The 3 questions editors want you to answer
The freelance writer-editor relationship can be a tricky one to navigate. Many of the writers I coach often feel they are double guessing what an editor wants and are never really sure if they've hit the mark. Over the past six years I've found that editors of magazines, newspapers and digital outlets have three main questions they want freelance writers to be able to answer.
The 3 questions editors want you to be able to answer
It's not always easy knowing how to pitch a story to an editor, but for me, these three questions go right to the heart of whether an editor will commission your story idea.
Question 1: Are you giving me your best story?
Last year I went on a famil (also commonly called a press trip or a fam trip). I had been commissioned to write a piece about the opening of a beautiful new winery, restaurant and sculpture park. I was invited along with ten or so other writers, journalists and editors.
One of the best things about going on famils (apart from the great experiences you get to have) is spending time and meeting others in this field.
Over lunch I got talking to an editor that I know many of my fellow freelancers have pitched over the years with little success.
Having been a freelancer herself, this editor was really aware of how things work, both from the perspective as an editor and as a freelance journalist. This editor said to me that when she was a freelancer she knew when she went on press trips she would try to squeeze as many stories out of her travels as possible.
Her comment certainly rang true - each time I go away for a press trip, I know I need to get multiple stories commissioned to make it worthwhile being away from my desk for days at a time (and to emphasise to the organisation hosting me that I'm a valuable freelancer to have on press trips).
"There's one thing that freelancers often don't understand," this editor said to me. "I want their number one story idea. I often get freelancers who have gone on press trips and pitch me their scraps. I understand why they do it, but as an editor I can tell I'm the second, third or fourth publication they are pitching. I want them to pitch me the gold."
Pitch the gold.
I have definitely been guilty of pitching editors 'scraps' and I think this is particularly the case for travel writing. If you're on an organised press trip you may not get access to everything you need to write multiple stellar stories, so sometimes the ideas we pitch are not as good as they should be.
What this editor told me made me reflect on the quality of stories that I'm pitching - I want them to feel that my ideas are thoughtful and well considered - not that I'm sending them my crumbs.
Question 2: How is this story serving the readers?
After six years of freelancing I must admit that my pitching has got a little lazy. I know some writers labour over their pitches and query letters, but that's never been me. I have an idea, I research it quickly and then I write it up.
I don't want to spend too much time on the pitch because if the idea doesn't get commissioned, I don't get paid for that time. The benefit of doing it this way is that your idea doesn't get scooped.
But recently I had an experience that made me rethink my approach. Not that I should spend more time on my pitches, but that by asking a simple question, I could use my pitch writing time better.
I pitched a story to an editor I hadn't worked with before. I loved the idea and I wanted to write about it. After I pitched, the editor came back to me and asked, "How will this story serve the readers of my magazine?"
How will this serve the readers?
I must admit I wasn't really thinking about the readers (I know, a cardinal sin!) but more about what a great story I had.
But they're not the same thing.
The truth is that my idea didn't serve the readers of the magazine. So even though my idea was about a new and unique experience, my article wasn't going to cut it.
Unsurprisingly, it was a no from that editor.
But I'm really thankful that she replied with that question because it's made me think about how I'm pitching.
Now, at the back of my mind, I'm always thinking of the readers. What will my story offer them?
I've been making a conscious effort to really hone my pitches (and I know this is easy for me to say because so much of my work comes to me), but I'm interested to see if this more refined approach pays off.
This question was a big reminder that these publications only exist for their readers so we have to put them front and centre when we send off our query letters.
Why shouldn't the readers be the people we are trying to please?
Question 3: Are you going to make my job easier?
I want to say straight up that just like freelance writers, editors are individuals. What makes one editor's job easier is not necessarily the same for all editors.
But in forming a relationship with an editor I think it's crucial that we ask ourselves if we are making their job easier.
So how can we make editors' jobs easier?
Filing clean copy - this point doesn't really need an explanation - mistake-free, grammatically correct copy will endear you to an editor every time.
Delivering what you say you will, when you say you will - I can't tell you the number of editors who tell me that freelance writers they work with are unreliable with deadlines.
Good communication - I've found that if you have a long time before submission, editors really appreciate quick updates with how you're going. If an expert is tricky to get hold of, just drop your editor a line - I know lots of freelancers worry they are bugging their editors but in my experience, the editors appreciate being kept in the loop.
Be responsive - I know not everyone likes to be on their phone 24/7 and I'm certainly not someone who jumps every time my phone pings, but I must say, several of the editors I work with have mentioned how much they appreciate it when I reply almost immediately to their emails or requests. Even if you can't do what they want straight away, just let them know that you've received their email and you're on it.
Include a 'fact check' section at the end of each article - this really makes the editors and subeditors' job easier. If you're including references to research or studies, or quotes that have been gathered from other sources or contact details for case studies include these links at the end of your piece.
If you can source images, do so - more and more freelancers are being asked to provide images to accompany their words and while I know some freelance writers balk at doing this for no extra money (or little extra), I've found that it's really helped editors count on me as a reliable freelancer.
I really believe that being able to answer these three questions (especially the first and last in the affirmative) will go a long way to helping your pitch acceptance rate increase and establish yourself as one of a core group of trusted freelancers for an editor.
What do you think of those questions? Are there any others that you think editors want freelance writers to be able to answer?