1. When you’re publishing what you write, someone, somewhere will read it, and someone can be affected by it. This seems obvious, but when you first start writing, it’s usually for yourself. And this usually goes on long enough that it’s easy to forget anyone might ever read your words. Years later, you get a job writing for publication, and suddenly everything you type could land in front of someone’s face. When I got my first job as a reporter at The Daily Pilot — a local newspaper in Newport Beach, Calif. — I got a major lesson in how much power words could have. I wrote four stories per day about the local government and other goings-on, and I usually encountered the people I wrote about time and time again, in my professional life as well as at the grocery store (because I lived near work). Even though I was a 21-year-old barely able to figure out her own life, I suddenly had the power to do some serious damage — or good — to the careers of grown, extremely wealthy people. (Newport is one of the nation’s richest towns; see The O.C. for a fairly accurate dramatization.) This was quite stressful, but a great lesson.
2. Editors aren’t necessarily judging whether your writing is “good” or not when they make changes; they are just making your writing fit their publication. Of course, some of their edits really do make your writing better. I’ve learned a lot from great editors over my career. But just because they change something doesn’t mean it was “wrong,” once you’ve gotten past basic spelling and grammar fixes. Often they’re simply imposing their magazine or website’s style onto your piece. And a lot of publications have quite distinct voices that wouldn’t fly at other publications; editors at, say, The New Yorker would not put up with the most perfect Entertainment Weekly piece. (That’s not a slam on my former employer, just a fact.) Similarly, a Cosmo piece wouldn’t fly at Vogue. Or vice versa.
3. Good ideas don’t automatically mean sales. This is so disappointing, I know! I still kinda refuse to believe it, even as I write it now. Magazine and website editors aren’t often looking for “good” ideas in the same sense that writers tend to think of “good” ideas. I think interesting or important is good. Magazine editors have a bunch of other concerns: whether the idea reflects the idealized version of their demographic that they sell to advertisers; whether readers will think they “want” to read about a given topic; whether it will put their readers in a pleasant enough mood to buy advertisers’ products; and biggest of all, whether the headline they use to sell the story on the cover is “surprising” enough. (They also like things with numbers, and things that are “new,” as in: “57 New Ways to Get Great Abs” or whatever. Whether they’re really new, and there are really 57, is less important.) This applies, alas, even to book editors: They are marketers at least as much as they are literary mavens. They have to keep the money coming in. If they don’t like an idea, it is more likely to be from a marketing standpoint than a “good” standpoint. It’s a hard truth, but necessary to swallow if you want to make a living.
4. “Bad” for one might be “good” for another. The saving grace here? Just because one editor, publication, or publisher rejects something doesn’t mean it won’t work somewhere else. Sell it somewhere else. Take it where it’s wanted.