Career Advice

7 Ways to Become an Editor’s Best Friend (And 3 Ways to Drive Her Crazy)

By Catherine Overman August 22nd, 2014

It doesn’t take freelancers very long to discover how difficult securing assignments can be. One crucial—and often overlooked—way to get more work is by building solid relationships with editors.

In my 10 years as an assigning editor at B2B and consumer magazines, I’ve worked with some freelancers who’ve made my life easier and some who’ve made me want to pull my hair out.

Here are seven habits that land freelancers at the top of my call list—and three that put them on my blacklist.

7 Ways to Become an Editor’s Best Friend

1. Keep her in the loop

Tell your editor what sources you’re planning to use before you interview them. This can help nip potential conflicts in the bud if, for example, there’s bad blood between the publication and the expert you had lined up, or if she has another article planned on the company you were thinking of featuring.

One writer I frequently work with always sends me her contact list when she begins working on an assignment. This habit paid off a few months ago when she let me know she planned to interview a consultant I was already featuring in another article in the same issue. (The source didn’t mind a little extra exposure, but I preferred not to give him quite so much coverage.)

2. Look for ways you can add value

Anything that saves your editor time is gold, so provide helpful supplemental information whenever possible. Send a dozen article keywords and an SEO-friendly description. Or pass along relevant charts, figures, maps, sidebar ideas, or photos. She may or may not need them, but she’ll appreciate your extra effort.

Try it once, and ask if it’s helpful so you know whether to invest the time on your next assignment.

3. Give your piece one more read

After you’ve done your final edits, examine your article closely for repeated phrases, missing punctuation, redundancies, and any other weirdness. You may have moved a quotation mark and accidentally deleted the speaker’s attribution. Actually reading out loud also makes it easier to catch the mistakes.

4. Defer to her authority

Let your editor know right away if a source or PR rep complains about an article. The editor will want to determine how to handle it, especially if she connected you with the source. If it’s sponsored content, this can be particularly important since there’s money at stake.

One writer I assigned a story to interviewed an executive at a leading expedited shipping company, but the quotes were so vague I ended up cutting them all. After the article was published, the company’s marketing manager sent a scathing email to the writer accusing her of wasting the exec’s time. Rather than shoot back a message defending herself, the freelancer wisely forwarded the message to me with a request for help handling the sticky situation—and I was happy to set the record straight.

5. Don’t make the same mistake twice

It can be ego-crushing, but it’s good practice to read the published piece to see how it differs from what you submitted. Look for basic style issues first. For example, if the final version uses serial commas, make a note to include those next time. Also pay particular attention to the lede, transitions, and quotations. When I first started assigning stories to one writer, he repeatedly submitted stories with 200-word quotations, which I consistently cut in half. He picked up on the trend, and soon he was including the shorter quotations that fit our editorial style.

6. Stay top of mind

Review the editorial calendar and let your editor know if specific topics she’s planning to cover appeal to you. Knowing you’re interested could make you an easy choice when it comes time to make assignments. When I was at a regional magazine that covered travel and culture, one freelancer I worked with frequently let me know he had vacationed in a beach town we were planning to feature. His recommendations about some of the local attractions helped flesh out the assignment—and I dropped the story right into his lap.

7. Refer a friend

This can be risky, but if you turn down an assignment—especially if the topic just doesn’t appeal to you—connect your editor with another writer who might be a good fit. It could be good karma for you later.

3 Ways to Drive Her Crazy

1. Don’t follow directions

Submit a story that’s 500 words under (or over) the agreed-upon word count, three days late, and on not-quite-the-right-topic. Editors hate scope creep. Let her know right away if you see the story taking a different angle, if you’re struggling to make it to the word count, and especially if you have even an inkling you might not make the deadline. All these factors may be negotiable… if you broach the subject with your editor far enough in advance.

2. Leave her hanging

It infuriates editors on deadline when they need to contact you for a clarification about your piece and don’t get a response from you. Are you waiting to hear back from your source with the answer? Or do you not even know there’s a question? Save your editor some stress and reply right away to let her know you’re looking into it.

3. Make extra work for her

Depending on the publication, most editors will do at least a little fact-checking, but we all rely on you to double-check basics such as URLs, dates, and the correct spelling of names. If she finds you misspelled a prominent CEO’s name, she’ll probably feel compelled to go back and check everything in the story. And don’t make her wonder which meaning you intended for that unusual acronym, or whether your reference to ABC Food Corp. should have been to ABC Food Group. If there’s anything potentially tricky, mention it upfront.

Catherine Overman has assigned and edited stories on everything from touring North Carolina’s lighthouses to the history of shipping containers. Her favorite articles include a smart headline, snappy lede, and many descriptions of snacks.

Image by VP Photo Studio
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