10 Ways to Annoy a Newspaper Editor

By Joni Hubred-Golden

Almost 20 years ago, I broke into journalism by walking, wide-eyed with fear, into a tiny newspaper office and asking whether the editor would accept a freelance submission. Since I hadn’t thought ahead far enough to consider a topic, he gave me the name of an artist who made rugs. That’s just how he put it, too: “She makes rugs. Go talk to her.” As I left, he added, “And take a camera.”

A few weeks later, the article —in better shape than the lengthy piece I turned in—was published on the front page of my hometown newspaper. And I was (pardon the pun) hooked. It was only a matter of time before a trembling, shy woman walked into my office and said, “I’m a freelance writer.” What a difference a desk makes. Suddenly, it was my job to critically evaluate someone else’s writing to determine whether it deserved a spot in my newspaper.

Over the years, I’ve worked with dozens of freelance writers, and some have gone on to successful careers in community journalism. But for every success story, I’ve met someone who took a writing course and heard someone say, “Your hometown newspaper is a great place to build your clip file!”

Guess again, dear writer. Guess again.

Today’s newspapers aren’t the same wide-open playground of years gone by. Over the past 20 years, the Internet has pulled readers by the droves onto the information superhighway. Some newspapers have gone with the flow. Others struggle with significant losses in circulation and advertising revenues, and nationally, newspaper readership dropped 20 percent just in the past two years.

These days, the words, “I’m sorry, I just don’t have a freelance budget” aren’t necessarily a brush-off. Most editors—at least the ones I know—will make room for a well-written, targeted freelance article. And whether you get paid in dollars or copies, it’s well worth your time to make contact with the editor of any publication distributed in your area.

Now, when I say, “make contact,” I don’t mean “show up in her office on a deadline day.” A woman I’ll call Arlene (to protect us both) never quite understood how long five minutes can be when you’ve got a graphic artist waiting on a banner headline for your lead story.

Arlene is a classic Freelance Flop. She convinced people to publish her writing, but never more than once or twice. She made every mistake in the book. These mistakes will keep you from getting published— that’s a guarantee. Placing my tongue firmly in cheek, I offer them to you in no particular order:

  1. Call an editor any time of day, any day of the week. Be surprised and offended when she refuses to take your call.
  2. Drop by the office “for just a few minutes” and don’t leave until you’ve pitched at least three or four story ideas. Insist on seeing the editor in person, because you want to get started right away.
  3. Don’t let anyone—not an assistant, not a reporter —stand in your way, even if they claim the editor is on deadline. Editors are always on deadline. Be firm about your request.
  4. Don’t worry about subject matter, because newspapers will publish anything. Your recap of last Sunday’s guest sermon by a visiting pastor deserves a good placement, too.
  5. Likewise, length is a matter of personal preference. The newspaper pays by the column inch, after all.
  6. Using correction fluid to clean up your mistakes can be messy and completely re-typing takes too much time. Jot down needed corrections in the margins.
  7. Because the editor knows you so well, there’s really no need to clutter up your manuscript with contact information. Or page numbers. Just staple it together and add a little handwritten note about when you expect the piece to be published.
  8. Insist on payment for all submissions, with the exception of a short letter to the editor. You are a professional freelance writer, you have paid your dues, and you deserve compensation for your work.
  9. Follow up with the editor no later than 12 hours after submitting your work. Reiterate your understanding of payment terms and the publication date.
  10. In the event the article does not appear when the editor promised, call to remind her about the promise and let her know you will give your work to her competitor if it’s not promptly published.

Now, I realize most writers are smart enough to steer clear of these mistakes. Some might find the list insulting. Before you start writing hate mail, consider this:

Arlene never realized any of the mistakes she made were mistakes. She thought she was protecting herself and her work, and she lacked one of the most important qualities I’ve seen in every successful freelance writer I’ve ever known: humility.

