by Toni L.P. Kelner
As I write this, the writerly sections of the web are still buzzing about the experiences of Mandy DeGeit. DeGeit had a story accepted for an anthology, but when the anthology was published, she found that without her knowledge, her story had been substantially rewritten. The editor of the anthology has since apologized, but the damage has been done. (Here's the link for DeGeit's original post about it, and there are links to other blog postings.)
As an anthology editor myself, I followed the story with indignation, and would like to go on record as saying I would never treat a writer that way.
But I can't.
I can only say I will never treat a writer that way again.
You see, DeGeit's reminded me of an incident I hadn't thought about in many years. When I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I was Features Editor at The Carolina Journal, the student newspaper. I had only had the position a month or two when I asked a brand-new staff reporter to write a piece about the local flea market. He did so, but when I went to copyedit it, I didn't think it was good enough. So I rewrote it, filling in with my own experiences from that flea market, and sent the piece to be typeset. When that issue of the Journal came out, the reporter was exceedlingly upset.
At the time, I thought I'd been justified. His story came in late, and it was poorly written, I was on deadline and had no way to contact the reporter for a rewrite, and I had a gap in the features page I needed to fill. So if I even bothered to apologize, I'm sure I did a lousy job of it. I honestly thought I'd done the right thing.
I was wrong.
In retrospect, I'm embarassed by how insufficient my excuses were. Was his story late? Sure, but it was a student newspaper. Most of our stories were late. Was the article poorly written? Maybe, but maybe I just didn't like it. At the time I'm not sure I had the experience to know the difference. Was I on deadline? Absolutely. Did I have a gap in the paper? Sure, but that wasn't the reporter's problem. I could have let it go blank, written an article myself, or even just run the story as is.
What I did was the worse choice. I betrayed my writer.
To make it even worse, my actions led to all kinds of bad feelings at the paper and a ludicrous amount of infighting. Rude comments flew back and forth, there were petty acts of revenge, everybody was taking sides--basically the pre-internet version of a flame war. By the time the fire died down, the reporter had been elected the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal, and he let some people go and others left in a huff. So not only was I out of job, but a lot of better-qualified people were no longer on the paper either. (Fortunately, the editor was mature enough to let most of them back onto the staff later on.)
All because I didn't know how to be a good editor.
Fortunately that was a long time ago, when I was younger and vastly less experienced. Since then, I've had years of working with good editors and learning what editors are supposed to do. That means I don't change a contributor's story without permission, and I let my contributors see their stories at every step of the process. Now I know the difference between editing and rewriting. Anybody who claims to be an editor should learn those lessons first.
So while I will continue to follow DeGeit's story, I can't do so from any moral high ground. All I can say that while I'm sure I'll mistakes as an editor in the future, that's one I'll never make again.
POSTSCRIPT: I have not named the reporter in question because I'm not sure he'd want his name bandied about, and I can't check with him because I have no idea where he ended up. If any readers have contact information for the first editor of the UNCC 49er Times, please let me know--I would like to send him a much belated apology.