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Avoid the Editorial "John Doe"

Editors want to say yes to your story as badly as you want them to?so make it easy for them with these five steps.

Freelance writers sometimes think of editors as "those people who say no." For many a frustrated writer, "We're sorry, but your submission does not meet our current needs," is the closest they get to a meaningful dialogue with an editor.

But, ironically, most editors are really dying to say yes. Saying yes to a writer means an editor has solved a problem (what the heck am I going to put in the next issue?). Saying yes to your query means an editor has fed the idea monster with at least one that he didn't have to come up with himself. Giving you an assignment may even mean an editor can, for once, leave the office before 6 p.m. and maybe eat something besides takeout Chinese.

So why do editors keep saying no? Partly, it's because freelance writers make it so hard for them to say yes.

To use an extreme example, an editor I know recently got a query that was entirely handwritten in a scraggly blue ballpoint script. The query also didn't specify which of the editor's several magazines it was targeting. Just as well, since the query referred to the editor's "weekly" magazine when none of his titles publish that often. And none, by any stretch of the imagination, would be in the market for an article on word games (or perhaps the article was a word game—hard to tell). At least the submission included an SASE.

As much as that poor editor might want to say yes, he would also like to keep his job. So what can you do (besides typing all your queries) to make it easier? Here are five secrets most editors wish you knew to make their jobs—and saying yes—easier:

  1. Copy the magazine's formula. I'm not even going to repeat the obvious "study the market" advice you've heard over and over again. And of course you've read several issues of the magazine you're targeting. Most editors would love for you to go beyond those basics, though, and try to get inside their heads: What's the archetypal article for this magazine? Figure it out, give it a fresh (but not too fresh) twist, and you'll make a sale. Most successful magazines have a formula. They might prefer to think of it as a "mission statement," but it's the essential appeal of that publication—what makes it sell, what readers expect from each issue. Not every article in every issue will perfectly embody this formula, but these are the articles that editors are hungry for. For a magazine aimed at teen girls, the formula might be "how to get boys to like you"; for certain sizzling women's magazines, it's "how to have better/more sex." One travel magazine might be selling the cachet of undiscovered, even unattainable exotic dream vacations; another might emphasize slightly less dreamy trips on a budget. Look for patterns in the articles of the magazines you're targeting, then try to come up with ideas that mimic the most common themes. A "healthy gourmet" magazine that regularly runs features on "10 Sinfully Rich Low-Fat Desserts" and "Chocolate Without Fear," for example, would probably love to say yes to your query on "Cheesecake Without the Guilt—or the Fat."
  2. Don't ask editors to take chances. While an article on quilting equipment might be a wonderful way for the readers of that men's magazine to get in touch with their feminine sides, don't expect the editor of Macho Outdoorsman to take a flier on your query. Editors cringe when they read queries that begin, "I know you don't normally run articles like this, but ..." Great editors will take risks in their pages—but don't expect them to gamble on you or your idea if they've never worked with you. Don't pitch human-interest stories to how-to magazines or humorous essays to trade journals. Yes, those editors may occasionally run such pieces, but they aren't what those editors are looking to say yes to.
  3. Sell yourself. Give editors an excuse to say yes to you. Most editors would love to find another talented, dependable writer with expertise in their subject area. You think the editor of Modern Moth Farmer magazine doesn't grapple every day with finding freelancers who know moths and the English language? Help him out! Cite your qualifications, clearly and concisely, in your query. Include clips—not just any clips chosen at random, but published samples that prove your ability to handle similar material. (Never published anything about flying insects but have a clip from Dromedary Life? That's a better bet than your published poetry or book reviews.)
  4. Present yourself like a pro. A prime reason editors say no to new writers is the fear that this cure may be worse than the disease of having nothing for the next issue. What if you blow the deadline, write 5,000 words when the assignment calls for 500, or can't compose anything coherent longer than a query letter? Then the editor has real problems: He's counting on you to fill a hole, and instead he gets a black hole. So do your best to assuage the editor's lurking fear that you may be his worst nightmare instead of his next find. Make your query package impeccable. Use only black ink on white paper. Opt for the understated in your letterhead and resist the temptation to put "Freelance Writer" under your name. Include clips, but not your entire oeuvre, and make them neat photocopies, not collages or something that looks like a ransom note. Don't threaten to call "in a few days" just to make sure the editor got your query. Should these things matter if you're truly talented and have a great idea? Of course not, but why put obstacles in the way of an editor discovering your genius?
  5. Deliver. Once you've gotten to "yes," future assignments for that editor depend on how well you deliver on your crucial first try. The only thing worse than rejection is getting accepted and then letting the editor down—because then you'll never get another "yes." Editors live by the rule of "once burned, twice shy." So deliver exactly the story you promised. If you have any questions about the direction the editor wants the article to take, ask instead of assuming. If the story takes any wrong turns, tell the editor sooner rather than later. Turn in your manuscript before the deadline. Write to fit; don't go way over your word limit and expect the editor to pick and choose, or to add pages just for you. Do what it takes to get to "yes," then deliver, and who knows? For you and some lucky editor, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
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