How to get your editor begging for more

By Christina Selby

“Editors are desperate people,” Josh Fischman, editor at Scientific American, told a standing-room-only audience. Publications need to be filled with ideas and editors need people who can write those ideas. Once an editor is excited about your story idea, the trick for the freelancer is to keep that excitement going, he explained. Fischman, along with editors Cori Vanchieri of Science News, Gideon Gil of STAT, and Alexandra Witze, correspondent for Nature and Science News, tried to tell writers just how to do that.

Pitching

Pitching is an art form of its own. You not only need to find a compelling story idea but explain it in a few paragraphs that make editors say, “I gotta have that story.” Your pitch should convey you’ve done some research beyond Wikipedia. “It doesn’t have to be all flowery language,” said Gil, “but it should show the editor how you write and that you can carry out what you are proposing to do.”

How much time should you spend reporting before you pitch? Witze says she knows she’s ready to pitch when she’s found a compelling character and has an idea of what the story will be. For those just starting out, it may take more reporting upfront. But, don’t go overboard with 17 pre-interviews, she says. For features, she’ll often conduct a pre-interview with a key character to make sure she’s got the basics right.

Art can enhance a story and attract readers. Include a note in your pitch about that great video footage you saw on YouTube. Let editors know about photographs, maps, or other graphics that can help the design team in its quest for great art.

Submitting your draft

Filing the story to the agreed-upon length is also important. You should shoot for 10-15% over and no more. If you just can’t kill your darlings, try Witze’s trick of putting the extra word count in an “over-matter” section at the bottom of your document. That way, anything you took out editors can decide to put back in. Just don’t expect that your editor will actually read it.

It’s always best to submit your draft on time. “We like you better if you hit your deadline,” said Gil. Still, editors know that we’re all human and things come up. Communicating your need for a deadline extension as soon as possible goes a long way to building trust with editors.

One audience member asked: How much communication is too much? If you’re on staff Fischman would probably talk to you every day about your story. But hearing from freelancers once or twice a week is plenty, he says. Editors don’t want to hear about that sticky paragraph transition, but if in your reporting you find you need to make significant changes to the main character, a sub story, or the piece’s angle, let your editor know well before you turn in the draft.

The editing process

“A writer’s attitude is key” to success, said Vanchieri. “You can yell and scream when you hang up but when we’re one the phone, keep it positive.” Accepting edits is an exercise in trust. Your editor’s job is to know what’s best for the publication and its readers. Still, it’s important not to lose your voice in the editing process. “I would think less of a writer if they didn’t push back on something,” says Gil. Focus your efforts on fighting for the one or two edits that are important to you. Keep in mind though that if your goal is to get another assignment, it's best to accept most edits with grace.