Neither digital nor print magazines have any responsibility to publish everything that is sent to them. First, this isn’t even physically possible. Second, many submissions are poorly written, badly argued or just not engaging enough to be of interest to the outlet’s readers. Third, outlets are well within their rights to have a scope and ethos. If you send an article on astrophysics to a magazine dedicated to parenting, it will be declined no matter how good it is.
Therefore, outlets that publish written arguments or think pieces do not and cannot have an absolute freedom of speech policy for what they will publish. Even those magazines that have been set up specifically for the purpose of supporting freedom of speech—and that solicit good arguments from as wide a range of political, ideological, cultural and philosophical positions as possible—will need to be selective. Nobody’s freedom of speech is denied if a magazine responds to them with I’m sorry, this is not a good fit for us, although the publication’s commitment to freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity can reasonably be questioned if it only ever publishes pieces from one viewpoint.
The problem that I wish to address, then, is not that certain outlets are selective in terms of quality, scope or ethos, but that too many apply overly aggressive editing that significantly changes the writer’s argument or tone. Changing a writer’s argument is clearly incompatible with claims to support freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity. And changing a writer’s tone can also distort what she is saying.
I write both as a former commissioning editor of the digital magazine that you are currently reading and as a writer who has been commissioned to contribute to other outlets. As an editor, I was committed to publishing people’s arguments intact in their own voices and would address unsound arguments or an uncharitable or hyperbolic tone in an otherwise strong piece before accepting the piece, in order to give the writer the option to make the necessary changes or to offer the piece elsewhere. As a writer, I have often had to assert my right to keep my own argument or tone and have occasionally had to retract a piece from a publication. I am very fortunate in that, if an outlet will not allow me to make an argument I believe to be sound in a tone that I believe to be measured and charitable, I have my own outlets to publish it in. Most writers don’t have this privilege, and it is on their behalf that I write this plea to publishers dedicated to freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity to remain true to those principles in the way they edit.
Editing to Change Arguments
When a publication that is committed to freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity accepts an article, the commissioning editor or copyeditor must accept that she may not agree with all the arguments that are presented in it. Disagreeing with arguments you publish is par for the course when editing such a magazine. I estimate that I agreed with a maximum of 25% of the essays I accepted for Areo. This is why Areo includes arguments both for and against Brexit and both for and against socialism and capitalism. The commissioning editor of an outlet dedicated to viewpoint diversity should never accept an article simply because she agrees with it or likes the writer, but because the argument is sound and worth considering, even if she herself is unconvinced by it.
Disagreeing with an argument is not the same thing as finding an argument unsound or lacking in supporting evidence. It is perfectly reasonable to reject an argument for bad reasoning or lack of evidence and an editor may often have to say to a writer I’m afraid I don’t think you have made your case, even if she is sympathetic to the article’s overall message. People spot flaws of reasoning and weak evidence much more easily in an argument for something they disagree with than in arguments for positions they are sympathetic to. Therefore, when receiving a submission that contains an argument with which she strongly agrees or disagrees, or that is written by a person she feels strongly about, an editor must be particularly conscientious about giving it a fair hearing and recognising that her own biases could affect her judgement.
Nevertheless, it worryingly often happens, in my experience, that outlets dedicated to free speech will try to edit out the bits of an article they don’t like or change them to something different. This not the same as questioning an author’s claims. I recently received an edited draft in which the editor questioned whether I really wanted to claim that Social Justice activists are generally well intentioned, but then accepted my reply of “Yes, I really do.” This is a good outlet that I now trust to genuinely support viewpoint diversity. However, at other times, I have received a draft that simply edits out large parts of my argument, leaving me with an imbalanced stance that I do not actually hold. I have then had to fight to have my genuine position reinstated or had to retract my piece. Outlets that do this are not, in reality, supporting viewpoint diversity at all.
Editing to Change Tone
This is a much trickier issue because all writers need editing and nearly all writers hate being edited. When you have spent considerable time crafting a paragraph of beauty, agonizing over every word until it is perfect, and then receive it back condensed to a couple of sentences, the pain is real. Nevertheless, this is something we writers have to accept because we need those fresh, professional eyes on our work. In our heads, our prose sounds perfectly clear and elegant, but that may not be how it sounds to an editor. Almost every editor I have ever had has broken up my lengthy, multiclause sentences—but this is because almost everyone except me finds them difficult to parse and the point of my writing is to convey information and argument to people who aren’t me.
So, writers have to accept that they may not be aware when their own writing is clunky, waffly or ambiguous. We need to have thick skins and trust that editors know what they are doing. But the editors have to be worthy of that trust. Is the editor simply making our prose more readable, concise, engaging and flowing, while retaining our nuance, tone and voice? If so, she is a good editor who can enhance a writer’s voice and clarify her meaning. But what if an editor rewrites a writer’s argument in her own voice, deeply inflected with her own feelings on the matter? This is not good editing, but it happens quite a lot. It should not happen in outlets that purport to support freedom of speech.
