Editor’s note: Please enjoy this update of a WordCount favor. – Michelle
Editors aren’t hard to figure out. They want to work with freelancers who routinely come up with interesting story ideas that are perfect for their readership and then deliver on those stories with minimum drama, maximum efficiency, on deadline and free of factual, grammatical and spelling errors.
That’s the gist of advice shared by leading business editors during a teleconference hosted by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) a while back. The editors:
- Al Scott, financial editor for the Americas at Reuters, and previous managing editor of the Puget Sound Business Journal
- Dave Kansas, chief operating officer and head of Content at American Public Media, and previously chief markets commentator and former European markets editor at The Wall Street Journal
- Derek DeCloet, vice president of content, Rogers Publishing, and former business editor at the (Toronto) Globe and Mail
- Bernie Kohn, a managing editor and previous business editor at Bloomberg News
Though it’s been some time since the teleconference took place, the editors’ advice is as solid now as it was then. Here are 10 things they suggested freelancers can do to make editors fall in love with your work, regardless what you write about:
1. Craft story ideas with readers in mind.
Make sure story pitches answer the question: why would the readers of this publication care? Editors read pitches with that question in the back of their minds, so take the guesswork out of the process, and build the answer into your query.
If you play your cards right, you might be able to use it as the nut graph in your story (more on that below). “If budget lines get (editors) excited that’s a good sign,” Scott says.
2. Don’t be afraid to talk.
Some editors prefer to talk over ideas or completed manuscripts by phone, others prefer email and yet others like to keep an IM channel open on days they’re doing line edits so they can quickly ask questions and get answers on your story without having to check email.
No matter what method they prefer, don’t be afraid to talk to an editor. One five-minute phone call can mean the difference between being frustrated by an assignment (or editor) or not.
3. Include a nut graph.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing 250 words or 2,500, include a explainer paragraph fairly high up that tells readers what a piece is about and how it fits into the overall context of a topic. Both help explain why readers should care, and as a result, read what you’ve written.
For short stories, the nut graph can also serve as the lead. If you can’t explain in one concise paragraph what the story is about and why readers should care then chances are the premise of your article isn’t fully baked. If that’s the case, the editors suggested trying to explain what the story is about in 25 words or less to a friend or family member.
If all else fails, ask for help. “The challenge for nut graphs is the biggest in stories that writers are very close to, or on subjects that are moving very quickly,” DeCloet says.
4. Stick to simple story structures.
To a person, editors on the SABEW teleconference call said they prefer longer stories written in chronological order over any other form. They’re easier for readers to comprehend.
5. Don’t skimp on details.
In addition to a strong lead and simple story structure, one of the most important elements of good storytelling is detail, and that comes from good reporting.
The A1 stories that the Wall Street Journal is famous for depend on it, Kansas says. “The internal joke is that we want to know what they ate for dinner and the color of the clothes they were wearing….to show the thesis unfolding v. just telling it,” he says. “That’s very challenging for organizations to have enough time to do that kind of reporting. But at the end of the day, you need strong reporting.”
6. Submit stories with headlines and decks.
By including a headline, even if you don’t have to, you show an editor you know what the story’s about and that you’re creative and helpful. Many news organizations have eliminated copy desks and rely on editors and writers to come up with headlines and decks.
By writing your own, you’re making your editor’s job that much easier, which will give them that much more time to spend on other things, like giving you more assignments.
7. De-“was-ify” copy before turning it in.
That’s the term one editor on the call created to describe how he regularly goes through his reporters’ stories to remove instances of passive voice.
8. File stories in a publication’s preferred format.
Some publications don’t care whether you write in Times New Roman or Arial or if your paragraphs are indented or separated by a line of white space as long as your story is in on time and free of errors. Others need stories to fit into a specific format because it makes it easier for them to load into their content management system. Find out what your editor prefers.
If you’re filing directly into a CMS, which is becoming more common, follow any rules about character counts for headlines or decks or for adding links, tags and other SEO elements.
9. Don’t get defensive about rewrites.
To a person, editors on the SABEW teleconference said they go out of their way to handle requests for rewrites so as do to the least amount of damage to the writer’s work or ego as possible. Some use the sandwich method – praising what they can before and after pointing out what needs to be reworked.”It’s a tricky thing if you’re dealing with something the reporter has a strong emotional investment in,” Kansas says.
If editors know they have to have a difficult conversation with a writer they remind themselves that they’re acting as “the reader’s agent,” Kansas says. “They may be your writer, but in that conversation you represent the person who’s picking up the paper, magazine, or reading the wire service and if you put yourself in that mindset and ask questions that start with why, how and what, you’ll extract some answers that will help (the writer) focus.”
10. Stay in touch.
If you write for a publication on a regular basis or if you want to, check in with an editor on a regular basis to let him or her know the status of stories you’re working on and ideas you’ve come up with since the last time you talked. Editors would prefer to know in advance if you’re having trouble lining up sources, coming up with a lead or running into other snags. By sharing ideas, you can get their input on the angle or direction of a story you’re thinking about pursuing. Of course the latter may not work with every publication you work with – especially if you’re afraid they’ll take your ideas and assign them to other writers. But it’s the way editors operate with their in-house writers, so by copying that process you’ll be a team player.