If you don’t mind annoying an editor, go ahead and ignore her deadlines, invade her workspace and test her patience. If you want to see your writing published, or better yet develop a working relationship, ask when she might have time to chat with you. Come prepared with a few local story ideas. And it wouldn’t hurt to be a little wide-eyed, too.

Joni Hubred-Golden, a writer with 20 years of experience in community journalism, recently launched Michigan Women’s Forum, a news-based web-zine designed to inform and inspire Michigan women. In addition to writing most of the site’s content, she also dabbles in marketing and writes a regular column for the Farmington Observer, based in her hometown of Farmington, Michigan.

Why Editors are Not the Enemy

By Mridu Khullar

Editors can be mean, unethical and downright unprofessional. But not all editors fit that bill. In fact, most editors would rather give you money than take it, would rather make no changes than rewrite whole pieces two hours before deadline, and would rather accept a piece than start their mornings sending out rejection slips. But step into an editor’s shoes, and you’ll know why that’s not only hard, it’s just plain impossible!

Here are the most common complaints writers have, and why editors aren’t always guilty of them.

Completely Changing Your Work

An editor I frequently work with was in distress. One of her regulars had just written to complain about his perfectly brilliant beginning being chopped off. “They sometimes don’t get our style,” she told me over lunch. “We need more quotes, we put them in. We need a stronger beginning; we change it. There’s nothing much I can do about it. It’s the way we work.“ But while this editor was very forthcoming about her reasons, and gave the writer an explanation, you’ll usually get no further correspondence. That doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the anguish you go through. But editors have word limits, voice and style limitations, and a dozen other factors to keep in mind. Editors simply don’t have the time to offer explanations to each writer.

Paying Less or Not Paying At All

Most writers believe (or are led to believe) that editors just don’t want to dish out the cash. Sure, if they’re running a small business from home and can hardly pay their bills, they probably won’t. But editors in big offices don’t really care whether you earn $100 or $1,000. After all, they’re not the ones paying from their pockets!

I was in a publisher-editor meeting the other day, and one common concern was raised — why weren’t suppliers (including freelancers) paid on time? A complaint unanimously raised by . . . editors!

An important thing to remember is that while it may appear so to us, editors aren’t really the ones calling the shots all the time. That’s the publisher’s job. So hating the editor’s guts won’t get you anywhere. While some editors may be creeps, most of them are on your side! So, if you want more money, just ask for it. Chances are the editor is the only one who can help you get it.

Not Responding

Editors would love to respond to every query, you know. But there’s only so much they can do. And while each e-mail you send will determine where your next paycheck comes from, an editor will get paid regardless of the number of queries rejected. Their job is putting together quality content. No one’s going to promote them for being nice to freelancers. It’s a simple matter of priorities. And when the choice is between finishing up the issue and answering yet another freelancer’s query, get real — editors will finish up and go home.

Killing Articles

We tossed a coin. The losing editor would have to tell the freelance writer that his article had been killed. That, too, after we asked him to send us a dozen writing samples, come up with a dozen off-beat ideas, get a feel of our style, and send us a 600-word piece. We’d even negotiated the price. It would have taken him at least a day’s work, if not more. We felt cruel, but decided that the guy had potential for future assignments.

I lost the toss and sat down to draft the e-mail. I explained at length how our policies had changed, told him that we’d be willing to give more assignments, and even added a touch of humor. But the writer was obviously blinded. He thought of me as the devil. And by doing so, he’d just lost a perfectly good opportunity for more assignments.

Editors aren’t out to take advantage of freelancers or make their lives miserable. In fact, if you get to know them a little, you’ll find that they’re often a very friendly bunch. Stop looking at your editor as the enemy, and you might just find a friend.

Mridu Khulla Relph is based in London and New Delhi. She has written for  The New York Times, TIME, CNN, ABC News, The Independent, Forbes, The CS Monitor, Ms., Elle, Marie Claire, Vogue, Glamour, Cosmo, and more. She has a website, a blog, and has written several books.

