No matter how many publications I write for, how many stories I knock out of the park (go me!) or how confident I feel in my talent — there is still a fresh panic when an editor sends a piece back for edits. Sometimes, it’s just to restructure a paragraph. Or maybe because they need additional clarity around something that wasn’t inherently clear.
There have been very few times in my professional tenure when I’ve had a bad edit where a piece needed to be completely rewritten or in a worse case — killed. Even so, it’s a scary moment for every writer, especially those who pursue the profession full-time. Many wordsmiths worry about their reputation and about burning a bridge with a promising new client or an existing one.
But while it can definitely put a hiccup in your workflow or make you second-guess your work — the truth is, it happens to everyone. Even those journalists who went on to win Pulitzers, publish best-selling novels and build six-figure empires have missed the mark on an assignment.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity or self-doubt though, seasoned writers say it’s best to create a tactical and effective game plan.
Here’s how you can recover from extensive edits and harsh writing criticism:
1. Don’t take it personally.
It’s one of the infamous Four Agreements — and likely, the toughest one of all. Because most writers associate their craft as a major part of not only their life and work but their identity, revisions can feel personal. And sometimes, even an attack on their character. In reality, though, they’re not.
As freelance editor and writer Rebecca Fox explains, a bad edit isn’t about you — but the story. When you think of it as a learning experience, it becomes less negative and more productive:
Freelancers who do well with me are the ones who don’t freak out under the tiniest bit of criticism, and the ones who adjust for future so they don’t get the same feedback twice.
Fox also says an editor or client isn’t there to embarrass, belittle or ‘school’ a freelancer; they just want a specific, quality piece that meets their needs. “Whether ghostwriting or not, submitting pieces still count for references or credit, so true professionals want every piece to be as good as possible.”
2. Don’t ghost.
Some people are warriors in the face of conflict. Others… quite literally run in the other direction, hop a flight and bury themselves deep into the sand somewhere in Mexico. If you’re uncomfortable with feedback — especially critical notes — you may be tempted to ghost on your editor. Though it’s a normal reaction for some, it’s better to face the music, according to writer and consultant Michelle Garrett.
Especially if part of the bad edit was a miss on your part, editors will value those freelancers who are quick to take responsibility. “If you feel you were at fault in any way for the piece not being up to par, own up to it,” she continues.
I once failed to do an interview before starting to write. I wrote based on information the client provided without realizing until I got into it that the topic was much more technical than previous pieces I’d worked on. The client was understanding — but I recognized my mistake and apologized.
3. Ask to be edited in real-time.
When you turn in a draft and then you’re sent back a piece you don’t recognize as your own, it’s a little disheartening. And for some, frustrating, since it’s difficult to see exactly where the changes were made. Fox recommends Google Docs as an easy, beneficial method of feedback:
When you see a final draft, that’s helpful, but what’s even more helpful is understanding why or how it got to that final stage, especially if there are a ton of edits that almost convert the piece into a new document.
If your client or editor doesn’t use Google Docs, ask for another avenue for you to see changes, in real-time, to get a better grasp of the editing process.
Just remember: it’s not a place to argue but to learn. “If you do this though, it’s important to just silently observe and not ask the editor questions until afterward via email to not disturb their flow,” she adds.
4. Consult a fellow writer.
Though freelance writing is a competitive market, it’s also an ample community to build dynamic personal and professional relationships. The only other person who truly understands your workflow is a fellow wordsmith, and their advice can be invaluable when you’re facing a bad edit.
As travel, food and technology writer Leslie Lang shares, when you’re struggling, ask for a trained second pair of eyes. They may catch errors or see areas where improvement could be made that you’re blind to. And best of all? You can always return the favor for them, too.
5. Ask questions and be preventive.
Think about when you’re interviewing a source about a topic that’s a bit out of your wheelhouse. Do you tend to ask more questions than you usually do? At our core, writers are curious — and it’s part of our job to decode the facts and turn them into language everyone can understand.
If you feel as if your client is saying one thing but wanting another, it’s time to put on your journalist hat and get to the heart of the assignment. One way to approach this misunderstanding or miscommunication is to request more information from the start.
It may help to have upfront — in writing — the parameters for any future pieces you may be writing for them. Don’t get defensive about it, but perhaps suggest that a creative brief or template is completed for future assignments.
And if it is your first time writing for a publication or a company? Remind them of that when they turn back a piece for revision: “There are situations when this happens when it’s early in the relationship, in which case you’re learning the client’s style. If that is the situation, you hope the client understands and gives you an opportunity to turn in another version,” Garrett shares.
And if they don’t? Perhaps you should reconsider a working relationship, especially if you feel as if you’re putting your best work forward.
6. Accept when the fit isn’t right.
Much like when you’re in the market for a romantic partner, some clients are compatible with your voice and style, while others simply aren’t a match. No writer can be the go-to wordsmith for every topic under the sun, and understanding your niche, your limitations and your specific gift is an important part of becoming a self-aware professional.
Just because you experience a mismatch, doesn’t mean you’ll never find the right avenue for your work.
As Garrett shared:
I once had a client who told me that I should be writing much longer introductions to pieces — seems the standard is to write briefer introductions, cut the fat and get to the point — and that I also shouldn’t use any em dashes. That was a struggle because many of their suggested edits didn’t follow best practices.
So? She cut the chord to seek greener — and happier — opportunities.
7. Give yourself a break.
No, seriously — do! As freelance writer Jolene Latimer reminds, chances are high your editor has seen a lot of articles that are in worse shape than yours. And sure, ones that are better, too.
But having a bad day or a bad edit doesn’t define your career — rather, it helps it to grow.
Look at the document, address the requests, do the work and move forward:
Don’t panic if you see a lot of edits and don’t even necessarily feel like you have to address the amount of edits with your editor. Just play it cool and keep your communication professional.