Friday, December 11, 2009

Thickening my skin, the journalism way!

In my spare (ha!) time, I write freelance bar and restaurant reviews for a few local papers and Web sites. Recently, I went to a bar that was so awful and awkward, it could only be defined by this:

Ladies and gentlemen, the awkward turtle. 

So when it came time to write the review, I didn't know where to start. As a result, my writing was just as awkward - if not more so - than my experience. I rambled. I told stories that didn't matter. And I trashed the place, going more than 250 words over my word count (and my word count is only 500 words). 

It's no surprise, then, that when I got the edits back, it looked a LOT different than what I had submitted. But rather than get worked into a fury over this, I was relieved. The editors over at the TBT/St. Pete Times took my messy piece of junk and turned it into something readable, nay, enjoyable. They cut down the word count, and turned my lumbering, rambling, incoherent mess into a usable clip which didn't trash the bar so much as tactfully point out its flaws and areas for improvement. I was thankful, and let my editor know as much.

I wasn't always this way. I remember the very first time I ever got published. A story I wrote about my travels in Pompeii was chosen for inclusion in a travel anthology called Italy from a Backpack. I was so excited, and as soon as I got my copy in the mail, I flipped immediately to my page, where I almost cried. They had changed the title of my story - how dare they! I agonized over the title, and thought mine, "The Lost City of Pompeii" tied everything together perfectly, while theirs, "Not as Seen on TV" was so cheesy it was unbelievable. Then I read the thing, and WOW. THEY MADE CHANGES. HOW DARE THEY.  I was crushed, and in every letter to friends and family, or every time I mentioned the book, I would tell people all about the edits and how it changed the story in a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad way.

Looking back, I know the changes they made were so minor I wouldn't even notice them today. And the title? Please. I could care less about that now, because about 95 percent of the stories I submit to my editors at my day job and freelancing get their titles changed. Just yesterday, in fact, I submitted a story to my editor, and in the email I wrote, "You can change the headline, BTW. That one's just for you." (And it was - the story was about the government long term care insurance plan - the CLASS Act - and I called it, "You stay CLASSy, Congress." I didn't expect her to keep it, I expected her to get a good laugh, then use some modification of the subhead. Which is exactly what she did.) 

After all these years in journalism, I've developed a thick skin when it comes to edits. I know an editor will look at my work with a heavy red pen, tear it to shreds, take out all the ugly words and replace them with shiny new ones. I used to care, but I don't anymore. Because at the end of the day, the article sounds WAY better, and it's still my byline. Sometimes I even read the article, wondering if I really wrote those words, but I never check my original draft (that would be torture). What's more, it's allowed me to become a better writer. I'm starting to write my work articles more in the style of my editor, which I hope makes her job just a little easier. My two freelance jobs might both require me to write reviews, but the two organizations have such different styles that I have to turn a switch in my head when I go from writing one to writing the other. 

I also hope, when I one day make my deal with the universe, meet my agent, and have that all-important meeting with the book editor, I can sit comfortably knowing that, no matter what they tell me to cut or revise, it's still my name on the front of the book.

BONUS FUN: Here's a link to an edited version of a recent review I wrote (it ran in yesterday's Times and today's TBT). It's pretty true to what I turned in, except for the ending. See if you notice the difference between the final paragraph in that link, and this, the paragraph I submitted:

While enjoying my second beer, I chatted with the bartender and some of the other patrons. I even skimmed a few articles in the Union Jack, then paid my tab and went home. 
Grind House is a great little bar. The food menu is huge, and they have some great drink specials. They even have the occasional special parties for Halloween or St. Patrick’s Day. Although they’re not doing anything especially unique, there isn’t an annoying gimmick to get in the way of your drinking, either. If you’re just looking for a regular bar with good prices and a pleasant atmosphere, pay Grind House Bar and Grill a visit.  


  1. That's a very mature, professional way to take edits. Most of the time I think an editor's changes improve the piece exponiently (in one case, an editor simply rearranged the order of the first few paragraphs and it flowed a lot better). But occasionally when I'm writing for a more chatty, lifestyly pub, they'll dumb down the writing and I think it just sounds, well, like it was written by a teeny-bopper from the valley. In those cases, I won't say anything to my editor (she knows the readers and the voice better than I would), but I also won't add it to my portfolio.

    And I'm surprised that your anthology editor didn't send you a galley to review. That's how it's worked with the anthologies I've been part of, and it's nice to know how the finishd essay will read. Sometimes I'll review my version and their version side-by-side so I can see where to improve next time to really nail the voice that the editor wants.


Loved it? Hated it? Either way, I want to hear what you thought!

Copyright 2009

See Heather Write
. Powered by Blogger
Blogger Templates created by Deluxe Templates
Wordpress by Wpthemesfree