The Editor Speaks: I Like This! Have You Thought About Changing It?

By Selina McLemore

“Karyn?”

I bet she thinks I sound young. Really young.

“I’m Selina and I’m going to be your editor on this project.”

I love calling debut authors. I feel like I can really relate to the rush of excitement a new author feels. She’s worked so hard on her manuscript, rewritten it countless times, and finally she’s found someone who also sees all the great qualities it has. And with just a few more changes, it will be perfect.

For a lot of authors, new and experienced, hearing that their work — their baby — still needs tweaking is tough. And to be honest it took me a while to understand why. From my perspective, revisions are a natural part of the process, and to be expected. And after all, I don’t acquire an author if I don’t enjoy his or her work, so why would hearing about ideas to improve it be considered criticism?

But that’s how a lot of new writers view the revision discussion. Suddenly the warm, fuzzy feelings of making your first sale fade and are replaced by doubt: first, Will I really be able to do this? soon to be followed by, Does my editor really know what she’s talking about?

The answer to both questions, by the way, is yes.

I’m not saying editors are beyond error, but our goal is to make your manuscript as strong as we possibly can. And remember, we have some advantages you don’t. For one thing, an editor comes to the book with fresh eyes, just like the reader does. The most common problem I see in debut novels is a lapse in logic that the author, due to her familiarity with the work, can’t see. So a revision I often request is for an author to go back and add in explanation.

In my experience, most authors don’t have a problem when you ask them to write more. Go figure. What they are usually less receptive to is my second most common request, the request I made of Karyn: cut this.

Sometimes it’s a paragraph or a few lines here and there, sometimes it’s a whole character or an entire subplot —  whatever it is, no one likes losing material she’s worked hard on. But the request to cut is not just about making page count. It’s about rhythm, pacing, flow. It’s about making sure descriptive passages don’t dominate the book, taking away from the action. Think of every page as valuable real estate. There’s only so much, so you want to be sure you’re using it in the best way possible.

But if there’s one type of revision that’s even more difficult to discuss than cutting, it’s something I call the audience factor. Publishing is a business, and part of being successful in that business is knowing your audience, what they expect, what they’re looking for, what they’re missing. The audience factor comes in to play a lot when I request revisions to a character. It’s wonderful to have a main character who raises questions and calls on readers to really think about what’s before them. But the catch is that the reader still has to like her. If a reader doesn’t finish the book because the heroine is too abrasive, then her transformation at the end is lost. And if, because that reader didn’t finish the book, she doesn’t recommend it to a friend, you’ve lost another potential fan. Sometimes to get the message across, you have to soften the messenger.

So the lesson is: whatever revisions your editor requests you should immediately do? No. Of course not. But I am saying, pick your battles. Thinking you can avoid any revisions is unrealistic, but if you’re strongly against making a change, say so. No one agrees all the time, and Karyn and I are no exception. But when you keep an open dialogue and trust your editor, the fun of the first call can last through all those to follow —  like when we talk about your copyedits and cover art and publicity plans and galleys and quotes and option material.

Currently an assistant editor at Avon Books, Selina McLemore has worked in women’s fiction for three years. In addition to contemporary romance titles like A Personal Matter, Selina also works with authors who write historical romance and chick lit.

Last month, Karyn Langhorne Folan, the author of A Personal Matter, offered her perspective on working with Selina.

This is Your Editor Calling

By Karyn Langhorne

“Karyn?”

She sounded young. Really young. I took a deep breath, and answered, hoping I didn’t sound old. Really old.

“I’m Selina . . . and I’m going to be your editor on this project. First let me tell how much I loved your book.’

She might be young, but she was certainly smart. Anyone who loves my book has to be smart. As well as attractive, intuitive, talented, articulate, engaging, educated . . .

