Worst Writer Mistakes: 8 Editors Reveal What Makes Them Say ‘No’

Top 10 Writer Blunders Editors Tell All. Makealivingwriting.comHave you ever wished you could find out what editors really think when they read your pitches and stories?

Now you don’t have to wonder, because eight editors have shared their biggest freelance pet peeves in the Freelance Writers Den’s semi-regular “Ask An Editor” Den meeting calls.

I’ve boiled down reams of transcripts to bring you the choicest remarks about writer mistakes from a mix of consumer, trade, and company magazine editors. Check out these freelance writing sins and learn how to avoid doing the things editors hate most:

1. Send long pitches

Connie Gentry, editor, Full Service Restaurant: Keep your pitches short and succinct and direct. I don’t need to see a pitch that’s 300 words long. Get to the point please.

Be very specific in your pitch. This is the objective of the story, these are the specific industry professionals you’re going to interview, and these are the kinds of companies and the kinds of job titles that you intend to interview for the story.

Lynya Floyd, health director, Family Circle: If I don’t get it from the subject line, I want to be able to open up your email and boom, boom, boom, in the first three sentences, get whether or not this is something that’s going to be interesting for our readers. So, get to the point quickly.

2. Don’t proof your work

Peggy Bennett, content director King Fish Media; former contributing editor, AllBusiness.com and Wall Street Journal, and former articles editor, Entrepreneur: It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many pitches are rampant with typos. All that tells an editor is, number one, this person doesn’t know grammar, spelling, and punctuation, or number two, they didn’t take the time to read over their pitch again.

That is an immediate clue that is someone you can’t rely on to be thorough, and if they can’t try hard in the pitch, they might not try hard in the article.

Floyd: Always double-check your emails before you send them out. I’ve definitely gotten emails where someone remembered to swap in my name for another editor’s name, but they forgot to change the magazine name… That makes it really obvious that either someone else already passed on this or you’re simultaneously submitting this to a bunch of places.

3. Take up a lot of the editor’s time

Matt Ellis, Editor, Independent Joe: The writer’s got to be self-sufficient. If I give you an assignment, we talk about it, and I give you some of the parameters for it — some suggestions of who to talk to — I’m going to expect that you’re going to be able to go out and do what you’ve got to do.

Research the topic and talk with the people you need to talk to, do the interviews, and then come back to me and let’s have a conversation about how you think the article’s going to take shape.

4. Procrastinate

Art Thiel, Founder, Sportspress Northwest: You have to write fast, hard, and well — speed is a big deal in a daily. Even in a thoughtful piece, the speed of the river is extraordinary.

We need people to write it fast and well the first time. We don’t have a lot of time to edit and re-edit. This is no time for people who are procrastinators or dilly-dalliers.

Bennett: I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve assigned an article to a new writer to me, and the writer has said, “Can I just have a couple extra days on that?” or “I’m working on this great lead. Can I have an extra week?”

Especially for a first-time writer, you need to get it right in that first assignment. Surprisingly, there are a lot of people who are flaky out there that don’t come through, and those are people I can’t use again.

5. Tell editors what you want

Heidi Raschke, digital content editor at Twin Cities Public Television and former editor, Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine: I am always amazed at the number of pitches that I get from people who are talking about what they want from me. Like, “I want to be a writer. I’d like to be a columnist. I’d like to do this.” And I’m like, “Good for you. If I hire you, what can you do for me?

I’m an editor, and I have a magazine to put out, and I have 14 deadlines that are on fire right now. The pitches that I like to see are the ones that talk about what the writer can do for me, what the writer is proposing.

6. Act like you’re the expert

Ellis: Good writers tend to be good listeners. You have to be able to get the information out of people and get them to talk, so as long as you’re not afraid to admit the fact that you don’t know as much about the subject as they do, which is something they probably expect anyway, then you’re fine.

7. Send several diluted ideas

Floyd: Someone pitched me three paragraph-long ideas. One was absolutely not right, one was probably better for someone else within the magazine, and the third was interesting, but I really couldn’t tell if I would assign this person a 1,500-word story off of 4 sentences. So, what I would say is if you have one idea that you’re really excited about, please do go for that and do a fully fleshed out query.

8. Be unwilling to revise

Amelia Harnish, editor at Health.com and associate editor, Health: I often write and get edited, so I know how that feels. And it makes you feel like, “Oh my god. I don’t know what this woman wants from me, and I don’t understand why she wants so many edits.” But don’t take it personally and understand that your editor has an editor.

Often, I’m working with a writer and I’m sure that they’re like, “Uh, she’s crazy,” but I’m just trying to please the person that’s above me. Every time I write something, I know my editor is going to tear it apart or have lots of questions. And that’s fine. That’s what happens. That’s what the editor is there for, so I think that helps.