Sometimes an outlet’s editorial stance will include matters of tone. Areo, for example, seldom allows words like dishonest, disingenuous or hypocritical to remain in an essay when factually inaccurate, naïve or inconsistent would convey the same point. This is because of Areo’s be charitable rule and the publication’s zero-tolerance policy towards mindreading. The same point can be usually be made without attributing malicious intent and the reader can be left to make her own moral evaluations if she so wishes. Iona, who developed most of our editorial stance, will ruthlessly incise disclaimers and qualifiers that she feels get in the way of an argument that should not apologise for itself, over-explain itself or go into unnecessary detail about what it is not saying. Our analytical tools show that her approach results in greater reader perseverance. The essay you are reading now will certainly have had many such disclaimers and qualifiers removed from it and I will have gritted my teeth and approved the cuts.
However, for the most part, any outlet that claims to support freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity should be very careful not to change any nuance, tone or voice and especially careful not to shift the tenor of the piece from what the writer thinks and feels about an issue to what the editor thinks and feels. Even if the substance of the argument remains the same, changes in attitude and tone can change the meaning and feel of a piece so substantially that it may no longer represent the writer’s own views on the matter.
I am a careful writer who thinks it is important to be kind and charitable about people who hold views with which I disagree, both because this is a courtesy I myself appreciate when the situation is reversed, and because this is more likely to be convincing to an honest and ethical reader than snideness, smears and snark. I also prefer to be understated in registering my objections to an ethical framework, rather than hyperbolic or catastrophic. This has never prevented me from making strong and clear objections and I think it makes me more credible.
Alas, some publications do not appreciate this approach and will attempt to sensationalise my arguments or introduce hyperbole, catastrophising or snideness into them. This almost certainly increases reader engagement in the same way that clickbait does, but I will not accept this. If I read an edited version of my work and think that I would instinctively dislike this writer and distrust her judgements and motivations if I encountered her work elsewhere, I will not allow such a piece to be published under my name. This is not merely a matter of making my work more exciting and engaging, but of changing my whole attitude and ethical approach to issues that need to be addressed carefully and with balance. I won’t have it. Luckily, however, I am not forced to choose between making my argument badly or not making it at all, because I have my own outlets. Most writers do not. Forcing them to make this choice is not consistent with supporting freedom of expression and viewpoint diversity.
Freedom of expression is subtly different from freedom of speech when it comes to the matter of voice. The writer’s voice matters significantly, since even political or educational writing remains a form of art. If a gallery accepted a certain artist’s painting of a tree, or a music producer accepted a particular singer’s interpretation of a song, they could not then substitute this with another painter’s or singer’s rendition of the same tree or song and release it under the original painter or singer’s name. The content may be the same, but the artist has been replaced with another. This is no longer the original artist’s piece, and the work must be attributed to the correct artist. This happened to me once when my work was turned from that of an understated liberal British essayist to that of an exuberant centrist American journalist. The resulting piece was very good, but it certainly wasn’t my work, nor would anyone who had ever read anything I’d written before believe it was. I could not, in good conscience, claim it as my intellectual property, nor did I want to. I like being me. Outlets that claim to support freedom of expression must allow contributors to express themselves and not be ventriloquised by someone else.
An Impossible Choice for Dissident Writers
Even magazines dedicated to freedom of expression and viewpoint diversity have the right to be selective, to reject or request changes to arguments and tones that are antithetical to them and to edit essays for readability, concision and flow. However, it is very important that such magazines edit articles in ways that allow writers to make their own arguments, according to their own principles and attitudes and using their own voices, and that they do not slide into rewriting articles in accordance with the editor’s own views, attitudes or personality.
Outlets that excise large chunks of people’s arguments or change their meaning cannot claim to support viewpoint diversity. Outlets that radically change a writer’s nuance, tone or voice may believe that they are upholding principles of viewpoint diversity because they are simply making the content more powerful, exciting or engaging. However, if the result is no longer a true representation of the writer’s own attitude, feelings or personality, they have failed to defend freedom of expression.
It has become very difficult for dissident thinkers to be published and so magazines that are committed to freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity are vitally needed. As a result, the number of platforms that provide space for heterodox thought has been increasing rapidly. This is a very positive development. However, the benefits of this will be lost if the outlets fail to actually respect viewpoint diversity. Overly aggressive editing that really amounts to rewriting will, yet again, impact most strongly upon those with the least opportunity to be published, and will force them, yet again, to choose between having to say things they don’t really believe or saying nothing at all. I urge all publishers not to let that happen.