Edana Brown

Breaking Point

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Chatelaine demands a lot from its writers—sometimes too much

Every freelance writer has run into conflict with an editor at one time or another. Writing is a very subjective thing, and some conflict is inevitable. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen all that often. Most magazine editors are willing to negotiate with writers, and vice versa. And both editors and writers realize there are certain obligations they have to one another: a writer must be willing to revise or “fix” a story to meet the magazine’s standards, for example, while an editor must be able to justify those revisions. These are common editor-writer undertakings. They are partly based on the fact that freelance writers, unlike staff writers, hold copyright to their work. When a magazine buys a story it usually buys first North American rights only. The piece is still the writer’s property and editors must treat it as such.

But sometimes they don’t. Perhaps they arbitrarily change the writer’s words in such a way that a sentence, a paragraph, or even the whole story is distorted. Perhaps they change the writer’s point of view. Or perhaps they rewrite the article completely, taking away the writer’s most important contribution-her authorship. She may then demand that her name be taken off the story-or, as a last resort, that the whole story be withdrawn from publication.

Wendy Dennis is just one of a number of writers who have had to make such demands of Chatelainemagazine. Dennis used to contribute to Chatelaine fairly regularly-until last summer, when she had what she calls a “unique and horrifying experience” with the magazine.

She was asked to do a story in March, 1985, about Wendy Crawford, a 19-year-old model who was left a paraplegic after a car accident. Crawford had been on her way to the Toronto airport for a flight to Tokyo and her first big modelling job when a drunk driver rammed his car into hers. Dennis researched the story, wrote it and sent it in. She was asked to do it over again, but she admits this first rewrite was her own fault: she had mistakenly written the piece in the first person, as if she herself were Wendy Crawford telling her own story. “That was my mistake,” she says. So this first request to redo the piece didn’t surprise her.

And the long letter that followed the rewrite asking more questions and suggesting more changes didn’t surprise her either. Each of Chatelaine‘s four senior editors had gone over the story, and it seemed to Dennis that each was vying with the others to “out-fix” the story. “But that goes with the territory at Chatelaine,” she says. “I was prepared for it.” But she was not prepared for what was to follow.

She did the second rewrite and got it back a few days later. The editor who had assigned the piece had attached a note asking if this “condensed version” would be acceptable. The piece had been completely rewritten by the Chatelaine editors. Not only were Dennis’s style and voice gone, but her point of view had been changed. Dennis notes the irony of this: in one of her first letters from Chatelaine, the assigning editor had written, “I think the pathos of her situation would come through much more strongly seen through your eyes.” But in Chatelaine‘s version, most of Dennis’s personal observations and insights had disappeared. “All the feeling, all the humanity in the story had been squeezed out,” she says. In her estimation, the magazine had taken a dramatic and compelling story and turned it into a “computer printout.”

“They might have been writing about 10 Christmas gifts,” she says. There were huge cuts in the story. Many of Wendy Crawford’s own words had been removed-quotes that in Dennis’s view would have made the reader’s heart ache for Crawford. Dennis says the Chatelaine version would have hurt Crawford. “It made her look like a widget.” She told Chatelaine she would simply withdraw the piece unless they went back to her version of the story.

A couple of days later, she got the story back again. It was her own writing this time, though still with massive cuts. Enclosed was a two-page letter with still more questions. The assigning editor was asking for more points clarifying exactly what had happened at the scene of Crawford’s accident. One request particularly shocked Dennis. The editor wanted to add a dramatic detail to the description of the accident-a detail Dennis knew was highly questionable.

Wendy Crawford had been pinned in the car after the crash. Her lifeguarding experience told her she definitely had a serious spinal injury-she had lost almost all feeling in her body-and that she should not move. The smell of leaking gas was only one of many things that overwhelmed and terrified her. She was afraid she was going to die. The Chatelaine editor wanted to clarify and substantiate Crawford’s fear of death by saying that rescuers had used blowtorches to try to cut Crawford out of the car: she was afraid the torches would ignite the leaking gas and the car would explode. The editor then suggested taking it all out if the fact-checker found it to be false. Dennis refused. Nothing in her extensive research had suggested the use of blowtorches. In a letter to Chatelaine, she wrote, “I have written for several major publications, both in Canada and the United States, and never have I encountered a situation in which an editor requested that I invent a fact….”

It was not until August that Wendy Dennis and Chatelaine reached an agreement. It was a compromise,” says Dennis. The magazine agreed to publish, more or less, her version of the story, with her thoughts and her point of view. “They wanted that piece-it was their story. They might have realized that if I had pulled it, I could have sold it somewhere else.” Dennis hasn’t seen the final galleys yet-she agreed to publish the piece only after approving them-but she knows this will be her last story for Chatelaine.

