10 ways to appear shockingly smart to any editor

Reading time: About 4 minutes

It doesn’t matter if you’re a freelancer or if you have a boss for whom you write. You need to learn how to win over editors… 

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 paycheque and started contacting sources.

Now that I’ve worked on both sides of the desk — as a writer and editor — for more than 35 years, I have a well-developed sense of what you have to do to make editors like you. Here are 10 sure-fire ways:

1 Make sure you really understand the assignment

Human communication is imperfect. If I say to my kids “please clean the house” they may take it to mean I want them to pick up objects lying in 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 read the editor’s mind. The best way to do that? Ask lots of questions! So 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 these, I’d be impressed and feel respected.

2 Be calm and cheerful

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

Some casual chitchat about the weather, the traffic, 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 may 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 client 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 of your wheelhouse, see if you can turn it down. I realize this may 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 them 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 or not to use the serial comma.  If your copy comes in “clean” — i.e.: if it follows the existing 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, midway

If you have a long deadline — and by that I mean more than two weeks — be sure to report in to the editor at least once, giving her an update on how you’re doing. While, strictly speaking, this kind of check-in isn’t necessary, it will help give your editor confidence that things are going smoothly. Think of it from her perspective: She’s given you an assignment and — if she doesn’t know you well — doesn’t really know if you’re going to be able to deliver it on time. A short, casual email will help 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 now. Things have all gone well and, as planned, I’ll have the draft into 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 may 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 over-use quotes or use spectacularly bad ones. I particularly hate ones that sound as though an apprehensive CEO wrote 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 any more (I’m guessing most don’t) but back when I was writing I had to submit a list of sources with my article. This included phone numbers and email addresses for people and 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. Then 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 goal. 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 needed 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 that was 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 may seem like looking after a particularly demanding pet — or finicky houseplant. But it’s exactly the sort of effort that can result in better and more frequent work for you.

How do you win over the editors or bosses you work with? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of Wildmind: Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below.