Freelance Writers: A Guide to Dealing With Editors

from iClipArt
from iClipArt

For freelance writers, dealing with editors can be as fraught as dating. Except, of course, we’re dating many, many people (if we’re lucky) and we’re depending on dates to put food on our table (hopefully not the case in our real personal lives). Here, a few things I’ve learned about working with editors. Feel free to chime in with your own.

1. When they ignore your pitch, it probably means “no.” Feel free to follow up once (maybe twice, tops) to make sure they really did get your first email. (Once, an editor really did say I’d accidentally ended up in his spam folder, a nightmarish scenario for a freelancer.) After you’ve followed up, radio silence means it’s not happening. As a general practice, in the age of email, editors have decided to spare themselves and you the pain of an actual rejection. Whether this is cool or not doesn’t matter; it is what it is.

2. When they say, “This won’t work, but please pitch me again,” they mean it. If they wanted to blow you off politely, they’d ignore you, per above. If they say pitch again, pitch again; they’re interested in you, just not this idea. I romanced one magazine editor for about two years this way before landing in her pages.

3. Treasure assignments. Assignments mean they like you! Or at least want to test you out. They’ve decided on an idea, and all they need is someone — you — to execute it. Killing it at one can lead to many, many more, and thus actual steady income. I’ve taken some doozies — you know, a 24-hour deadline, an assignment over a holiday — that all led to more and better work.

4. Ask questions. No shame in figuring out exactly what they want. In fact, neglecting to do so can lead to disaster. (I’ve been guilty of this more than once.) No offense to editors, but some just don’t really know what they want. They say words that sound good in headlines or whatever, and then it’s on you to figure out what it all means. (“I know you want a story about how to spice up your sex life with the headline ‘Take It Outside,’ but I don’t really know what that means. Practical advice from sexual health experts? Racy stories from women in your demographic? A chart with positions?”) The clearer you are at the outset on your angle and expected sourcing, the better off everyone will be.

5. Take revisions gracefully. Even after all that, the editor’s editor’s editor will undoubtedly come up with some whole new idea of what she wants from this story once she lays her eyes on what you thought was your final, final draft. No use whining about this — you are not going to be the person to single-handedly change the editorial direction of a national magazine. Go with whatever they want. You are a widget manufacturer, and they are the customer, and they should get what they want. As long as it’s not untrue, immoral, or offensive (I know, that’s subjective, but still), roll with it and move on. Every piece doesn’t have to be ready for your literary anthology.

6. Expect your schedule to be plowed under repeatedly. People always think freelancers get to run around doing whatever we want all day. The fact is, we’re more imprisoned by our “employers” than many full-timers; we need to jump when the opportunity arises. If many opportunities arrive, we’re jumping around a lot for a lot of different people at once. We don’t have one boss to go to and say, “Please help me prioritize my assignments.” Any of our given customers does not want to hear that some other customer got in the way of their delivery. Of course, it’s okay to tell editors what is and isn’t reasonably possible, and we do have the privilege of saying no at any time. (Though we like to pay our bills, which makes this hard.) We trade the joy of working in pajamas and throwing in a load of laundry between assignments for writing what strangers want when they want it.

Given all of this, I still thank God every morning that I wake up and don’t go to an office.

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2 comments

  1. Yes, all of this. Just one to add: Tell your editor when you have a bigger story on your hands than what was assigned. Editors assign stories based on idea meetings. A bunch of smart people sit around and go, “hey, did you notice [blank]?” and when enough people go, “yeah, totally!” they assign a piece. Only through reporting is it revealed how important/large this story really is. Negotiate on scope, length and rate before you pour yourself into a 4,000 word piece that was assigned out at 800 only to be met with drastic cuts and the same rate. If they don’t want the epic story, you’re wasting your valuable time writing it. But you can also open their eyes to an even better scoop, which they will be willing to pay more for. I did this on my second assignment for a national magazine, without apology. They let me delve as deep as the story would take me and more than doubled my rate. I’ve been working almost nonstop for them ever since.

  2. Yes, all of this. Just one to add: Tell your editor when you have a bigger story on your hands than what was assigned. Editors assign stories based on idea meetings. A bunch of smart people sit around and go, “hey, did you notice [blank]?” and when enough people go, “yeah, totally!” they assign a piece. Only through reporting is it revealed how important/large this story really is. Negotiate on scope, length and rate before you pour yourself into a 4,000 word piece that was assigned out at 800 only to be met with drastic cuts and the same rate. If they don’t want the epic story, you’re wasting your valuable time writing it. But you can also open their eyes to an even better scoop, which they will be willing to pay more for. I did this on my second assignment for a national magazine, without apology. They let me delve as deep as the story would take me and more than doubled my rate. I’ve been working almost nonstop for them ever since.

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