Free Advice Friday: What Your Editor Wants

What I’m listening to: Take Me Out by Franz Ferdinand

Thefree-sign-36re go my plans.

Today I was supposed to be meeting Ms. Sharon Hurley Hall, who is the brains behind Get Paid to Write Online and one of my dear online friends. Howe
ver, client work came up unexpectedly. So here I sit, working. Hopefully, she and I will find some time next week to connect.

In the meantime, let’s make the most of my cancelled fun day. I’d say it’s time once again for another episode of Free Advice Friday.

For those of you who are new to the blog, Free Advice Friday is the day our blog posts are dedicated to giving you free advice you might be tempted to pay for elsewhere. Actually, every blog post is rather like that, but I like the rhythm of the phrase Free Advice Friday, so there you go.

Today’s post is about giving your editor what he or she wants.

And what’s that, you say? What do editors want? How can Lori possibly know what an editor wants from a freelance writer?

Because once upon a time, my writer friends, I was that editor.

I won’t bore you with the details, but I spent nearly four years in the senior editor’s chair at a fairly big monthly trade magazine. Over those years, I saw it all — freelance writers doing it right every time, and a fair number of freelance writers who were doing it all wrong. Typical sins included missing deadlines, expecting to be handheld through the process, objecting to revisions, insulting corporate execs while interviewing them… it all happened. And despite their being told, coached, and at times threatened, some writers just never improved.

Had they bothered, they’d have had an endless supply of work, and they could have forged really strong relationships, even with such rocky beginnings. Not that editors today have time or patience for that. So it’s even more important to get it right the first time.

With that in mind, let me tell you what your editor wants from you.

Reliability. It goes at the top of the list because it belongs first and foremost in your relationship with your editor. If you agree to a deadline, you stick to it. Tell your editor as soon as you realize you won’t hit deadline. There could be wiggle room and you might buy an extra day or at the very least, an extra few hours. Don’t make it a habit. If you commit, get the job done.

Pitches that align with the magazine’s audience and focus. If you’ve ever typed something like “I know you don’t cover this normally, but…” you’ve already committed the cardinal sin of not knowing your audience. I don’t know of any situation in which you’ll successfully get an editor to publish something that’s not within their focus. You certainly won’t get anywhere by pitching an idea that doesn’t speak to their audience. So forget asking that technology management magazine if they want your article on how companies need skateboard ramps.

Creative ideas. If you think you can’t possibly write anything new about a topic, you’re not thinking hard enough. Editors are thirsty for a new look at an old topic. For example, immigration has been talked to death, but how many magazines have asked how immigration impacts US business? At least one does now — that’s my latest published piece,

A creative approach. That goes without saying, right? Wrong. I had one or two freelancers I worked with who wrote to specifications. The pieces were technically fine, but oh-my-gawd boring. In one case, the writer was clearly afraid to go outside the parameters and get inquisitive. Unless you’re handed a full outline and instructed to write it a certain way, use your imagination. The more inquisitive you get, the better the article becomes. Your editor is not waiting for you to hand in exact to-the-letter what they assigned. They want your personality to show up.

The ability to take a topic and run with it. The freelance writers who were able to take a one- or two-sentence idea and churn out a great article got the majority of assignments. Then there were the writers (and there were a few) who would get those same directives with the “see what you can dig up” prompts and they would stall, panic, ask multiple questions, wait for me to dig up sources for them… If you need more clarification, get it. But don’t expect the editor to rephrase more than once, repeat, or even find all your sources. Mind you, if you get stuck, sure. Ask for help. But don’t expect someone to hold your hand throughout the process. Just write the damn thing.

Connections or the ability to make and maintain them. If you’ve written in an area for a while, you have connections. Every interview source, PR contact, marketing wonk is a connection. Editors love it when they assign an idea and you’ve already rattled off about four sources you could contact. That shows a level of understanding of the topic that makes for a solid story. New to freelancing? It’s okay. It will come with experience. But you can start your pitch by naming at least two sources you’d like to use (do a little Internet search to find those names). You don’t have to reach out to sources just yet (unless the story is focused on them specifically), but have them in mind.

Solid writing and reporting. Yes, there are freelance writers who need to be told this. Write tightly, self edit as you go, and make sure to use Spell Check before you send it to your editor. If this is your first time working with the editor, leave a great first impression, not the impression that you skip basic steps.

A professional. No editor wants to send you out to talk with interview sources if you’re about to get all prima donna on them. Those same sources could well be people who spend lots of money advertising in the magazine. Nor do they want a writer who will tell off-color jokes, act bored, act like an idiot, or otherwise embarrass the magazine. For you, dear freelancer, are representing their magazine in those moments, and how you behave reflects on them directly. Don’t be the writer whose sources have to make that uncomfortable call to the editor.

Writers, what do your editors say they appreciate from their writers?
What things do you think are important to know/do when approaching an editor with ideas?

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  • Paula Hendrickson April 8, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    Writing the first piece for any editor is always a challenge, since neither of you know what to expect. I've recently had a wonderful experience with one new-to-me editor and a horrible one with another.

    The wonderful one was an editor who asked me to write short (300-800 word) pieces on some local companies. The only overriding guideline was to focus on each company's importance to the community. Two of these companies had 60+ year histories we needed to convey, and I knew I'd need to give readers a rough idea of their products/services, and how many people they employ locally. That's a lot of info for a few hundred words. One of my assignments was to rewrite copy another writer had turned in that had missed the mark. Grammatically it was fine. She covered the basics, but she spent nearly three paragraphs explaining where the company name originated — something I accomplished in under 10 words. She focused on minutia instead of substance. As soon as I read that copy I knew what to change, even before my follow up interview with the company owner. The editor said he was thrilled with my copy.

    The awful experience is still fresh, so this may get a bit rant-y, so feel free to scroll right down to the last sentence.

    It was a service piece for a major magazine. The editor provided a list of 12-15 things to include, but said I could change it up depending on what I find. She said to ask questions. My first question was about the types of sources she wanted — I wasn't asking for sources, but she provided a couple for me to try. Because it was my first piece for her, I sent her a list of the sources I was planning to contact just to see if I was on the right track. She approved them all, including the two she'd suggested.

    Three months after I turned in my initial copy she sent it back for revisions, saying two sources (the ones she'd suggested!) weren't credible enough. And despite having told me I could interview spokespeople, she axed a third source because it was a spokesperson for a trade organization. The editor also insisted that I include one of her original topics, which I'd already told her had been completely debunked by a national research organization; she told me to find something else to fill that void. So on top of the other changes she wanted (some of which were valid), I had to find and re-interview three sources in less than two weeks and rewrite the entire 1,000-word article. Then she cut five days off my deadline and demanded my revision the next day (because for some reason their sales team needed it). When I said I'd do my utmost to make the new deadline (a Friday), she said she'd give me until Monday morning, and insinuated that I wasn't acting professional. What? I turned the revision in on time, and all she said was, "Got it." It's been three months and I haven't heard a word since.

    While 95% of the editors I've worked with over the years have been easy to work with, there are a few full-time editors who are nightmares. I don't care how high-profile a publication is, I refuse to work for someone like that a second time.

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