Dennis is not the only writer who has balked at Chatelaine‘s treatment of freelancers and their writing. Over the last eight years or so, many writers have smarted under or rebelled against the magazine’s editorial methods. They include such established bylines as Carroll Allen, Norman Snider, Sandra Martin, Carsten Stroud and Terry Poulton. They also include some well-known freelancers who would not allow their names to be used for fear of losing a good, if difficult, market (Chatelaine pays up to $2,500 for a major article). One such writer wrote her last piece for Chatelaine three years ago. “Chatelaine has a house style,” the writer says. “And the magazine tends to browbeat writers into that style.” She adds, “Chatelaine doesn’t trust writers and doesn’t give them enough leeway.”

Her last story for the magazine was on female heroes. The editors told her to write the story from her own perspective. “It would be me talking,” she recalls. Or so she thought.

She wrote the story. But before the fixing and rewriting began, the assigning editor she was working with abruptly left the magazine. “The new editor told me I had to cut 100 lines from a 600-line galley,” she says. “Besides, I was told, there was too much personal stuff in the story that had to come out anyway.” The writer said she would take out 50 lines and no more. The editor said that wasn’t enough. So the writer pulled her byline. The story eventually ran, under a house name. “What they wanted was not the story I had been contracted to do,” the writer says. “I would assume that because a magazine asks me to write a story for them, it wants my style. But you can’t make that assumption at Chatelaine.”

Chatelaine‘s editors have a standard reply to most writers’ objections: they point to the magazine’s huge commercial success-the end that justifies the means. If their logic is questionable, their success is not. Every month Chatelaine comes out about 200 pages strong: fat, glossy and full of ads. It’s a packaging marvel, with a total readership of 2,919,000-one in three Canadian women.

Cathy Wilson of Chatelaine‘s advertising department says the magazine can’t sell any more copies than it does now. If it sold even 200,000 more (it now sells 1,106,597 copies with about 2.6 readers for each one), the number of readers per copy would simply go down. The total audience would stay the same and advertising rates would have to go up because of the added cost of printing those extra issues. And higher ad rates could mean fewer advertisers. Already a full-page, four-color ad on a one-time basis in Chatelaine is a hefty $23,410. The same ad in Maclean’s national edition costs $19,010. In Saturday Night, it’s $6,640.

The woman behind Chatelaine‘s success is Mildred Istona, the editor. She is the epitome of a top business-woman: bright, attractive, well-dressed, and in full control of the magazine’s operations. Other than that, most writers know little about her (she refused to be interviewed for this article). She is probably the most private magazine editor in the country. She keeps her home life-she’s married-very separate from her work, which takes up most of her time. “She gives her work 110 per cent,” says Lynda Hurst, a feature writer at The Toronto Star. Hurst worked as a copy editor and staff writer for two years under Istona, then editor of Miss Chatelaine (now Flare). Hurst says, “I always felt she was doing so much more than me, no matter how much I did. She always worked very hard, but then that’s her obsession with details and perfection.” Hurst says that many people may criticize Istona, but nobody wants her job.

Istona rarely, if ever, deals directly with writers. Wendy Dennis mentions that during all the time she wrote forChatelaine, Istona never once asked to meet her. Dennis thought that was a little odd. “Most magazine editors want to know who’s working for them, “she says.

Istona’s intense concern for detail is reflected in Chatelaine‘s editing process. Every story that goes into the magazine is worked over minutely, often by all four senior editors, though only one works directly with the writer. Each story, with its lists of criticisms and suggestions attached, is handed over to Mildred Istona. It is she who has the final say. “Mildred has veto power,” says Ontario Living‘s editor Liz Primeau. Primeau worked at Chatelaine as a senior editor for about a year in 1981. She agrees there is nothing wrong with having an editor who gets involved with various stories. “You have to have one strong person at the top,” she says. But, she adds, Istona tends to get into the nuts and bolts of basic copy editing. That’s what the other editors are there for. Istona can be a tough editor, but because she seldom faces writers herself, the four senior editors often end up as go-betweens, running back and forth between Istona and the contributors. Editing like that not only frustrates writers, it also makes the writing itself, as Lynda Hurst puts it, “dull, flat prose. You can put 20 different bylines on it, but it’s as if it’s all come out of a computer.”

Even so, not all of Chatelaine‘s contributors are unhappy. There are some whose names appear regularly in the magazine who are anything but. One is Rona Maynard. She has been contributing to Chatelaine for about three years. “There have been occasional problems,” she says. “If I had taken a shorter view I might have gotten more upset, but I always negotiate. It’s been a satisfying experience.

Chatelaine is good with feedback,” she says. “They always respond to a story very quickly. At some other magazines you hand in a story and you don’t hear from them for six weeks, and then they tell you they’ve lost your invoice. Another thing I really appreciate about Chatelaine is that they pay more quickly than any other magazine I know. And they pay top rates.” Maynard adds, “I’m not going to say Chatelaine never makes mistakes, because they do. But it upsets me greatly to see writers overreact to what goes on at Chatelaine.”

