A Writer Not Dangerous But Difficult

By an articles editor

A freelancer had written for a magazine I’d previously worked for, but it was after I’d left, so I’d never worked with her myself. After I was at my current job, I met her at a party. She was a pleasant person and eager to get an assignment, so I left the door open for pitches. As we were saying goodbye, her partner, also at the party, looked me in the eye and said something like “Treat her well.” At the time I thought, “Hmm.”

Not long after that, I gave the writer an assignment, basically an informational service piece. The draft she turned in was wordy and overwritten, full of flowery language that called attention to itself. I pared it down to the basics, which was all it needed to be, and she raised a fuss, with a deeply aggrieved tone, saying I had taken out her voice.

I pride myself on being respectful with writers, and I have reasons for every editing change I make; after editing, I’m open to discussion, within reason. There was lots of back and forth with this writer till we reached a compromise that mostly favored the magazine’s side. I made some small concessions but was clear that it would essentially have to run as edited or not at all. She backed down but was unhappy. I vowed never to work with her again.

The irony: The article, which was accompanied by some very striking photos, won an award from a non-journalism organization. There was an awards dinner I declined to attend, though she did and I wish her well.

The lesson was to pay attention to red flags, even the odd little ones you don’t know quite what to make of, such as her partner’s comment to me at the party. My guess is that this writer had had editors in the past who handled her copy in a way that wasn’t to her liking, and I suspect she didn’t take it well. Her partner apparently felt she’d been mistreated.

Even on small stories, you still have to deal with a writer’s personality and ego. Sometimes it just isn’t worth it.

What kind of writers do you think are the hardest to work with or the most dangerous to good journalism?  Any further thoughts will be welcomed—either as a comment to this post or as a separate post.

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