For me (and I suspect for most of us), one of the drawbacks of becoming a writer is that I’ve become very familiar with rejection. Before December 2003, I had heard “no” so many times, I’d begun to believe that the whole world hated me and my writing and that the only reason I kept doing it was because I was either too pigheaded, or too stupid to stop. Hearing someone say something NICE about my writing immediately turned me to mush.

When Selina told me she loved my book, I started grinning so wide my daughter could see the gleam of my teeth in the playroom two floors below. And if hearing her praises for A Personal Matter wasn’t enough, Selina, smart woman that she is, followed up her advantage by asking, “Tell me about the new one.”

I’m pretty smart myself (or at least I like to think so), but that question made all of my intelligent questions about what it would be like to work with the publisher, what my new editor expected of me, what I should expect of her—you know, IMPORTANT stuff — go straight out my mental window.

She wanted to hear about the new project. She wanted talk about my writing!

No one ever wants to hear about my writing. No, that’s not exactly true. Friends and family ask, and they don’t mind hearing a short answer like “Fine” or “Working on something new.” But beyond that, their eyes glaze over and they start looking at me with the same look people give computer geeks and the desperately intoxicated. Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about, like you’ve never gotten the look. Until you’re as successful as Nora Roberts, John Grisham or Steven King, every writer gets the look. The look that says: That’s enough already. The look that says: You’re over your limit, bub. No more words on that subject for you.

Of course, if you become a really successful writer, people want to hear you talk about your writing all the time . . . as if you know some magic secret that changes crummy words to great ones, that performs alchemy that converts the worst of ideas into best-selling novels. When you become a best-selling novelist, people will flock to hear you talk about your writing in the hopes that you might share the magic with them and then they too could live the life of fame and fortune —

But I digress.

Selina wanted to hear about my writing. And she actually listened while I tried to explain my new and not quite completed project. She actually asked questions about it. Wow, I thought, still talking a mile a minute about possible directions for the story line, similar novels already on the market, etc. I like her. I like her a lot.

I was so busy talking and liking that I almost missed what she was saying. Which turned out to be something about a revision letter.

“Revision letter?” I repeated, reconciling the words “loved your book” and “revisions” in my brain. “What’s that?”

The revision letter, Selina patiently explained, outlines the changes the publisher feels are necessary. In a week or so, she would send me said letter, along with my complete manuscript. I would make the changes and send them back to her.

“Since we’re on an accelerated schedule,” she told me cheerfully. “You’ll have about thirty days. I’m sure that won’t be a problem,” she adds. “Your work is so strong, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble with the revisions.”

Did you catch that? Did I say Selina is smart?

“Mostly you’ll need to cut it a little,” she continued.

“How much?” I asked, mentally imagining a little tightening here, tinkering there.

“Eighty pages,” she replied with that same bright, youthful energy.

The manuscript as submitted was 487 pages. Eighty pages is like . . . I do some quick math . . . 20% of the book.

“But that won’t be a problem for someone as talented as you, I’m sure,” Selina keeps right on going as if there isn’t a long silence at the other end of the line. And now I’m trapped by my own love of compliments.

“No,” I say, hoping that I sound neither old, nor ignorant, nor scared to death—and feeling every one of them. “That won’t be a problem.”

We hung up shortly after that. Reluctantly, I turned to my computer, opening the file named “A PERSONAL MATTER-final.doc” watching 487 pages load into my word processing program.

Final document? Apparently not.

Next Month: Selina’s Side of the Story. My editor has kindly offered to write next month’s column, sharing with AbsoluteWrite readers what she was looking for, why she chooses the manuscripts she chooses, what I did right in getting her attention (and wrong) and how other writers can put their best foot forward in getting published.

Karyn Langhorne Folan is a “recovering” lawyer and a long time writer, with over 25 books so far. She’s  written for the groundbreaking educational novel series, Bluford High as well as an exciting line of post-apocalyptic fiction called Ashes, Ashes. Karyn Langhorne Folan has a Website.