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What Editors Love: 11 Insider Tips for Freelance Writers


Editors reveal what they love in a pitch. Makealivingwriting.comPleasing editors may seem difficult. But you don’t have to be confused about how to handle these tricky relationships any more.

We’ve got tips for freelance writers who want the inside line on how to become an editor’s favorite, “go-to” writer.

Many editors from consumer, trade, airline, and business magazines have shared their best tips for freelance writers in the Freelance Writers Den’s “Ask an Editor” podcasts.

We combed through the transcripts of these calls to find what makes them say “yes” to pitches. Check out these awesome tips from nine different editors to improve your pitches – and your relationships with editors:

1. Great, targeted ideas

Matt Ellis, Editor, Independent Joe: The hardest thing about doing this successfully is remembering who your audience is.

We’ll have examples, especially when I’m working with new writers, where they’re giving some background and contacts about Dunkin’ Donuts written in a way that the average consumer may not know. Our readers are all Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owners. They know this stuff. So it’s a matter of adjusting, especially when you’re getting into the background and really making sure that sometimes you can go with the shorthand because this is the world that these guys live in, and you’re speaking directly to them.

Sarah Smith, Deputy Editor, Redbook: What you’ve got to try to do is take a step back. You’re a woman, what do you want to read about? What is the story that is going to be fun for you? What’s the thing that if you read it in a magazine you would then go tell all of your friends?

2. An interesting take on a topic

Tom Post, former Managing Editor, Forbes: There may be a certain take on something that strikes me as original, or just really well reasoned, or a contrarian view on a commonplace assumption about something. Something that is distinctive will stand out and bring a different kind of audience to our forum and create discussion.

Jessica Strawser, Chief Editor, Writer’s Digest: A good way to come up with a fresh hook on an idea is to kind of take a contrarian’s stance or a devil’s advocate stance against the topic.

3. A little reporting in your pitch

Steve Rosenbush, Editor, CIO Journal: I think there’s a lot to be said for doing a little bit of reporting before you pitch the story. I feel like those pitches kind of have the highest success rate in my experience.

A lot of pitches come in with basically a very rough idea sketched out with an email. That’s sort of asking me as an editor to take for faith that the reporter or the writer can do reporting and think a story through, and it’s sort of asking me to work on coming up with the idea. If you can get 15% of the reporting done, that’s probably enough to convince me, the editor, one, that you have a cool idea, and two, that you can actually execute it.

4. Not just a topic–a storyline

Rosenbush: The number one thing when I’m evaluating a pitch, I’m really looking for a story line and not looking for a topic. I don’t want to get a pitch that says, “I could give you really great look into this, or look into that.” My reaction as an editor is, “That’s not really a story idea, that’s a line of inquiry. It’s an area that you ought to be investigating before you talk to me.”

5. Think like an editor

Brad Bowling, Managing Editor, Antique Power and Vintage Fire Truck: Think in terms of what do you have to finish with it? Photos, labels, captions are great if you work on that kind of magazine where it’s got a lot of photography, or at least guess what the main photos will be chosen that kind of thing. Just doing everything that makes the editor’s life easier on the other end is a big bonus.

Smith: Send in a few headline and deck ideas with your piece. That’s one of the things that we will be doing when we’re editing it when we turn it in to our bosses, and if there’s some things there that are great or at least give us something to jump off from, that saves us time, and makes us feel grateful to you.

The more thinking you can help us do on what the display copy would be, the more we think, “Oh, this is someone who thinks like an editor, that’s somebody who then I want to keep working with.”

6. Humorous or colorful writing

Joe Raiola, Senior Editor, MAD Magazine: We’re on the lookout for stuff that obviously distinguishes itself…being funny is the main thing. Being funny goes a long way here.

Jeff Bond, Associate Editor, Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air: We’re looking for a descriptive style of writing. We like people who, if they’re going to do a feature for us, we want it to be very descriptive. We want them to be able to put our reader in the scene. You want to be taken to the place.

We can always work with you to tone it down, but we can’t make it up. Paint the picture. Take us there. We want to be taken to that scene. That’s what, to me, really makes good writing, especially travel writing. You have to take the reader to the place and show them what it is, make them smell it, make them see it, make them hear it. That’s what we’re really looking for when we’re looking for freelance writers.

7. Personal experience

Ellis: If we were talking about woodworking magazine or something along those lines or a gardening publication, and you’re an avid gardener, well, that puts you in a different category. All of a sudden, if you’re sending a query letter to an editor of that kind of a publication, and you have a lived experience doing it, that’s part of your life, you’ve got a hobby there, then I think you are for something else too: what you’re bringing to the party.

In that kind of a case, you’re not just pitching yourself as a writer, but you pitch yourself as someone who’s knowledgeable about the subject because you do it.

Zac Petit, former Managing Editor, Writer’s Digest: A lot of people have success breaking into our magazine by just spinning a story in a way that only you uniquely could. That could be any combination of your writing experience, your life experience, a certain thing you have, a certain asset, a certain knowledge. So, it’s just taking anything that you have that you can offer an editor that they don’t have and sort of sharpening your pitch from there, which I think can really give your pitch and your story an edge over a lot of other stories that are in submissions inbox.

8. Tight, clean copy

Ellis: I’m always impressed by writers who can write well. I know it just sounds so silly to say that to a group of writers, but we all know some people just have a gift for writing good, clean sentences, and I’m a real stickler for things that are clean and easy to read without a whole lot of parenthetical phrasing, and without a whole lot of built-in examples.

I think in a lot of cases you want to just break and then do another sentence, another paragraph and tell the story that way. I’m always going to default to the people whose material reads well when I’m checking it out.

9. Online portfolios

Petit: It’s really such an important thing that your entire portfolio be online. And editors do visit it.

Bond: We do a lot of searching for people online. We look at their clips… I know you’ve heard this a million times: have that website. Put your clips up there. Make sure you’ve got good looking clips with the good art and the stories in there, because that’s what you really need.

10. Extra digging to get a story right

Post: I think one of the things I hope that distinguishes the kinds of posts that we do and that we look for here are those that are insightful, have an interesting point of view, and maybe require a little more digging, an extra phone call.

It’s really incredible what taking the extra 10 minutes to add value to a post will do, rather than kind of extract lint from your navel and try and make an interesting design out of it. A lot of people do that kind of navel contemplation, and it shows – and it wears very thin.

11. Make your editor look good

Smith: Editors want ideas that make us look good, because what we’re trying to do all day long is get the best stuff in the magazine. And the way to do that is to go to meetings with our bosses, the executive editor and the editor-in-chief, and for them to say, “Wow. You are so smart. You are just the best. I’m so glad that you work here and that you have such fascinating writers.” We want to be noticed immediately, and the way that we can be noticed is from you guys.

It isn’t everyday you hear straight from editors about what they want to see more of from the freelance writers they work with. Try out some of these awesome tips to land more jobs and improve your relationships with your editors.

What do your editors love? 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.

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