10 keys to impressing editors—and getting more writing gigs

These insights from both sides of the desk will help you work efficiently, fulfill your subject matter and deadline targets, and foster good will for future assignments.

I’ll never forget the first article I wrote for a national magazine.

I’d spent two years pitching the editor on a wide variety of stories—to which she always said no. So, when she finally phoned me to accept an idea and commission me to write the piece, I was gobsmacked.

I did a little happy dance, speculated about how I was going to spend my considerable (to me) paycheck and started contacting sources.

Now that I’ve worked on both sides of the desk—as a writer and editor—for more than 40 years, I have a well-developed sense of what you have to do to make editors like you. Here are 10 surefire ways:

1. Make sure you fully understand the assignment.

Human communication is imperfect. If I say to my kids, “Please clean the house,” they might take it to mean I want them to pick up objects lying in the wrong places and wipe down the kitchen counters. But what if was expecting them to vacuum and dust? (I know. Bad example. They’ll never do this in my lifetime—at least not in my house.)

As a writer, however, you are expected to know the editor’s objectives. The best way to do that? Ask lots of questions. If the editor says to you, “Please write me a story on Vice President Madison Jones,” you should ask:

  • Are you looking for a 750-word profile?
  • Do you want it to focus on work, or should I include some personal aspects as well?
  • Roughly, how many people do you think I should interview?

Don’t worry about looking like a dimwit. If a writer were to ask me questions like those, I’d be impressed and feel respected.

2. Be calm and cheerful.

People like working with others who are happy. Yes, this might be an act, but play it like you’re looking for an Academy Award. If your editor likes you, you’ll get more work.

Casual chitchat about the weather, the traffic or items in the news is expected in any working relationship. It’s not all about the job; it’s part of being emotionally intelligent.

Try to connect on a human level, and if that’s not possible, rest secure in the knowledge that you’re being a decent human being. Your editor might not get that type of respect from anyone else.

3. Turn down work you’re ill-suited for.

Recently, I was invited to bid on an editing job relating to equities. I’m as game as the next person, but as soon as I looked at some of the stories (to prepare the quote), I realized I would be in way over my head. I immediately contacted the clients and told them I wasn’t their person. To do otherwise would have been unfair to them.

When you’re offered a story that’s totally outside your wheelhouse, see whether you can turn it down. This might not be possible if you’re an employee rather than a freelancer, but be frank with your boss and explain your lack of comfort.

If that doesn’t work, scramble to find someone who can explain the subject to you in plain English. Better yet, ask him or her to review your story before you hand it in.

4. Ask for and follow the style guide.

Every publication and just about every company will have an existing style guide or sheet, so ask for a copy of it. It will spell out how to present numbers (numerals or words), how to handle job titles and whether to use the serial comma.

If your copy comes in “clean”—i.e., if it follows the in-house style guide—you’ll be saving your editor a chunk of time, money and aggravation. This will make her like you-a lot.

5. Report in at least once along the way.

If you have a long-term deadline—and by that I mean more than two weeks—be sure to report in to the editor at least once, updating her on how you’re doing. Strictly speaking, this kind of check-in isn’t necessary, but it will give your editor confidence that things are going smoothly.

Think of it from her perspective: She has given you an assignment and-if she doesn’t know you well-doesn’t really know whether you’ll deliver it on time. A short, casual email will reassure her.

Say something like: “Hi, Melanie. Just a quick note to let you know that I’ve completed all the interviews for my story. Things have all gone well, and, as planned, I’ll have the draft to you by _______(date).”

6. Ask for help if you need it-early in the process.

Discovering—on deadline day—that a writer has an unsolved problem is any editor’s worst nightmare. If you’re facing unexpected challenges, the editor deserves to hear about them early, when she can help.

Say, for example, the people you need to interview won’t respond to your emails or texts. Call the editor as soon as this problem reveals itself. She might have ways of inciting them to respond.

Asking for this kind of help does not make you look bad. It makes you look well organized—as long as you do it early enough. Remember that most people like helping others. Editors, in particular, enjoy feeling as though they can slay a few dragons before lunchtime.

7. Use quotes judiciously.

Some writers overuse quotes or use spectacularly bad ones. I particularly hate quotes that sound as though an apprehensive CEO issued them, just before facing a flock of angry shareholders.

Example: “I can assure you that we are making an enormous contribution to our community.”

Doesn’t that sound phony? Quotes should say something in an idiosyncratic, interesting or amusing way. Here’s a believable one from a recent New York Times story on student backpacks:

“I have a very cluttered mind,” Mr. Sarete, the N.Y.U. student, explained.

8. Document your sources.

I don’t know whether magazines have fact-checkers anymore, but when I was writing I had to submit a list of sources along with my article. This included phone numbers and email addresses for people, as well as publication details and page numbers of any books or magazines I’d used.

Even if your publication doesn’t require this, it’s smart to fastidiously organize and file the information you’ve collected. Keep it for at least a year after publication. That way if your editor asks for anything, you’ll be able to produce it in a few minutes. That will truly impress her.

9. Be within 10 words of your assigned word count.

Don’t start to write until you have a word count, and never submit a story that is either too long or too short. Never.

The best trick I learned from one of my writers? Whenever she had a story that she felt had to be longer (because the sources were so interesting) she always submitted two stories to me: One was the requested length; the other was longer. I thought this was one of the smartest things I’d ever seen a freelancer do. (Thank you, Ruth.)

10. Always meet your deadline.

If I ever received a story late, I never used that writer again. Deadlines are non-negotiable. Do whatever it takes to turn in your story on time. The editor has her own list of responsibilities. If you miss your deadline, she’s likely to miss hers. This will not make her happy.

Impressing an editor might seem like looking after a particularly demanding pet—or a finicky houseplant—but it’s exactly the sort of effort that can result in better and more frequent work for you.

This article first appeared on The Publication Coach blog.

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