Have 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.
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.