Both Sides of the Fence: What I Learned about Writing by Being an Editor

By Dawn Allcot

I just submitted a story to a trade magazine. This is nothing unusual for a freelance writer. It’s even less unusual since I regularly contribute to this publication.

Seconds later, in my mailbox, a manuscript appears. Not mine, thankfully. (Getting your manuscripts returned, even via e-mail—especially via e-mail—is bad.) This is an unsolicited story from a talented writer who hopes to be published in my magazine.

Call it “editor karma.” Here’s how it works: I submit my story, hopefully making my editor’s morning as she crosses one more story off her editorial map. I get a nice, 1,500-word story that fills a hole I thought I was going to go to sleep worrying about.

Such is the life of a magazine editor by day, freelance writer at night.

Sometimes, I get jealous of my freelancers. I spend eight hours a day cleaning up their run-on sentences, grammatical faux pas, and sloppy fact-checking while their names go in the magazine and I get nothing but a bi-weekly paycheck for my toils.

Sure, I’m “the editor-in-chief.” That just means when something goes wrong, I get to field the nasty phone calls.

Erika-Marie Geiss, editor-in-chief of theWAHMmagazine, straddles the editor-writer fence, too. “Wearing both hats—that of one who reviews submissions and queries and that of one who sends them—gives me a new appreciation for an editor’s job,” she says. “I know from the post-acceptance point-of-view that presenting well-organized copy is crucial!”

Geiss, who is far less cynical than I am about editing, highlights the importance of following writers’ guidelines, just one of many lessons of freelancing hammered home by her experience as an editor.

“As a freelancer, I’ve always known it is good etiquette to do so,” she says. “In developing theWAHMmagazine, I discovered first-hand that editors have some very specific reasons for why they want to receive submissions in a certain way. Paying attention to guidelines is very important. When someone writes something that is ‘spot on,’ but they didn’t follow the basic rules, the editor is faced with a tough decision. Do I accept the submission anyway, or do I not consider it because this person can’t follow directions?”

Editors can be picky, but we have good reasons for it. We are not simply intoxicated with the power of doling out rejections and assignments; we want the best content for our publication. We determine pay rates not by whimsy, but with a desperate desire to stay within our budgets. When we request a specific slant for an article or set a word length, we have our motivations.

And when we send a friendly e-mail asking, “How’s the story coming?” we are hoping that you plan to submit it any second—probably because we have an anxious art department asking us the same question!

I learned all this as an editor, before I started making anything close to a living as a freelance writer. Here are some other trade secrets:

Longer is better than shorter—unless the editor says it’s not.

Concerned that I was consistently submitting stories 100 to 300 words over the assigned word length for one publication, I asked one of my editors if this was a problem. “We’re more concerned about the writers who turn in 800 words for a 1,200 word piece, and you can tell they didn’t put the necessary work into the article,” he said.

Speaking from experience, it’s easier to tighten a story of 1,200 words down to a 1,000-word article, drop a photo, or even stretch the story to an additional page than it is to fill a page when a story falls short of the projected length.

Freelance writers and editors agree that “on target” is best—within about 10 percent of the expected length—and that writers should do everything they can to hit that target. But when you can’t (especially with magazines, which are a bit more flexible with space than newspapers), longer is better than shorter.

Give editors what they want—not (necessarily) the story you want to write.

Editors get paid to come up with ideas. We know our audience, and we know what’s been covered in the recent past, as well as the angles our competitors have covered. If an editor gives you an assignment, use the sources recommended and cover the points the editor has asked you to cover.

You may have a different angle in mind or a similar idea that you think is better, but—at least for now—the editor wants to print the story he assigned you to write. That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative in your execution of the article, but make sure you’re giving the editor what he asked for. The article might be scheduled to appear in a special themed issue, or it could have been a story requested by several readers, or even a topic tailored toward advertising interests.

