Editors: Some Humble Requests from Your Freelance Writers
Yesterday I wrote about what I’ve learned in dealing with editors as a freelance writer. But one thing I’ve also learned is that some editors don’t know much about dealing with us, either. And while we admit that you, editors, are in something of a power position here — you hold the money — we also humbly submit that we can be loads of help to you if you give us what we need. Help us help you. Here, a few simple things that my favorite editors in the world — the ones I work for regularly — do that makes me want to hold parades in their honor:
1. Pay us when something goes wrong that isn’t our fault. We spent just as much time on that assignment whether or not your negotiations for a new sponsored section fell through. You could go above and beyond and pay us in full if that’s possible, but at least a kill fee seems fair.
2. Be clear about the payment (or lack thereof) upfront. It’s awkward to ask about money, and it’s so lovely when you just tell us. Many, many friends of mine just starting out in freelancing after me have asked me whether it’s okay to bring up money when they’re given an assignment. While I say OF COURSE it is, it’s even nicer when editors just handle this delicate piece of business for us. We’re so much more motivated when we know what we’re getting for our trouble.
3. Tell us the specific objection you have to a pitch. I know you don’t always have time for this, but it’s awesome when you do. One editor, for instance, let me know that she loved my pitch for a profile of a female TV producer, except for one thing — the producer was 41, and the magazine only features women in their demo, which ends at 36. (Harsh, but helpful.) Another told me she couldn’t run sex-related or alcohol-related stories anymore because of a new partnership deal with Yahoo. (Never mind that it was a dating site … what would they write about, exactly?) That’s great to know, because guess which kind of stories I would now stop pitching her!
4. Be super-clear about what you want. My favorite editors send me assignment letters — sounds scary and official, but it needn’t be. Once we’ve decided that there is a story idea and I will be executing it, they write up an email stating everything they want from it: Questions I should make sure to ask the subject. Which interviews they expect. How many words. Deadline. Good models of similar stories they’ve run. What they’re looking for from a specific interview. (When I wrote about Onion News Network’s Suzanne Sena, for instance, my editor at Vulture said he wanted to make sure we had some candid talk about her time at Fox News; that’s really helpful to know before I go into the interview, so I can push for that accordingly, or even ask her publicist beforehand if that’s something likely to happen.) If you’re sending me on a fishing expedition, let me know — then I can decide how much of my precious time I can spend on something that may not pan out.
5. Keep it real. My favorite, favorite, favorite editors are very upfront with me. They tell me at the outset if, for instance, they’re almost sure there will be drama down the editing road: I have one editor who will just say, “Look, how this’ll probably go is that we’ll decide on this story angle, you’ll write the story. Then my boss will change her mind and want something completely different and we’ll have to rip it up and start over again. The good news is we pay $2 a word.” Great, now I know what I’m in for, and if it goes more smoothly than that, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. I’m a no-nonsense girl, and I like being treated like an adult. I hate pretending that when something is torn up late in the editing process it’s because it’s “not good,” as opposed to just “not currently suiting the whims of an editor who wants to put her own stamp on this story,” or “not different enough from that story we have on page 12,” or “not working with the fun infographic we made.” Just tell me what the real problem is, and we can figure it out together and move on. This works in simpler ways, too, like during the editing process; don’t write me three paragraphs about why I should consider changing this one word or adding certain things. Want that sex story to be dirtier? Just tell me that, not, like, “Can you be more specific here when you say, ‘doggie style’?”
6. Stay calm, at least in your emails to me. I understand you’re under a lot of pressure, but please do not come at me with accusatory rants that assume I willfully refused to follow instructions and deliver what you asked for. If that’s actually true, feel free to ream me, but if you could possibly assume for a second that we simply had a misunderstanding in instructions, that would be cool. One of my favorite editors wrote me the nicest note when he was asking me to, essentially, redo an entire story. I think we really did have a miscommunication when it came to the story angle, but I didn’t mind redoing everything when he started his email with, “I am SO sorry to do this to you, but …” Wording that makes clear that the objections have nothing to do with fundamental skill are also welcomed. (“This is a fine story, but for our publication, we really need to focus instead on …”)
7. Specifics, please. One of my unsung talents, in my opinion, is translating editors’ notes into solid changes. Sometimes I wish this were a job in itself; I find it strangely satisfying. What helps me do this? Notes that not only tell me an objection, but offer an alternative or solution. My biggest pet peeve is editors saying things like, “Do you have a better kicker?” As if perhaps I’ve had one all along that I was keeping to myself, but now, editor, since you asked, voila! Of course you should tell me if something isn’t working, but a hint as to why, or what might work better, sure goes a much longer way. The worst editors to work for are like that friend who says, “I don’t care what we eat,” then proceeds to reject everything you offer. “Chinese?” “No.” “Italian?” “No.” Please don’t make me go through that with my stories.
With all of this said, we love you, editors, for paying our bills, and we understand you’re under a lot of pressure. Thanks for being awesome! Hope any of this helps you help us be awesomer.
Your freelance writers