To be a freelancer is to dabble in the art of indulgence – ah, the simple joy of a homemade lunch – between phone meetings and transcribing. An unfortunate byproduct is that that attitude seeps into the job. We have control over our environment, so it should spread to editors, the people we deal with on a regular basis.
This mindset is understandable. Save from deadlines, you’re shielded from the entrenched expectations of others, a joyous highlight of being self-employed.
Editors lack that luxury.
I should know. I was one.
My last full-time job in editorial was as the associate editor for a small trade magazine publisher from March 2003 to November 2006. How did I spend way too many hours, other than wishing I had applied to law school?
- Writing and reporting features and columns for three magazines covering 28 issues a year. (My two colleagues and I wrote two or three 2,000 word articles a month.)
- Proofreading and copy editing
- Attending trade shows
- Ordering office supplies
- Taking meeting minutes
- Running errands (bank, post office, picking up lunch)
- Answering phones
- Battling a data entry system that crashed as if it were a featured attribute
After nearly four years of editorial hard labor – when I left, two people replaced me – I possessed a crisp phone voice and a pleasant relationship with our bank’s head teller but little understanding of what an editor does. The total number of people in the production and editorial staff was five; one was a part-time assistant to Chris. Chris was the production department.
I thought editors mentored writers and exercised their creativity into creating something that was bigger and better than themselves. That’s what legends like William Shawn, Gloria Steinem, and Jim Nelson did. Surely that swirl of liberation and control had not waned?
Tips for writers from full-time editors
When the four editors interviewed here read the previous paragraph, they’ll probably be too busy laughing to scold me. Two editors squeezed our conversations in before meetings; another had to postpone our call until hours later. The final editor decided to use email.
“I’m speaking for myself here; sometimes I just don’t have my act together to get a moment,” says Ryan Jones, editor of The Penn Stater, Penn State’s alumni magazine. “I’m behind on my own thing. I don’t have the time to give a pitch its due attention or we’re too late into production for me to even stop and look at this right now, and I may not even remember to look at it for three weeks. As a freelancer, I think you need to go in being prepared that an editor’s schedule and time constraints will probably not align with yours at all.”
“You’re more of a project manager,” says veteran editor Leigh Belz Ray, who was executive director of branded content for GQ and Vogue before switching to freelancing as a senior editor at Instagram.
“Maybe in some vaunted corners of the world – like in The New Yorker offices – maybe there are people who just focus on the text all day, and that sounds like a dream. It’s a lot of communication, ingoing and outgoing, to get everything moving.”
Editors, says Ray, are dealing with PR pitches and news and press releases. When I talked to Ray on a Wednesday afternoon in March, she had 22 unread emails that day and 3,479 emails in an “everything else folder.”
Internal communication is relentless. A story’s journey has multiple co-pilots, Ray says, including the art, copy, and research departments. “Every day, you’re pushing stories forward 2 inches,” she says. “You don’t go through a process in one day.” Between monthly and daily content, she monitored between 15 to 25 active projects at GQ and Vogue, not to mention trying to line up talent for future work. The cast of characters for each project was enormous.
“There’s more work to be done than ever before, and with most publications, chances are there are fewer people on hand to do it,” Bill Donahue, editor of the lifestyle publications Suburban Life and Philadelphia Life, said via email. “That means the average editor will likely have multiple assignments of his or her own to file; for example, our most recent issue had 10 stories that carried my byline, and the previous issue had closer to 20.”
And that’s not all.
“If I’m not working on a magazine story in some way, shape, or form, I’m collaborating on marketing initiatives, coordinating with my publisher and sales team on ideas to generate revenue, or providing content for newsletters and social media,” Donahue says. “In some cases, if an editor works for a larger media company, he or she may also have to contribute content for other magazines and media products. In other words, just like most freelancers, most of us have our hands in a lot of different pots.”
Donahue’s other tasks include coordinating schedules between photographers and their subjects, plotting upcoming issues, editing freelance stories, and rewriting subpar ones.
“As I’m getting close to deadline,” he says, “I’m usually up at 4:30 a.m. so I can write my own stories and then focus on other tasks during the normal workday.”
For Nikki M. Mascali, associate editor and writer at the website Brick Underground, promoting content on social media takes up a lot of time. She realizes that’s the deal. Budgets are tight, staffs are small, and editors must learn (and do) more.
“I went to school to be a journalist,” Mascali says, “but 15 years later, I don’t know what I am at this point.”
Editors and freelancers are both in a business pivoting toward an undetermined point. Both need things from the other to ease their burden. Mascali hates missing words and misspellings, two bugaboos that can be avoided if writers read their copy aloud. If that keeps happening, “I’m probably not going to accept a pitch from you.” Please, says Donahue, have some idea of the publication before you pitch a story.
If you don’t get a response to that pitch, Jones says, it might be that the story isn’t a good fit. Don’t keep pushing; regroup and come up with something better. For Ray, it’s because she’s “trying to put out all the fires first” before tackling new business.
She then says something that sounds all too familiar to the freelance writing community: “It’s a balancing act that people win or lose on a day-by-day basis.”
Veteran freelance writer Pete Croatto (Twitter: @PeteCroatto) is working on his first book for Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.