I know I’ve still got a lot to learn….

    • So true — while we can be surprised by revise requests (and changed editors make to our articles), it’s all about learning to write better. That said, you can be an awesome writer, and when you’re getting edited by committee you’ll still have your article returned to you covered in red ink!

  • I landed an assignment a few years ago for a major regional pub. I had done 2 other stories for them but came up against an obstacle with a different editor. He wanted a completely different writing style than my own or what I was comfortable with (using profanity). He also insisted I obtain some financial information from the company I was writing about, even when the company refused to divulge it. After asking the company nicely 2x, I told the editor I would not harass them further. I knew this would probably end the relationship I had built with that pub but I held to my principles. The article came out w/ his lede and some numbers (don’t know where he got them). I’ve not written for them since and am content sticking w/ my little daily newspapers that pay less but are completely congenial.

    • Good for you! But don’t let that bad experience turn you off on seeking better-paying assignments. I wrote for a local newspaper once way back when, and I remember what they paid…something like $40 for a feature article. There IS a happy medium!

  • Anna

    My day job is a technical writer and I constantly write-by-committee with developers who disagree and contradict each other. Hopefully this experience will help me since what you describe isn’t new at all. I sometimes reach the point I want to day “I’ll change it to whatever you want! Green eggs and ham! Just agree on something!”

  • I actually enjoy the input from editors. In the end, when the piece is published, I always feel it’s a better piece thanks to the revisions. I don’t take the revision-process personally – unless the editor says “wow – you suck. You obviously can’t write the piece I want so I’ll just do it for you” which thankfully, has never happened, so I can only take the revisions as a positive sign that the editor wants to have a good working relationship and is willing to make suggestions to help me improve my work. My advice? Study the revisions and include these points in your next piece of work for that editor. They’ll appreciate it and continue to assign to you.

    • I love your attitude — it shows practicality and resilience. I agree…always great to learn from revisions.

  • Thick skin is an essential trait for every writer. I think that your insight into how to handle (and expect) criticism and rejection is spot on! Great post!

    • Thanks! BTW, I checked out your blog…I hope you get a good response from the agent about your pitch letter! I thought it was nicely done.

  • When I was published in regional glossies, I didn’t receive any revision requests. So, I was worried when I was asked to revamp a third of my first national consumer magazine assignment. While my editor loved what I sent in (how could she not, she helped shape it?), her editor had a different opinion. He wanted something very different. I was worried that my writing wasn’t up to par and that I would never get another assignment. My only hope? That my ready-and-willing attitude and speedy revisions would help me score more assignments. (Little did I know that major revisions are a standard.)And, turns out that the same editor threw me another assignment (which also required revisions on about a third of it), and then another and, cross my fingers, potentially a fourth. What’s that saying? 80% of success is showing up, 15% is being nice and 5% is hard work and talent (okay, I’m kind of making this up, but it sounds good).

Leave a Comment