Tips for Freelance Writers from Insiders: What Editors Love

What Editors Love: 11 Insider Tips for Freelance Writers

Editor | 23 Comments

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.

J-School: 4-Week Journalism Crash Course. Grow your freelance writing income.

23 comments on “What Editors Love: 11 Insider Tips for Freelance Writers

  1. Rachel on

    Hearing straight from editors is incredibly helpful, so thank you for sharing that. I think one of my first priorities is going to be to make an online portfolio and start generating some content for it. Thank you for sharing this advice!

  2. Carol J. Alexander on

    This is a great list, Carol. As the editor of a regional lifestyle magazine can I add? I would love for writers to follow the submission guidelines, turn in stories on time, pitch stories relevant to our readers and to stop using flowery vocabulary. That said, I love working with writers and am seriously impressed by those that are open to suggestions and go the extra mile.

  3. Paul on

    I am freelance writer and recently found your blog. I am checking all your post regularly. Learning a lot and even managed to improve my writing style. Thank you and keep on continuing the good work.

  4. Dennis on

    Hi Carol, I followed your advise and my guest post pitch was accepted.
    Thank you for the helpful advice that you give to us writers.

  5. Barb on

    I was told that no matter how humorous my story was it wouldn’t cut it if it didn’t have ‘solid, usable information for the readers’. Apparently I hit the mark. It was published.

  6. Williesha on

    I think editors appreciate enthusiasm. They want you to be passionate about the story, even if it’s an area that isn’t generally of interest to you. One of my editors, after working with her for a year, really appreciated that I asked for additional responsibilities to take off her plate. Plus that’s more money for me!

  7. Lauren Steinheimer on

    Good tips here!

    So far, all of my writing gigs (aside from news reporting) have been in fields of personal experience. It’s great because I get tor write about my passions and learn more from people I interview!

    It’s like going back to school, but now I’m getting paid to do the homework and not the other way around 😉

    • Michelle Goad on

      Personal experience is such a rich resource. I find that I write a lot from personal experience. I started about 21 years ago when a guy I was dating died. I wrote constantly as I worked through my grief and I still have my writing from those days. Always save what you write, you’ll never know when or how you might use it one day!

  8. Geri Spieler on

    These are all great ideas and good information.

    When writing as a freelancer, I put on my former “editors” hate and remember what it was like on the other side of the desk. I had many people pitching stories and articles to me. Most of the time they were PR pieces that were not news.

    I was always looking for the timely quote. “Why is this something I need to know now.”

  9. Susan Sommer on

    All great info! Thank you. I’d like to add this to the targeted pitches aspect: Pitch your idea for a specific section of the magazine. That shows me as an editor (I’m currently the associate editor for Alaska magazine) that you’ve studied the magazine–actually looked at a handful of issues and know the layout, the approximate word counts, the tone, whether a specific section tends to be first person or third, etc. If you send us a good idea but it doesn’t quite fit anywhere, then we are less likely to say yes. That said, editors like writers who are willing to work as a team to mold an idea that fits the publication. Keep trying and keep pitching! Editors need good writers!

    • Peggy Carouthers on

      Great tip, Susan! Thanks for sharing. I think from a freelancer perspective it’s also helpful to target a section because it helps you keep the aim of the piece in mind as you write.

      • Susan Sommer on

        Absolutely. Also, don’t rely too much on a pub’s website for writer guidelines–sometimes they are out of date. Better to research the actual print or online versions.

    • Michelle Goad on

      I agree with studying the magazine. It is so important to get the tone and if your writing would be a good match for the magazine. I have been doing this for sometime so that as I prepare to pitch, I’ll be able to give it my best shot! Also studying the magazine will give you ideas about writing. If you know you would be a match for that magazine, get their editorial calendar, find out the deadine dates and build your article arsenal!

  10. Robert on

    These tips were wonderful! When freelance writers just start out, they tend to pitch general things and don’t think about their perspective audience. That’s a huge issue according to this article which gives a lot of practical and worthwhile information for both new and seasoned freelance writers.

  11. Jennifer Waddle on

    My editors tend to gravitate toward articles that solve a problem. My titles usually get turned into “3 Ways…” or “10 Ideas…”

    So, I now include a couple of title options that I think they would like. For example, my latest submission was an article I’d titled: “I am Depressed.”
    When I sent it in, I changed it to “3 Words Christian Women are Afraid to Say.”

    Thank you for a fantastic article!


    • Carol Tice on

      Nice — that first one is more of what I call an ‘all in’ headline — I don’t need to read the article because I got your whole idea in the headline.

      I was lucky to have editors early on who INSISTED we turn in a proposed headline with each story, rather than just a slug like “healthcare story.” I couldn’t have imagined how that would pay off when I got into blogging, where headlines are super-important. 😉

    • Michelle Goad on

      Great Headline! I’ve been researching how important it is to have that eye-catching headline. You certainly achieved it with “3 Words…” It motivates women to look for the article and find out just what those words are! Great job!

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