Freelance Writing Lessons From a Rude Editor: 7 Takeaways

Freelance writing lessons from a rude editor. Makealivingwriting.comFor a while, I had a large client that hired many writers. My contact was an editor who managed the freelance staff. He was an abrupt man who spared no feelings.

At the time, I had only worked directly with clients. I could meet their goals, but my writing lacked force. I over-wrote, dismissed structure, and indulged my narcissism with unnecessary wit. I wasn’t bad, but I had that collegiate write-everything-you-can-think-of mentality.

My first experience working with a professional editor was heart-wrenching. It was a trial by fire: get better to get paid. But those lessons stuck with me and made me a better writer.

Want to improve your writing?

Avoid making the same mistakes as I did, and check out the seven hardest freelance writing lessons this editor taught me:

1. Stop trying to be clever

Readers rarely appreciate cleverness. They don’t want to decipher your prose or wade through innuendo. They want clarity and few words.

Be absolutely sure your humor is right for your audience. I once wrote “I just can’t even” in a blog post. My my 20 year-old sister laughed, but the readership of grandmothers didn’t understand.

2. The universal structure creates cohesion

“Tell them what you’ll tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

We all learned the universal structure in primary school: introduction, body and conclusion.

This cohesive format focuses your piece. Your introduction creates expectations, your body satisfies those expectations, and your conclusion reminds the reader how helpful you’ve been.

3. Your mom is not your editor

It’s tempting to use a friend as your editor, especially to keep your costs down. You think, “This topic isn’t hard. My mom/friend/roommate could edit this.”

This is always a mistake.

People close to you make terrible editors because they have an emotional stake in your success. They withhold criticism to spare your feelings.

You need someone who will tell you when your writing is crap.

If your editor is your client, insist they provide heaps of feedback, no matter how much it hurts.

4. Research everything

For one assignment, I referenced a video where a karate competitor performed an impressive kick. I didn’t double check my facts and I referred to the technique by the wrong name.

The client caught my mistake just moments after the article was posted, but my credibility was bruised. This led to a two-week break in my recurring gig while they combed through my previous content for mistakes. I lost money and trust.

Always do your research, especially if you’re writing outside your own discipline (as many freelancers do).

5. Avoid scope creep

The scope of your article includes everything it takes to make your point. Sometimes we push the boundaries of the scope until we’ve included a mess of unnecessary information.

Control the scope by creating a one sentence theme for each article. Any remark that’s three or more sentences removed from your theme doesn’t belong in the piece.

A fantastic point will always seem lame if it’s irrelevant.

6. It will never be perfect

I work with creative teams every day. They all have one thing in common: they never like their own work. All they see are flaws. I cringe when I look at things I wrote just last year.

If you’re a push-to-improve person, you never say “I’m satisfied.” But don’t let that stop you from publishing.

You can be confident with your work when you can answer “yes” to these questions:

• Have I made my point?
• Have I removed anything that doesn’t support my point?
• Have I met my client’s goals?

7. Put your emotions in, then take them out

You have to invest yourself emotionally in your writing. But once the first draft is done, tighten up your feelings because no one cares that you “worked really hard.” Your readers only care about the value you provide.

Banish your sentimentality. Don’t just get editor feedback — learn to crave it, to demand it. The best writers use self-doubt to grow.

Working with an editor was a remarkable experience. As freelancers, we don’t get that luxury often. Hopefully these lessons improve your craft as they did mine.

Dennis Hammer is a writer, designer, and inbound marketing guru. He works at a creative agency in Connecticut where he builds content, social and email marketing campaigns.
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42 comments on “Freelance Writing Lessons From a Rude Editor: 7 Takeaways
  1. Yasmin Khan says:

    Love this post – especially the part about being clever!! In all of my writings throughout college and grad school, the mantra was always to keep it simple, clear, and above all, effective. Somehow, we got away from that and now, there’s so much noise on the internet. Thanks for the post!

  2. This post is reminding me what it was like doing my PhD thesis – years of very, very tough criticism on my work. It’s a baptism of fire, but it improved my writing, research and logic skills no end.

  3. Gisele says:

    Loved your post Dennis. Thanks.

  4. Linda H says:

    Great post. I remember reading that Maria Shriver learned to be the accomplished reporter she is now by working with a tough editor that didn’t care who she was. He was brutal with criticism on poor or bad writing, lazy research and lacking content. By working her hard, similar to the editor Carol mentioned she worked with, she learned and perfected her craft. Both Maria and Carol have shown how this led to their success.

