What Editors Want

Among my writing friends I have several who have a lot of experience as journalists, writing for newspapers and magazines. I’ve learned a lot from them about writing non-fiction for periodicals. The most valuable thing I’ve learned is what editors are looking for in a freelance writer – and it’s probably not what you think.

Talent, brilliance, the ability to articulate complex ideas, grand vocabulary – none of these are as important as they might seem. That silver pen might put you a little ahead of the competition, but there are three really important qualities that any periodical writer must cultivate.

To be a successful periodical writer, you must produce clean copy, on time, and be willing to accept editing.

“Is that all?” I hear you say. I know, because that’s what I said when Angie, Gordon and Pauline told me that clean copy on time was more important than talent. (I came up with “accepting editing” later, but it followed from those first two.)

Yes, that’s all, but it’s more than enough. Let’s consider them in order.

1) Clean copy is copy that doesn’t need massive editing. Producing it means that you can write a coherent sentence, present ideas in a rational order and create a beginning-middle-end article according to the requirements of the periodical in question. It also means that you need decent grammar, punctuation and diction. I know, I know – even professionally edited periodicals occasionally commit apostrophe bloopers, and editors are, alas, no more likely than the average person to know the lie/lay distinction. Never mind – as a professional writer, it behooves you to know the tools of your trade. Learn them so you can write clean copy.

2) On time. It’s a sad commentary on the professionalism of periodical writers that editors routinely move our deadlines up one to two weeks. They expect us to miss them. Think about that. As a group we are expected not to respect the deadline requirements of a periodical with a publication schedule. I don’t miss deadlines; I make the one my editor gives me, even if I make it on the day itself. If I need more leeway, I let the editor know as soon as I do so we can negotiate a later deadline – which I will make – or else scrap the article.

3)Accept editing. The editor knows what she wants. She, or he, has been working with this publication for longer than you have, and is far more familiar with the style, tone and audience of the publication. My own rule for editing is that I will do what the editor wants unless it compromises the accuracy of the article or is grammatically too painful for me to bear. That means that most of the time when the editor says “Change this”, my answer will be “When do you need it?”

Write clean copy. Make deadline. Accept editing; only argue when it really matters.

Who wouldn’t prefer to work with a writer like that?

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5 Responses to What Editors Want

  1. Is this advice different for newspapers?

  2. ecreith says:

    Being on time and clear are always good ideas. Newspaper articles are organized differently, with the important info at the top and the less important stuff further down, so it can be cut if necessary.
    Usually newspaper articles don’t get a lot of editing. When I was learning, Jeffrey Ougler would sometimes rearrange my pieces to get a better start. (I’ll say here that he was very patient with teaching me the rules of newspaper writing.)

  3. Father Steve says:

    Having worked both as a writer and as an editor, I fully agree with all that you say. Your addition of the third “rule” is excellent. In the commercial sense, writing is the production of a product. If you are a cook and the head chef says your soup needs more salt, you do not start an argument (if you want to keep your job) but rather add salt. The inability to accept editing with grace arises from the sense that your every word is great literature and that a single change is a desecration of your art. Nonsense! After you get your first Pulitzer or Nobel Prize, feel free to tell the editor to buzz off.

  4. ecreith says:

    I’ll just do that, the minute I get that Nobel or Pulitzer.

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