As a writer, I know how frustratingly difficult it is to get magazine editors to agree to publish your work. However, as a magazine editor, the absolute worst parts of my job are rejecting articles, asking for major revisions and—God, I’m wincing even as I type this—killing pieces.
That said, I’ve often been let down by would-be contributors. They’ve sent me a pitch, I love it, convince the other editors to take a chance on a new name and then, days after deadline and several unanswered emails later, the writer sends me an off topic, rambling, grammatical graveyard of a piece that I’m supposed to spend a huge chunk of time I don’t have reworking.
Therefore, in the interests of writers and editors everywhere, here are five basic but oh-so-important things for freelance writers to keep in mind.
1. Read the publication you’re submitting to
Before I started working as an editor, I often ignored this advice. I wanted to get my name in print; I was spending all my free time writing and wasn’t even making a dent in the pile of un-read magazines I subscribed to. How on earth was I supposed to start reading a bunch of others as well?
The thing is, reading the magazines and journals you want to be published in not only increases your chances of getting published in the first place, it makes your life easier. The more you read, the more you figure out which publications are a good fit for your writing. The more you read of any one publication, the better feel you get for the style and content the editors are after and you’ll also know what topics they’ve recently covered, so that when you do send a pitch, it’s likely to be on the money. For example, the bike magazine I work for publishes articles on bikes and riding, specifically recreational riding and commuting. So, your behind the scenes expose on the Tour of Qatar probably isn’t for us. While we run some ‘colour’ features, most of the articles are informative and to the point. So when a writer sends us a pitch, we want to know what specialist knowledge they can impart to our readers.
There are few things an editor finds more frustrating than getting a pitch that’s clearly been sent to a number of other publications and not specifically tailored to any of them. Each edition we receive pitches from writers who get the name of the magazine wrong; want us to pay them to run an ‘article’ that’s (sometimes not even) a thinly veiled ad for their product; have written on the exact same topics we covered in the last issue, which they clearly haven’t read… The list goes on.
To save yourself and your editor a lot of grief, hone in on those few publications that fit with your writing and interests and spend some time getting to know them before you submit.
2. Follow the submission guidelines
These are often fairly straightforward, but easy to overlook. They cover all the basics, such as who to send your work to and what format they’d like to receive it in (hint: if they don’t give you a specific name, editorial staff are listed at the front of most journals and magazines—a personal touch never goes astray, and it proves you’ve at least opened the publication).
Submission guidelines will usually outline things like what font, spacing, size, etc. to use. These may appear seemingly unimportant details, but they are a good opportunity to show editors that you can follow instructions. Also, it saves the editor/designer having to spend time reformatting the piece.
The guidelines may also include useful information that can save you a lot of time and effort. For example, they may let you know that the magazine/journal isn’t currently accepting submissions, or that they are, but only on certain topics. They might ask for full articles or just pitches and they might require additional information, such as your publication history and a writing sample.
Some publications include their house style guide with their submission guidelines, and you should follow this when writing your piece. As a general rule, for anything not covered in the house style guide, the Australian Style Manual is your next port of call. And, being an Australian writer, you already have a copy of this sitting on your desk right next to your dictionary.
3. Follow the brief
Once you reach that happy point where an editor has approached you to write a piece or accepted a pitch they will usually send you a brief containing such important information as: the word count, deadline, copyright agreement and, drum roll, how much they are willing to pay you. Payment and the licensing agreement are important for obvious reasons, as are word count and deadline, though many writers live up to the cliché and ignore them completely.
As a writer, I understand that your work is uh-mazing and going to blow our readers’ minds. However, as an editor, there’s only so much space I can give you, and however many words I’ve asked for is exactly how many I need. Sending an editor more or less than they’ve asked for creates a huge amount of extra work for them and, next time they’re looking for a contributor, they will remember the headache you caused.
Equally frowned upon is failing to get your piece in on time. Editors don’t just pull deadlines out of thin air for shits and giggles. They’re working to a schedule that relies on everyone having their bit done on time. A writer that files late holds up the editorial process, which in turn holds up the layout process, proofing and, in some cases, printing. At a certain point, we’ll just kill the piece (and have a giant panic attack while we madly scramble to fill the pages). That said, editors are not the soulless wordslayers many writers believe us to be. If something comes up and you’re not going to make deadline, tell us. We’ll likely be understanding and able to renegotiate. The important thing is to let us know. Our worst nightmare is coming up on print deadline with blank pages.
4. Proof before sending
Yes, your editor will go over your work with a fine-tooth comb, but no, they don’t appreciate finding a whole lot of niggly typos and grammatical errors. It’s your responsibility to get your work to the highest possible standard before handing it over to us. We’ve only got so much time to work on your piece and we’d rather spend it looking at structure and content rather than putting apostrophes in the right place and fixing comma splices. If you’re just starting out, it’s a really good idea to have another writer look it over before you send it. Reading your work aloud, while making you feel like a bit of a tool, will give you a sense of the pace and flow of the piece and help you find small errors and awkward syntax.
5. Being edited does not make you a bad writer
I was shocked, and a little hurt, when I saw my first feature in print. Some of my best lines were gone and there were other bits I hadn’t written. Was I a bad writer? Why didn’t the editor tell me she hated the piece? Because I wasn’t and she didn’t; I’d just been edited. Even if you’ve sent in a piece that is technically perfect—an astonishing feat of literary awesomeness—your editor is going to change a few things. We work closely on our publications. We know the house style and what our readers will respond to. It’s our job to take a great piece of writing and make it fit with all the other equally great pieces in the magazine/journal in a way that will appeal to our readers, and that almost always means a bit of reworking.
That said, if you are unhappy about changes that were made, or changes that an editor asks you to make before going to print, it’s important that you raise your concerns—after all, the words are being printed under your name.