    Love #2, #3 and #4, especially #2 and #3. This simplicity of #2 explains itself, yet is often forgotten. Having a B.A. in journalism, news reporting, I find that today’s true professional writing standards haven’t changed. I never worked for a newspaper, but got published based on the applied standards and good storytelling.

    Excellent post. Thanks for these reminders/suggestions. I’ll refer back to this occasionally for the reminders when I need them.

  5. Heidi Ferber says:

    This is a brilliant article. I love tough lovin’ at the desk, so thanks for this, Carol. By the way, you are a tiger in the blogging world. Nice work.

  6. Misty Coplen says:

    I especially enjoyed the “Put emotion in, then take it out.” I have to do this one all the time. I tend to write with my heart, which makes for great novels, but when it comes to articles, nope- people don’t care what you think, they want the facts to come to a conclusion for themselves.

    • Jeffrey Hill says:

      I totally identify with that. Its a natural tendency for me as a songwriter, so I write articles with a similar kind of heart.

      When it comes down to it, what helps me is recognizing that I’m writing for someone else – not just for myself (in contrast to songwriting). Makes it easier to be bendable to the editor’s preferences and actually desire feedback and constructive criticism.

  7. Jeffrey Hill says:

    I love these tips. And on #5 (Avoid Scope Creep) I’d like to suggest a tip I use to keep myself in-line and on topic. Once you have that “one line” which puts a theme on the article: make an outline. Write your sub-title bullet points (which you’ll likely be using anyway, especially if blog style) which keep you from straying from the point of the theme. The “one line” is the umbrella, and the subtitles are the stems that hold the umbrella up. I hope that analogy make sense, lol.

    Even if the piece you’re writing won’t include subtitles along the way, you can use them as guideposts while writing to stay on course.

    I have a long history with personal journal writing, which is completely stream of consciousness. And while that’s a good skill to have (words can flow like water), without a structure and point to what you’re writing, it becomes a tangent. That won’t please many editors, readers OR the writers themselves.

    This line summed it up well: “A fantastic point will always seem lame if it’s irrelevant.”

  8. Thank you, Carol. This is a very helpful post that I will refer to again.
    Jennifer

  9. Working with tough editors really does help you improve. Even if I don’t always agree, seeing my work from someone’s else’s point of view, especially when they take the time to really examine it, is extremely valuable.

  10. Mary Davis says:

    Great article with really good points. I too, will re-read when I’m working on articles. Thanks!

  11. jean compton says:

    I love point two…”“Tell them what you’ll tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Great advice and an easy formula to remember.

  12. antikade says:

    great article !
    thx for sharing with us.
    i enjoyed of reading your advice…

  13. Bharat says:

    A really good informative kind of guidance for freelances. The clarity is worth noting. Many Thanks

  14. Karen Ingle says:

    The note on scope creep really hit home. Thanks for the “one sentence theme” tip: brilliant and simple.

    • I’m glad it helped. It’s only a general rule, but I like to keep my concepts within three sentences of the main point. If I “costs” me three sentences to get to some point, I’ve gone too far and need to find a more succinct way to say it, or cut it entirely.

  15. So true. I once had an editor who used to practically re-write every one of my articles. I used to wonder why she kept hiring me if my writing required so much work. But she did…

    Another editor reminded me that I was a journalist, not a performing monkey, and to tone down the corporate speak after I interviewed one of their clients for a story. Even though the article was factually correct, he reminded me that it was my job to sort through the PR and get the actual story. It was the best advice I’ve ever received. Sometimes it can be hard to do, because people want to make themselves look as good as possible during an interview, but that editor’s voice is always in the back of my head when I talk to them.

    • I’ve found that editors don’t expect us to submit a perfect piece the first time, even if we’ve worked with that editor for ages. But they do appreciate someone who is willing to change and grow.

      I love your point about cutting through the nonsense to find the real value. 🙂

    • Carol Tice says:

      Sometimes I feel like they’re frustrated writers, and they won’t be happy until it’s written the way THEY would have wrote it. I had one editor who was DEFINITELY that way.

      Others really just want you for the research and interviewing…then they rewrite everything. 😉

      Whatever they want, our job is to oblige, is my view. Be egoless about your writing, and you’ll go far in this game.

    • Hannah Mann says:

      I started out as an editor, and I can tell you it really isn’t personal, and we really don’t expect perfection! Writers are the reason we have jobs. 🙂 I do edit mercilessly, but I always tried to be tactful and constructive in my feedback. I did flub it a few times, unfortunately.

      Youna, in my editing work, I found it was often easier to have someone else write up a draft then overhaul it, because then I could maintain a fresh set of eyes while finalizing it for publication. It’s the same reason that I try to give my piece a day or so before I come back to it. I didn’t realize how off-putting it could be until I had a couple writers ask why I did it!

