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What Editors Won't Tell You (But We Will)

There are some things you'll never read about in a publisher's writers' guidelines. You have to either hang around the editor's office and eavesdrop or find a friend who's able to extract the editor's deep, dark secrets. Luckily, you have the latter. We asked editors what they'd say to writers if they could talk anonymously—and they spilled. (All names have been changed to protect the snarky.)

"Don't surprise me. If you're running over length, let me know ASAP. I'll probably tell you to put it in, even if I later take it out. (I'm the arbiter. I'll judge what to include or cut.) If you're likely to blow a deadline, tell me ASAP. If the story isn't going to work as we've discussed, tell me ASAP. Don't wait until the day before deadline. When in doubt, communicate."

Xu Bei Shi, major metropolitan newspaper editor

In other words: It can feel scary to tell an editor that something's going wrong, so writers may postpone bad news as long as possible or just turn in a piece that''s not quite what was specified and hope the editor won't notice. Guess what? She will! If you give her advance warning, she'll be much more forgiving and may be able to help you.

"The toughest problem I faced as an acquiring editor was getting great queries from writers whose clips told me they'd have as much chance of writing an acceptable story as I'd have of climbing K2 without oxygen or Sherpas. Do you pay a nominal "idea fee," just to be decent? Do you ''steal'' the idea (keeping in mind that ideas for stories aren't, in fact, ''owned'')? Do you put the idea out of mind—and pray a better writer queries on it? That, in fact, was always my choice."

Fran X. Collins, national magazine editor

In other words: It's very rare that an editor would steal your idea. Some will offer a story fee (and assign it to a staff writer) or just reject a query even if it's perfect for the magazine, on the grounds that your experience doesn't prove your talent. If you know your clips don't show that you could handle a piece like you're pitching, hold off. Even if it means writing for low pay for small magazines, put in the effort to pay your dues and show you can handle a plum assignment.

"Some writers send proposals with a marketing plan that calls for their books to appear in Wal-Mart, kids' stores and scattered on tables at all the major chains. They also tell me they're happy to go on any book tour we schedule for them. Oh, great idea—I'll get right on that."

Tina Johnson, editor, small book publisher

In other words: Do you know how many authors think their book is "perfect for Oprah"? When you send in a book proposal, you'll need to include a marketing section—but be realistic. Be aware that few authors today get publisher-sponsored book tours or front-table placement at bookstore chains. Most publishers will be much more impressed if you can suggest local speaking engagements, groups that might be interested in buying your book in bulk, professional associations you belong to, mailing lists you've developed and other low-cost, likely prospects.

"Lack of precision is my biggest complaint. For example: ''Several years ago ... .'' Unless the writer is Hans Chris-tian Andersen, or it's in a quote, this won't fly. If it's in a quote, I want a time element in the text nearby. Usually the imprecision involves time/dates. When there really isn't a solid fact, say so in the text. Readers should know the fudging isn't sloppy reporting; it's something else that can't be helped."

Xu Bei Shi, major metropolitan newspaper editor

In other words: Shi explains that often, the imprecision comes from writers who know a topic very well. They simply assume that readers don't need to understand the background on an issue, or they figure the details aren't important. Even if you're making this assumption, make sure the answer is in your notes. That way, if the editor decides it's important, you won't have Empty Notebook Syndrome, and you can give a quick and accurate response.

"I've always been much more impressed by three clips from one publication than three clips from three publications. Why? Because I know a lot of writers who are energetic sales-people, but their writing skills are mediocre. They get the one clip from a big-time magazine ... but no more work ever from that mag. When I see three clips from the same pub, I assume the magazine was willing to go back to that well, so it couldn't be too poisoned."

Fran X. Collins, national magazine editor

In other words: From an editor's point of view, one clip means you had a good query; it doesn't necessarily mean the article you turned in was good (an editor may have rewritten it extensively or had to ask you for several rewrites). It also doesn't say anything about whether you met the deadline or were easy to work with. More than one clip from the same publication shows that the editor liked your work enough to hire you again, and that builds other editors' confidence.

"I like it when writers follow up—sometimes I get swamped and forget about a query. But I had one writer who called and left me a couple of messages in one day. Then called the next day. Then sent me e-mails. I didn't want to work with this person! If he was acting psycho before we did an assignment, what would he be like to actually work with?"

Dan Fina, regional magazine editor

In other words: If you haven't received a response to a query within the time specified in the writers' guidelines, it's fine to follow up once or twice. After that, move on. Don't be the reason an editor gets Caller ID.