Sidney Katz is another writer who appears frequently in the magazine’s pages. “I’m well aware of problems other writers have had with Chatelaine. I respect their point of view and I appreciate it,” says Katz. “I think my experiences with Chatelaine have much to do with the type of work I do for them. I specialize in behavior and health, and there’s not much room for disagreement. And usually when I’m assigned a story, I know quite a bit about it because I’ve been working in the field for years. I think the editors at Chatelaine realize that I know more about the subject than they do.”

Writer Winston Collins finds the Chatelaine editors easy to work with as well. “I’ve heard of problems,” he says, “but I get along well at the magazine. They’re quite demanding in the amount of research they want for a story, but they’re very prompt in responding and in payment as well.” Collins admits that sometimesChatelaine‘s idea of a story doesn’t leave much room for the writer, but he feels that’s also true of other magazines.

Allan Gould also does a lot of work for Chatelaine. He says he doesn’t like the way magazine takes all the “Gouldism” out of his work-“but Chatelaine has been very good to me. They’ve thrown stories my way and they’ve paid me well.” He says that one year his earnings from Chatelaine made up 80 per cent of his income.

But for writers who have a run-in with Chatelaine, money becomes secondary. For Terry Poulton, it came down to a matter of personal ethics. Poulton is now a columnist for The Toronto Star‘s Starweek magazine, but she used to be a regular contributor to Chatelaine. In 1982, she did a story for the magazine on single mothers, women who had had children out of wedlock and had chosen to raise them by themselves. In the story, she focussed on three women. They talked to Poulton about their experiences. Yes, they said, there were problems they had to deal with-how to explain the word “daddy” to the child, for instance-but, on the whole, they weren’t all that badly off. They had jobs, they loved their children dearly, and they had an optimistic outlook on life. But that’s not what Chatelaine‘s editors wanted.

“The magazine wanted me to diminish the strength of these women,” says Poulton. “These mothers were very proud of what they had accomplished, but Chatelaine wanted me to focus on the idea that they weren’t as lucky as everyone else; that they didn’t have a man to help them.” Poulton felt very strongly about the piece. She felt that if she wrote the story the way her editors wanted her to, she would betray these women, as well as the whole essence of the article. The story was not about how poorly these women were doing (though not all single mothers are as successful) but about how surprisingly well they were handling their lives. Chatelaine didn’t agree.

But Homemaker‘s magazine did. Poulton pulled the story from Chatelaine and sold it to Homemaker‘s, which printed it almost word for word, including Poulton’s original lead and ending, both of which Chatelaine had rejected.

Carsten Stroud is another Toronto writer who wouldn’t accept Chatelaine‘s editing demands. When the magazine approached Stroud in 1981, he had never written for it before. But the story idea sounded reasonable: a piece on male-female relationships in the ’80s. After discussing the idea with a Chatelaineeditor, Stroud went out, did the interviews and wrote the story. “It was a very anecdotal, atmospheric piece,” he says. “I tend to write with more emotion than hard fact. I don’t like to rattle off a lot of statistics.”

When he brought the story to Chatelaine, he was told it was unacceptable. What the magazine really wanted was a story emphasizing the “weaknesses of men’s love.” Stroud reluctantly went back out and did more interviews, but he could not find a case to prove the magazine’s point. He did a rewrite, which eventually landed on Istona’s desk. When Stroud got the manuscript back, he found it had been severely edited, with much of his writing style and personal insight removed. “All Chatelaine wanted was my name,” he says. They had formulated their opinion of what the story should be, and they wanted me to go out and prove it. They wanted none of my voice or style.” Stroud wrote a letter to Chatelaine expressing his frustration. He also pulled his byline, and has not written for the magazine since.

Even writers who seem to have had a fairly good run with Chatelaine can leave expressing some sort of dissatisfaction. Judith Timson was a columnist and contributing editor for almost a year and a half. Timson does not go into great detail about the magazine, but she does say that toward the end of her time there, she began to feel unappreciated. Her final comment is: “I used to work there, and now I don’t.”

Still, for all the flack Chatelaine takes, and all the problems it’s had with writers, it pushes steadily on. It’s a Canadian institution. It’s been around since 1928, and it looks, from its current success, as if it’ll still be kicking 50 years from now. As Lynda Hurst says, “Other magazines have gone down the tubes, but notChatelaine. It’s unassailable.”

And so, it would seem, are its editing methods. Charlotte Gray has been writing frequently for the magazine for the past six years, and she says: “You have to adapt to Chatelaine‘s style. You have to write for its audience. It’s got a large circulation, and it can’t take too many risks. Chatelaine is an editor’s magazine, not a writer’s magazine. If you accept that fact, you’ll find it easier to work for them.” Undoubtedly so, but for some writers, the fact that their individual styles, their voices, their points of view are of little value is impossible to accept.


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