Know thy editor

Understanding editors and publications can lead to more success.
By Heather Villa | Published: February 28, 2014


EditorMy first published magazine article didn’t match my submission. The overall message remained unaltered, but the editor beautifully reconstructed my words. The only credit the editor received was a name on the masthead, but my byline was prominently displayed for all to see.

“Loved the article you wrote,” someone told me.

I felt a little guilty.

Something needed to change. Perhaps it was my understanding of the relationship. So I replaced my feeling of inadequacy with gratitude when I realized an editor and writer work together to create a piece targeted toward a specific audience. The guidance I’ve received from editors who have edited my words has universal appeal for other freelance writers, new or established, across genres. When a writer discovers what an editor wants, the initial pitch all the way to the final edit should be an efficient and collaborative process.

It begins here: Read the publication. To make a successful pitch, you have to know that the overarching tone of the publication is serious, academic, literary, motivational, informative or humorous. But before I even attempt to craft a pitch, I ask myself a question: Do I believe in the publication’s ideals? A yes answer is followed by another question: What original idea can I offer?

“By doing a little research into what the publication is all about, you serve everyone: yourself, the publication and the audience,” says Cara Livermore, editor of Chickpea. “The biggest winner is the audience, in the end, because they get to benefit from your unique perspective.”

And if you pitch publications you already like to read, you’re one step ahead, because you are the audience. Know what topics a publication has already published. Pitching an editor an idea recently featured is a waste of precious time. Find out what themes will be covered in the future. Editorial calendars are often available on a publication’s website. If not, email the publication and ask for one.

Also, make an effort to read what editors write to get a sense of their styles. This tip was passed along to me by a former anthropology professor, and I have found it extremely valuable. Many editors write for the publications they edit, or they’re published elsewhere.

When you land an assignment, treat it like it’s the most important piece you’ll ever write. Make absolutely certain you understand the assignment. Aside from the word count and topic, keep in mind the style of the forthcoming article. Additionally, consider the point of view. Does the editor want the article written in the first or third person? Does the editor require secondary sources? Be aware that the initial concept may evolve.

“When writers are fleshing out a story, and they run across a different angle or an interesting twist, they also need to communicate that with the editor as soon as possible. There’s nothing worse for an editor than ‘the surprise’ story,” says Mary Coffman, editor of both Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business and Senior Times.

Realize writing a thorough article takes time. You may need to schedule interviews or take a trip somewhere. Perhaps you’ll need to head to a library. An article I wrote for a children’s magazine about migration of humpback whales required detailed research. When the editor requested copies of my source material, I began to appreciate the responsibility of writers and editors.

“Accuracy is of utmost importance in nonfiction writing,” says Susan Buckley, editor of Appleseeds. “That is the foundation of any good nonfiction article, before the writer turns the facts into well-crafted and engaging prose. If I find inaccuracies in an article, I begin to question everything in it. And this is not where an editor wishes to spend his or her time.”

Know whether a publication follows the principles of the Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style to properly address abbreviations, capitalization, punctuation and general grammar issues. Some editors even provide writers with custom-tailored style guides created for that publication. If specific guidelines for a publication don’t exist, simply study the publication.

“Writers will find that putting out that effort for what they might perceive as ‘the little things’ makes a big difference with editors,” says Coffman.

When I think an article is completely written, I set it aside for at least one day. The words marinate. Then I put on an editor’s hat and make certain the names of places, sources and facts are correctly spelled. There’s a big difference between the words crochet and croquet. I also read my draft out loud. Prior to submission, I often ask someone I trust to read what I’ve written. I happen to be married to someone who likes to read a good story, cringes at the misuse of an apostrophe and gives frank feedback.

After I submit an article, my work isn’t over. I remain available if an editor has questions or asks me to develop an idea. Even when I think I’ve understood what’s expected, an editor always changes something about my submitted copy.

Janelle Foskett, managing editor of Firefighter Nation, offers writers encouraging advice. “I hope freelance writers understand that when their material is changed, it’s often not because the writing was bad. It’s often because the editor simply needed to adjust it to fit the publication’s tone,” she says. “As editors, we always strive to also maintain the author’s tone. It’s a constant balancing act.”

Livermore adds, “To me, the purpose of editing is to bring a story closer to the way the audience thinks and feels.”

Plus, the editing process gives writers a chance to understand even more about what editors want. Compare a submitted article with the published piece. Read the versions side by side, and you may realize the edited copy contains tighter sentences, the omission of unnecessary words and an extra fact or two.

Even if freelancer writers follow the ideas offered in this article, they can never fully understand the exact needs and visions of editors. And that’s OK. What should you do? Keep reading and writing, remaining eternally humble.

Heather Villa is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Chickpea, MomSense and Appleseeds.