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The 5 Worst Things Writers Do That Drive Editors Nuts

By Joe Lazauskas January 27th, 2015

I recently had my first-ever performance review. Formal performance reviews were one of those things I avoided for years while running boot-strapped editorial experiments and freelancing to pay the bills. When you’re freelancing, the closest thing you get to a performance review is when you ask for more money and your client or editor scrambles to come up with reasons not to pay.

So I don’t have anything to judge my performance review against, but it seems like it went pretty well. We talked about things I could improve on (“Think before you say some of the stuff you say”) while also touching on areas where I had improved. One of those areas was my writing, and I credit that to spending the past 13 months in hardcore editor mode.

I’m a writer at heart—I still crank out 15 to 25 pieces every month for The Freelancer’s sister site, The Content Strategist. But I’m also the primary editor there, and it’s a task I enjoy for a few reasons: the fun of crafting an editorial strategy, the awesomeness of building a team, and those weird moments when I realize I’m way crazier and immature than everyone else I hired. There’s also the immense rewards of working with writers on projects they’re proud of, and most importantly, the benefits of dealing with shitty/stupid/careless mistakes from other writers all day. Because those mistakes make you aware of all the shitty, stupid, and careless stuff you do yourself as a writer.

So in the interest of self-reflection, and so I can send a passive-aggressive message to anyone who may write for me in the future, here are the worst things a writer can do to drive me nuts as an editor:

1. Stopping your research after typing the relevant keywords into Google and looking at the first two results.

Over at The Content Strategist, we primarily cover content marketing, a subject I’ve been reporting on since that hot industry buzzword was as obscure as your favorite Brooklyn hipster band. This makes me a relatively useful editor, but also an annoying one, since I always have the inkling there’s some piece of information missing from a story based on the memory of an obscure Digiday article I read two years ago while drunk on the train coming home from another debaucherous Thanksgiving at my dad’s house.

I can’t blame writers for missing that piece of information, which I possibly hallucinated. But I can blame writers if they turn in a profile on a particular brand’s content marketing techniques and I Google “[brand name] + “content marketing”] and find 10 different anecdotes and important pieces of information that are far more interesting than anything in the draft in front of me. Even if you’re doing a simple blog post, take at least 20 to 30 minutes to skim through all the top articles on your subject. Your posts will benefit from more colorful details, and it’ll make your job as a writer a hell of a lot easier.

2. Making unverified claims without links or attribution.

Is GoDaddy really the most successful Super Bowl advertiser of all time? That statement in your lede seems suspicious, and you didn’t include a link or any attribution (“according to Forbes,” “according to my nana”). Hell, you didn’t even provide a qualifier, such as, “GoDaddy is the most successful Super Bowl advertiser of all-time among ads that star Danica Patrick in moderately sexist ads that make the entire staff of Jezebel freak out.”

Please don’t make me Google your stat in search of a legitimate source. That’s time I could be spending scrolling through the Brands Saying Bae Twitter account and feeling smug.

3. Waiting until three hours before deadline to reveal you’re having trouble getting sources to cooperate and can’t turn the piece in.

What am I supposed to assume here? That you were certain all your sources would get back to you this morning, and then you’d transcribe those quotes and write the entire piece in the subsequent 45 minutes?

I know it sucks when sources won’t get back to you after you’ve sent a couple dozen cold emails (and if you’re not deathly afraid of the telephone because you’re over 30, maybe you’ve even made some cold calls.) But the moment you’re having trouble getting sources to talk to you, tell your editor. We can help hook you up with the right people and look for red flags depending on how you’re pitching the piece to sources. And then we’ll know to push the piece back on the calendar.

4. Just ignoring our revision requests for your second draft as if we’ll forget about them and move on.

This one is courtesy of Jordan Teicher, editor here at The Freelancer and my number two man over at TCS. Jordan is by all means a much more caring, thoughtful, and forgiving editor than I am, so if something pisses him off, you know it’s bad.

Seriously: It’s okay to disagree with your editor’s requests, but don’t just ignore them. Explain why you think my take on the piece is wrong. Start a constructive conversation, which usually results in great ideas. Plus, email is an awesome medium of communication because it’s almost impossible to accidentally tell someone to go f*ck themselves.

5. Throwing temper tantrums in response to critical feedback.

Again, the hot-tempered culture of a newsroom just doesn’t translate well to email. For instance, Jordan and I sit next to each other and often give edit feedback verbally, and if he flipped out at me every now and then, I’d be cool with it. Hell, I’d probably enjoy it. We need to spice things up in the content pod, if you ask me. I’m thinking of getting an alligator.

But when writers do it? It’s annoying because I know they took the time to type out all of their anger but didn’t think to add anything constructive to the conversation. And now, I have to take 20 minutes to respond, acknowledging their concerns while reiterating all of my original feedback. That’s why I’ve adopted a policy of just ignoring these messages. I almost always just get a second message that’s more measured and thoughtful from said writer within two days.

I’ve definitely done all of these things at one point in time during my 10 years of getting published as a writer. For writers, it’s as much a part of growing professionally as realizing that going to the same dive bar every night doesn’t make you a tortured writer, or that half the people you meet at all lit-mag readings will be awful. And if there’s one common trait among the tight team of freelance writers I’ve come to rely on, it’s an ability to learn from their missteps and not repeat them. Well, that and the ability to put up with my crazy ass.

Image by Kieran McManus
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