Cori Vanchieri, features editor, Science News Magazine; former editor, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Bulletin and Cleveland Clinic Magazine: I would always expect revisions, always take them knowing that it’s that point of view of that magazine and how they want to present information and be open to those revisions. Know that in the end you’ll end up producing a better story if you kind of go with what they want.

9. Fizzle out after a few articles

Vanchieri: I often find a really good writer. They do a great job for like two or three stories, and then something happens, and they just kind of fizzle out. They keep getting assignments, and then they start turning things in that aren’t as good as their early stuff. I don’t know that it’s they’ve taken on too much or what, but there’s some kind of a lack of consistency that happens often with people.

10. Go way over word count

Gentry: If an editor tells you the word count is 1,100 words, do 1,100 words. Don’t do 1,400. Don’t do 600. Hit that word count pretty close.

Vanchieri: If I assign 750 words, and you give me 800 or 850, that’s okay because you need that little extra… You send me in a thousand words, and it’s a different story. I’ve only got the space for the 750, you’ve written it in a way that it’s 1,000, so it’s just hard to trim it back in a way that’s useful. I could take an extra 50, extra 100 words, but really don’t send in more than that.

If you’re not sure, you’ve got too much that you’ve covered, I would call the editor and say, “I know you need this at 750. I’m at a thousand right now, let me tell you the big topics that I’ve hit, and you help me decide what I should pull out of here.”

What have editors told you they don’t like when working with freelancers? Tell us in the comments below.

Peggy Carouthers is a freelance writer with a background in journalism. She specializes in human resources and business topics.

Freelance Writers Den

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31 comments on “Worst Writer Mistakes: 8 Editors Reveal What Makes Them Say ‘No’
  1. One says be succinct and the other says flesh a good idea out 🙁 Haha I guess you have to learn the audience.

  2. Ariel says:

    Hello Ms. Tice,
    Thanks for all these pointers an help or those of us that are just getting started on this exciting journey. Yyour information and help really does encourage. I am wondering if you can give me advice. I would like to send a query to a magazine I would like to write for. I know I should query about 2-3 months in advance before the article would be running. However, I cannot seem to find much on their website about when the schedule runs for different articles and when they would be publishing them. Should I just be straight forward and ask the editor? What should I do? How do I find their publishing schedule? (perhaps I have not been searching in the right place). Thank you very much for your help.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Most magazines work more like 4-6 months ahead of time, FYI, Ariel.

      Without knowing the name of the publication, it’s hard for me to know how to find their information, but most publications have guidelines and editorial calendars on their websites these days — and if they don’t, certainly you can call and ask.

  3. Great list. Re #1 and the question of how to know what an editor prefers, if it’s a new-to-you editor, you can pitch short and add a line about sending more detail/fleshed-out proposal on request. If they want more, they’ll ask.

  4. Ryan Bozeman says:

    It seems to me that a lot of aspiring writers would benefit from learning some basic copywriting techniques, based on #5. You have to be able to sell yourself.

  5. How does a writer know when to write a brief query and when to fully flesh one out? Thanks for all the excellent advice.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Really depends on the type of market. I gather the women’s magazines tend to like very detailed ones, where I’ve had great luck with the business magazines with 1-page, fairly brief pitches. Trade publications, you can often win by pitching them 3 quick ideas with bullets in a 1-pager — it’s hard to figure out the ideas they’d want since their editorial calendar is usually decided in-house, so that can be a way to just show you get their reader and have ideas for them. They may not assign those, but it can get you a call to write something they have on their calendar.

      • Carol,
        Thanks for the excellent advice! You’re always right on target!
        Often I ask an editor that I’ve worked with several times about their preferences. It helps to know the editor and what works best for them.

        Carolyn

  6. Peter DeHaan says:

    As a magazine publisher and editor, I fully agree with all 8 points. Carol, you are so right! Thanks

  7. Sherri says:

    I heed #10 as sometimes my fee is per word for magazine articles. I don’t want to add too much extra as the editor might think I’m word stuffing for a higher fee. I usually end up with about 60 words extra after proofing.

    I always ask the editor to contact me if she/he needs changes as this leaves the door open to cut the word count if it’s too high. 🙂

  8. Anja Skrba says:

    Procrastination…Horrible, horrible habit! Bennett is totally right – you need to nail your first assignment, and with procrastination you’ll go nowhere.

    Regards Carol!

  9. Cherese Cobb says:

    Peggy,

    From one Tennessee-gal to another, thanks for the awesome article!

    I’ve sent several short pitches to new blog editors before, and I’ve never had a problem. These idea snippets (4-6 sentences) tell the editor what I want to write about, who I’m going to interview, and how the article will entertain, inform, or persuade the blog’s readers. (However, I’d never submit short pitches to magazines.)