      That said, I definitely had my share of articles that were easier to just completely rewrite, rather than pointing out issues line-by-line, because there were so many of them. This post lists several of those issues quite accurately.

      For what it’s worth, none of that was a dealbreaker, as long as you took my feedback. I had an intern who misspelled her interviewee’s name multiple times throughout the document. I pointed out the error, and was inclined to give it a pass since it was a very unusual name with decidedly non-English spelling… until she misspelled it again in the next draft. Twice. I think she might’ve even missed it in a THIRD draft, among other things. Oy.

      • Carol Tice says:

        Thanks for sharing that editor POV. We ALL know it’s easier to start with a draft than a blank page…and I think some writers are a little too in love with their own writing.

        Once you commit to the idea that editors are here to make your writing even better, and are an aid to your career, you approach it with a collaborative attitude. And incredible things can happen. 😉

        • Hannah Mann says:

          Exactly! Editors are your allies (or they’re supposed to be, at least), even if they don’t always seem like it. We WANT you to get better– it makes our jobs easier. 🙂

  16. Evan Jensen says:

    This is such sound advice. I was totally demoralized the first time a magazine editor picked apart my article and asked for rewrites. But a good editor, even a rude one, can really help make your writing shine. Thanks.

  17. Ivy Shelden says:

    Great post and good headline too…I had to click. These are all points we might not think of, or forget about from time to time. If my writing goes unchecked for too long, I tend to put too much “me” stuff in there!

  18. Copy editor here. Woohoo!! Nuf said. 😉

    Scratch that. I can never say enough. LOL!

    We editors can sometimes be a pain in the patootie, Dennis, and perceived as rough around the edges. But some of us have soft hearts and try our best to consider our clients’ feelings.

    It’s true that writers are emotionally attached to their work. It’s a human thing. It can’t be helped. Believe me, it’s NEVER EASY to lower the boom and tell someone they need to go back to the drawing board. I don’t relish hurting someone’s feelings or squashing their pride. However, we editors need to practice tough love. It comes with the territory.

    Fabbytastic post, Dennis! Thanks for a shareworthy read. 🙂

    • I respect that a lot of editors truly care about their writers’ feelings, but like you say, squashing pride is part of the territory. An editor’s first obligation is to the client/publisher.

      Many writers consider themselves artists (I do, in a way), and they don’t want to hear about “business goals” and “metrics!”

      I encourage you to keep up with the tough love. Your writers may bristle now, but they’ll appreciate it later. 🙂

      • Oh, they ‘bristle’, Dennis! They bark, too, and sometimes they bite. But once we round the final lap and reach the finish line, they beam. 🙂

        Write On!

  19. David Throop says:

    Thanks Dennis (and Carol)!

    I think the value of any editor is the same as Dennis Hammer says in the comments “…like athletic coaches and trainers: best when they lay on you hard.” Great writers always claim great editors.

    The biggest takeaway for me, being newer to blogging and freelance writing, is that point you make in #2 – cohesion. Too often I try to cram as much as I can in a post – often at the client’s wishes – only to find the article muddled. I think by using this technique will help in my writing, as well as the end user’s understanding of the point!

    Thanks again for sharing!

    • I understand what you mean about clients asking for more. They often want more copy (and it’s typically promotional, not value for the reader).

      That said, sometimes more is better, but only if your audience prefers it. You could write a detailed guide, 4000 word guide or a few quick tips on the same topic. But first you have to know which version your audience will actually read.

  20. Therese Roth says:

    Thanks, Carol!

    This approach of doing what we learned at school and making a clear, concise point, makes absolute sense to me…

    Timely information!

    Greetings,
    Therese

  21. Thanks, Chris. I think to be the best, we have to approach our craft with absolute honesty, which means accepting criticism.

  22. Sheha says:

    Ooooff. Hard pill to swallow – sometimes editors love my writing, other times they hate it. Gotta keep on going. 😛

  23. Great article!I really enjoyed your advice. I think I will reread it till I learn it because it is chalk full of solid ideas to keep in mind.

  24. Jade Miller says:

    Thanks for the great article. I agree 100% – improvement in my writing was directly proportional to the toughness of the editor. 🙂

    • Well said, Jade. Sometimes I think of editors like athletic coaches and trainers: best when they lay on you hard.

      • Carol Tice says:

        I have to agree — the one editor I had as a staff writer that I hated the most, who made me work soooo hard (4 months on one story he eventually killed, for instance), and actually eventually fired me — I learned a ton from him.

  25. Chris says:

    Good lessons for any freelancer in this field.