"If you're going to be a professional, get a straight-forward e-mail address. The last thing I want is to work with someone whose e-mail address is something like Real professional."

In other words: Stay away from "cute" when choosing a screen name. If you must use a free e-mail service, try to go with a lesser known one than Hotmail or Yahoo, which are often associated with spammers. Stick with a variation of your name or pseudonym and avoid "writerly" names like Pen4hire, Gr8Writer or KateWrites. They often come off amateurish.

"It drives me mad when a writer needs help with sourcing for an article idea that he pitched."

Jo Marcus, major metropolitan newspaper editor

In other words: You don't need to have every interviewee lined up before you send a query, but you do need to know where you'll find your sources and be confident that they'll speak with you. Make use of university public relations offices, sites like and, book publishers' publicity department, and general Internet searches to locate appropriate experts. It's not the editor's job to find your sources.

"Some authors do a great job on the first or second book, then get lazy and turn in a crappy manuscript, knowing that I'll do a ton of work to get it into shape. This recently happened to me with two authors, and I'm hesitant to go back to either one ever again."

Tina Johnson, editor, small book publisher

In other words: When writers get friendly with editors, some rest on their laurels and stop trying to impress as much as they did when they were trying to "break in." That's a sure-fire way to burn those bridges.

"I often feel like writers fall back on lazy tendencies. Quite often, I'll give a substantive editorial suggestion, only to have the writer write or call back and say, 'Great idea. Can you go ahead and make the changes required?' "

Ann Bolivier, editor, major book publisher

In other words: Know which responsibilities fall in your territory and which fall into the editor's. An editor is there to make suggestions—not to implement them for you.

"I assigned a writer to do 1,500 words on digital cameras—a writer with good clips. He sent in a story that was half digital, half film cameras and twice as long as assigned. So I asked why. At first, he lied. Then he admitted, 'My hard drive crashed, and I lost the assignment e-mail. I thought I remembered what you wanted.' He couldn't have asked?"

Fran X. Collins, national magazine editor

In other words: Editors are human, too; they've lost e-mails. They may even empathize. If you're confused about what an editor wants, are unsure of a formatting or sourcing issue, or lose something important for the assignment, bring it up—immediately.

"I love writers who recognize that when I hire them for a job, I've hired them for a job. I expect them to be professional and courteous, just like they would be with anyone else who hired them for any other job. Temper tantrums are not appreciated."

Ann Bolivier, editor, major book publisher

In other words: Writers can feel so attached to their words that every cut feels personal. It isn't. Recognize that editors are trying to make you look good. Take time to be cool and collected before responding to changes you disagree with.

"Tell me about possible sidebars, or great photos and graphic possibilities. These options will make me look good when I'm in meetings. If I look good, I'll like you. You'll get more stories. We'll become a happy team, complaining together about the idiocies of those above us on the food chain."

Xu Bei Shi, major metropolitan newspaper editor

In other words: Any extras you can suggest, like subheads, pull quotes and charts, are a nice way to show that you're thinking of the big picture. Remember that print is a graphic medium and needs to look as compelling as it reads.

"I was never one of those editors who cared whether freelancers spelled my name right. I always figured, well, if it's a good story idea, why do I care? But when I took a job at a high-profile magazine where I was getting dozens of queries every week, I had to draw the line somewhere. And really, it did start to get on my nerves. So now, my name misspelled or glaring typos in the query letter warrant an automatic rejection (unless you're, say, John Irving, wanting to write a piece for me on spec)."

Leah Richards, national magazine editor

In other words: Details count! Double-check the spelling. Don't use "Mr." or "Ms." if you're not sure of the editor's sex (use the full name instead: "Dear Pat Smith"). And make sure you're sending the query to the right magazine; all the editors I know have received at least one query with a competing editor's name on top. Along these lines, never e-mail an impersonal mass query with addresses in the "blind copy" field.

"I like when writers call me with stories, even if they can't or aren't interested in doing them but know they would work for our magazine. This shows that the writer not only understands what we want, but also helps us get it even if it doesn't benefit him/her in that instance. And I always remember, so I'll be more likely to assign something to a writer who has been nice like this in the past. Good karma: It works."

Dan Fina, regional magazine editor

In other words: Even when you're not scouting for work, keep up relationships with editors you've enjoyed working with. Send congratulations when you hear about promotions or marriages, forward interesting leads even when they don't fall in your areas of expertise and take time to compliment a great issue. Editing can be a thankless job; do something nice for your editor, and the kindness may boomerang back to you.

Want to write a better query letter? Consider:
How To Write Attention-Grabbing Query & Cover Letters

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