    My number one writing sin used to be that I’d write way over word count. Make a Living Writing helped me break that habit. Now when I outline my articles, I put the maximum words allowed by each section.

    However, I still miss grammatical issues in my written work. For example, I just turned in an article to a client that I read at least 20 times (several times aloud to other people), but I didn’t realize that the word “bag” was missing from the sentence. Apparently, when I read it to other people, I mentally added the word bag. I’m dyslexic, so I try to proofread several times before submitting my work. I also do several grammar lessons per week.

    • Cherese,

      Thanks for commenting! It’s great to hear from you. I’m glad to hear that you’ve been able to work on your word count issues. That’s a tough one!

      As for your proofreading, here’s a tip one of my high school English teachers gave me that may help you. Do one proofreading run starting from the end and going back to the beginning. This helps you read each sentence as a stand alone element, rather than as part of the flow of the piece, and it will help you pick out those pesky mistakes that blend in.

    • Cate Scolnik says:

      Cherese,

      The other thing to try is using a tool like Grammarly (I use the free version). It checks the grammar in your writing and often comes up with missing words and things. OK, it’s not perfect, but it is a great tool. It will also check writing online – like in this text box. Plus, it keeps you motivated by giving you a weekly report on how many words you’ve written!

  10. Katharine says:

    #11. Complain if the final version (published version) contains new material you’ve never seen before, broken links, typos, grammos, etc. That’ll get you dropped in a minute! 😉 Because, really, everybody makes mistakes!!!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I don’t know if I agree — I think if there are errors or problems, you can politely ask to get a correction, or at least get it fixed in the online version. I’ve done that quite a few times. But “complain,” no. Keep it professional!

  11. Rob says:

    I’ve had editors send me briefs and change their minds after I’ve written an article that followed the brief to the letter. Recently, an editor sent me a quote to include in an article. It set the tone for the whole article. Then they turned around and said, “take out that quote.” At least they added “my mistake,” but sometimes they don’t. The moral: editors aren’t all-wise-all-knowing and sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.

  12. Tiffany says:

    I’m curious about the balance between numbers 1 and 7… what is the best way to write a fully fleshed out query without being lengthy?

    • In my experience the trick is to use more precise language so that you get to the point without being wordy. I often find that if my queries seem to be long, I’ve written a lot of unnecessary information or used too many words to say something simple.

      Here’s my method: I try to start with a catchy title/subject line, write a few quick sentences that serve as an intro to the piece (this is usually writing as if I’m writing the article to set the tone), then a quick bulleted list of some of the points I plan to include. The bullets don’t even have to be complete sentences as long as the point gets across.

      Then somewhere in the flow I explain why this idea is relevant and give a sentence or two about why I should write it.

      All together, these pitches tend to be 3-4 paragraphs long at most. That seems to be a good range for my target editors.

      Of course, different publications will have different ideas of what is a fully fleshed-out but not overkill query.

      Hope that helps!

      • Carol Tice says:

        My rule on it is — use the fewest words you can that get the story told. That’s the right length. You’ll never hear it was too long.

        Also…get to the point! I just read one query in Pitch Clinic where the nut graf was paragraph 10. No joke. Make it paragraph 3!

  13. One corollary to #5 that I’ve heard dozens of editors complain about: “I know you don’t normally publish fiction/poetry/opinion pieces/two-part stories/etc., but I’m sure you’ll agree this is worth making an exception for.” In other words, “I want to write what I want to write, and I DON’T want to go to the trouble of researching what publication’s mission that might actually fit with.” These are usually the same people who will commit half the other no-no’s on the list as well, because they consider themselves too good to have to really work at their writing.

  14. Edward Long says:

    I was excited to write my first article for the city newspaper, but my excitement became anxiety: My draft was 102 words over my limit. Even though I’d labored to eliminate every unnecessary word. I told my editor, and he told me to submit it anyhow. He liked it–he printed every word.

    • Carol Tice says:

      100 words over on a long article isn’t a huge deal, Edward — it’s the writers who get a 500-word assignment and turn in 1200 that run into trouble.

      When I have to do that, I’ll sometimes suggest a possible cut — because if you don’t, the editor will make their OWN cuts, and you may not like them as much as your idea! I HAVE had editors, though, that will not read an article that’s more than 10% over wordcount.

  15. I thought number 5 was really insightful. It’s so easy to say things like, “I want to write this article because…” or something similar, and it’s so much more important to determine what you can offer the editor.

  16. Israel says:

    Wow. Number 10 is a real eye opener. The guys on the content mill never complain when I go over count (usually 500/300). Succinctness is very important in the real writing world then…