With more people working part-time and looking to supplement their income with freelance work, it's important for creative-types to learn how to pitch, communicate, and correspond with editors the right way, especially if they dream of becoming full-time freelance writers.
A difficult but essential writing rule I had to learn as a budding freelance writer was to communicate and interact professionally with print and online editors—without agitating their pet peeves. If you are beginning your quest to write articles for websites and publications, then you should know these four basic rules because they will help you build new and lasting relationships with editors. I refer to these rules as "duh!" rules because they are so obvious to seasoned writers but often ignored by beginners.
- Rule 1: Following Submission Guidelines
- Rule 2: Correctly Address the Editors
- Rule 3: Always Remain Professional in Tone and Writing Style
- Rule 4: Follow Up and Follow Through
1. Following Submission GuidelinesI think most budding freelance writers eventually learn that a swift and lazy read through a publication's submission guidelines will cause them to slip up when sending a query letter or manuscript. Many editors are fixed in their ways; they like—and expect—to receive submissions based on their needs and idiosyncrasies. An editor knows when you're lazy or don't care to follow instructions.
- Study the submission guidelines. This is different than just reading them because you are picking out the particular needs of the editor and the specific departments open to freelance writers.
- Analyze and dissect the publication: find out what the publication publishes, what it has recently published, and what it intends to publish in the future.
- Compare the submission guidelines with the publication's content. Do you visually see the strict word counts, titles, topics, writing style, and voice applied to the specific columns, departments, and features?
- Know what editorial style the publication uses. APA Style? Chicago Manual? AP Style? The Yahoo! Style Guide?
You might imagine why editors become frustrated and annoyed when writers disobey submission guidelines. Just when they're hoping to read a hidden gem they come across a query letter or manuscript that screams amateur. Ignoring specific guidelines and wasting an editor's time are perhaps the two top pet peeves in the industry. You will, as I have, experience higher acceptance rates or at least more courteous replies when you submit professionally. See examples of query letters that have worked.
2. Correctly Address and Approach Your EditorsAnother "duh!" rule: address and approach all editors correctly. Never write just a first name or just a last name in the salutation line of your queries. Address an editor by his or her full name. Show respect. And you need to make sure you spell the name correctly (duh!). If an editor also has a middle initial, don't leave it out. If you are submitting online and the website does not mention the person who is receiving your query (the editor, the managing editor, a departmental editor, the art director), then this is one rule I break: I address the submission to the Editor-in-Chief or use a generic title (i.e. "To Editorial Staff").
3. Always Remain Professional in Tone and Writing StyleIf you want editors to show you respect, politeness, and professionalism, then do the same. If you've spilled your coffee all over your desk while typing up your query letter in an e-mail message, perhaps you should hold off on e-mailing it to the editor. Frustration or aggravation—like spilling your coffee or wrestling jammed paper from your printer—can manifest itself in unusual ways, like causing you to boldface words or add exclamation points to emphasize your mood.
Your e-mails to editors must have perfect spelling, grammar and punctuation (duh!). Proofread at least five times for every submission, even if you've written a short query e-mail or a novel synopsis. I tend to make the most mistakes in short e-mails in which I assume the five sentences I hurriedly typed are perfect and a shining example of my writing skills. Oftentimes they contain errors, like extra spaces after a sentence or a lowercase word that should be uppercase. I make sure I proofread a second or third time.
4. Always Follow Up and Follow ThroughEditors have different response times—(but you, of course, knew this because you already read their submission guidelines). It's common for editors to take their time in replying to the most basic unsolicited query letter, unless you've written for them before. A few weeks to a few months is not unusual, especially if you've submitted a book proposal or manuscript. If you've written a seasonal article that is only relevant in the months from October to December, you'll need to find out the publication's lead time and if the deadline has passed or not to submit such articles.
If you don't hear from the editor within a reasonable time, then follow-up with a polite e-mail asking if he or she has reviewed your submission. Include your contact info., the title of your article, the word count, and the date you submitted it. Don't call editors to inquire about your query or article, unless the submission guidelines allow it. If you've still received no reply, then try contacting another staff member, such as the managing editor or an editorial staff member. If still no reply, consider the publication is uninterested and move on.
Quirky EditorsJust remember, editors have their quirks. You can't control how they reply, the manner or mood in which they reply, or when they reply, just as you can't control their opinions of your work. One editor might think your article is a mad mess of nonsense while another editor sees it as a masterpiece for the more educated individual. If you remain true to these four basic ("duh!") rules, you will have a more positive experience in dealing with editors and feel more confident in approaching them with new ideas.
To learn more about what editors want and what they don't want when pitching articles to them, I welcome you to my blog at WritingCareer.com where I list current editorial needs of editors and publishers.
- Brian Scott