If you find a compelling reason not to follow the editor’s suggestions for an article, tell the editor as soon as possible. Your idea may very well be better, but the editor doesn’t want to find out the day before deadline that you are not submitting the piece he expected. You can pitch your idea as a follow up, but an assignment is an assignment for a reason.

Do the legwork.

If you’ve agreed to provide photos for a piece, do so (in the format the editor requested).

If an editor wants a list of sources, provide it.

“Legwork” also includes fact-checking your article. If anything seems unusual but you have confirmed it is correct, point it out to the editor. You’ll save the editor some time, and she will look kindly on you when it comes to doling out assignments for the next issue.

You are not the only contributor.

This realization manifests in many ways: patience after submitting an article, politeness when following up, and providing as many identifying details as you can when approaching an editor you’ve only worked with a few times.

“Patience is a virtue,” Geiss advises. “Don’t fret if you don’t get an immediate response. It takes time to read submissions and make decisions.”

If you’re a freelancer following up on a submission after a reasonable amount of time, give the editor as much information as you can to make it easy for her to remember your submission. An e-mail asking: “Did you get my submission? Signed, Joe” can frustrate an editor on deadline.

Include the name of the article, date submitted, and your first and last name. Editors assign dozens of stories a month; don’t be offended if we don’t immediately remember which article we assigned to you.

Always include your contact information on submissions, too. I don’t care how well I know you. The office gets crazy around deadline time, and the less information I have to look up or double-check, the easier my job is. Editors love (and hire) writers who make our jobs easier.

Learn, learn, learn

I often find myself correcting the same mistakes—in style or formatting—from the same writers, time after time.

When your article hits the newsstands, take a few moments to bask in the glory of seeing your byline and story in print. Call your friends. Do the happy dance.

Then read the published version and compare it to your submitted piece. Analyze any changes the editor made, and think about why he may have made those changes. Each publication has its own style and voice, and the better you can adopt that voice in your articles, the more assignments you’ll earn from that magazine. Editors are at the mercy of the accounting department, too.

The editor is your first point-of-contact when it comes to payment issues. But very rarely does the editor actually cut your check. In fact, they probably have as little control as you do over when the accounting department decides to settle invoices.

If a magazine is late with your payment, inquire politely. The editor may direct you to the accounting department, or she may decide to take care of the situation herself. Either way, angry, accusing e-mails won’t accomplish anything. The editor might be as frustrated as you are with the situation!

Yes, writers deserve to be paid fairly and promptly. Yes, you have every right to try and collect payment. But editors switch jobs, and the editor you alienated because your check was late may just wind up at a publication that pays their bills on time. Too bad she’ll forget the good work you did in the past and just remember you as “the writer with a bad temper.”

I don’t want to pass the buck here (so to speak), but if you’re going to yell at anyone, yell at the accounting department. Although, before you do that, it may be wise to remember that old phrase about bees, honey, and vinegar.

Say thank you.

Editors are people, too. Really. We are. When you find an editor who prints your work, treats you well, and pays promptly (aren’t those the traits that make up the perfect editor?), take time to say thank you! Editors are busy—everyone’s busy these days—but no one is ever too busy to read a note of appreciation.

Not to toot our own horns, but editors who moonlight as writers often make the best clients for freelancers. We understand how writers pour their hearts into every submission; we know how they toil over word choices; we realize that prompt payments can mean the difference between living on Ramen or buying a roast.

“When it comes to responding to queries, I try to respond in ways I’d like to be treated by editors—despite being busy,” Geiss says. “I don’t think that being a busy editor gives someone license to be disrespectful or ‘holier-than-thou.'”

While editors who write tend to treat our freelancers well, it also means we set high standards. We expect to be treated by our writers the same way we treat our own editors. Editors and writers, really, are not that different, after all.

Dawn Allcot is a full-time freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of RECON, the Magazine of Woods Paintball. Her blog, It Had to Be Said, covers her life as a writer and her rants as a New Yorker. Dawn lives on Long Island with her husband and four cats. You can find her at Alcott Media.