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everything i ever needed to know about writing i learned from editing (and vice versa)


BY PETER FLAX | I'm a freelance writer—or at least that's what I tell people. More accurately, I'm a longtime senior editor who's toughing out the current downturn as a freelancer. With the job pickings so slim, I figured it was a fine time to see how I would fare on my own.

The switch has been a real trip. I have brief, shining revelations about the freedom and creative joys of the life. I get to explore my own voice, run my own business, and set my own schedule. I can bike in midday sunshine if I choose. Yet at other times, I long to break away from the inescapable hustle and instability. I miss the camaraderie and the broader sense of purpose of a staff job. I miss my Time Inc. 401k.

But through all the hustling and grinding, I think I'm learning a lot about doing the job better—doing both jobs better, actually. My experience as an editor helps me to be a savvier freelancer. I've honed my pitching instincts, and learned to better gauge when to back off an unreceptive editor without giving up. And my front-line duty as a freelance writer now will make me a better (or at least more popular) editor in the future.

It turns out both jobs are a lot tougher than they might seem from the other side.

Things would be far smoother if everyone knew more about how the other half lives. With that in mind, I've drawn on my past life as an editor to compile ten tips every writer should follow, as well as ten tips for editors to commit to memory. It's my little gesture for world peace.

Ten Commandments for Writers

1. Be patient. Your editor may be living a nightmare. He's swamped with the last week of the close and trying to work a miracle on a mangled feature slated for the next issue. And all the while, he's getting pulled into one long meeting after another. It's completely reasonable to expect a response to your pitch or some feedback on your revision. Just don't take it personally if it takes a while.

2. Be persistent. Editors are always busy and they hear from lots of writers. Don't waste their time, but do what you can to stay on their radar. Mail them clips or send them pitches when you've got something good. Call to check in once and a while. You want to be on their mind when they're about to farm out an in-house idea.

3. Don't stalk. Writing can be like dating—you need to have the judgment to see when your advances aren't welcome. If you call three times within a week of sending a pitch, that's stalking. Same goes for the once-a-week email to the editor who's never written back. Even if an editor owes you a call, you can make him feel like hunted prey if you get overaggressive. That's not going to help you get a story done or get more work.

4. Target your pitches. It's obvious but often ignored: Study a magazine before you pitch. If you're going to pitch a 1,000-word story, you should know in which department the story belongs. Think of how you can tweak your idea to be perfect for the audience and the style of the publication.

5. Write to length. Of course it's okay to turn in copy that's a little over. But don't submit a story at twice the assigned length, thinking your editor will race down the hall to score extra pages. It rarely works that's way. Usually, it just means your editor has to spend valuable time cutting and sharpening the story. It's work you should have done yourself.

6. Be flexible. Writers are supposed to agonize over every word in their stories. But once you've submitted a manuscript, you've got to let go a little bit. If you challenge an editor over every comma and fact change, you will get a reputation. Learn to discern which battles are really worth fighting.

7. Listen to revision directions. When your editor asks you to reinterview a particular expert or pump up the news hook, it's hardly a flippant suggestion. Chances are, it's a well-deliberated idea that will improve your story. Editors don't like to work with writers who ignore their directions.

8. Submit your expenses. For mysterious reasons, many writers don't turn in any expenses. All the phone calls, photocopying, and other minor charges can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year. Your editor hardly has to lift a finger to pass your expenses on. (Obviously, plane tickets and fancy lunches are a different story.)

9. Hit your deadlines. Everyone understands that sometimes personal crises come up or key sources disappear. On the other hand, an overbooked schedule or writer's block are lame excuses for late copy. Editors remember which writers consistently turn in good work on time. You want to be one of them.

10. Be available at crunch time. It's sad but true: That story that took you six weeks to report and write may fly through the production cycle in just days. So when that article is finally up on your editor's screen, time is short to get the piece in perfect shape. If an editor calls you for help, act like you're on deadline, too.

Ten Commandments for Editors

1. Be honest. Don't tell a writer you want to see clips or more pitches if you really don't. Nobody wants to waste time on projects that will never pan out.

2. Hit "reply." It takes only a moment to acknowledge receipt of a manuscript or a pitch. Even if it's only: "Hey. I'm slammed but I got your story. If all goes well, I should be able to get to it in a few weeks." Otherwise, you force writers to sit in the dark or shift into stalking mode. By the same token, most editors can spot an off-the-mark pitch in seconds. If you see one, hit "reply" and say so. It will save everyone time and headaches in the long run.

3. Show some appreciation. Okay, you're busy—really busy. But instead of perceiving that freelancer on the phone as an awkward time-suck, think about them as someone who just put in two hours to pitch a story idea that your readers might like and that might make you look good.

4. Offer realistic deadlines. Freelance writers are in the yes business. They take assignments and accept deadlines and then figure out how to get it all done. So don't ask a writer to turn around a story over the weekend if you don't need it until Wednesday.

5. Help them get paid. Writers don't have the luxury of direct deposit on the 1st and the 15th of every month. (Right now, I'm waiting for payment on five stories, including one that was accepted four months ago.) No one is asking editors to take over the accounting department. Just do what you can to make sure contracts and expense requests move along as fast as possible.

6. Keep writers in the loop. There's nothing more frustrating than seeing a reconfigured lede or a new joke in your story for the first time when you're down at the newsstand. Writers understand they don't have the last say when it comes to their stories. Just keep an author apprised and ask for input when it's feasible. It's not that tough; email and fax technology work wonders.

7. Don't bitch about a pitch. Writers know that pitching every editor is different. Some editors prefer a list of half-baked ideas to brainstorm over, while others want a fully-formed road map complete with sources and a razor-sharp lede. Some never find the time to respond to pitches and don't mind follow-up calls, while other editors hate interruptions, hate talking on the phone, and generally hate unsolicited story ideas. The point? Don't assume writers understand your preferences unless you tell them.

8. Don't turn writers into stalkers. Freelancers need to be persistent to survive. But don't make it any harder than it needs to be. I've had editors email me and say, "I'm interested in your idea about X. Give me a call." So I call them, wait a week with no answer, and then call them again. Before you know it, I feel like I'm stalking them. If you're going to play tag, play it fair.

9. Respect the writer's time. Writers are businesspeople, and many will go out of their way to make sure clients are satisfied. I'm always available to take a call from an editor with questions about a story. But editors sometimes abuse this privilege—asking for a detailed explanation that's already spelled out in the annotation or calling ten times in one afternoon with ten trifling questions. Behave as if my time is as valuable as yours.

10. Say "thank you" at least once. If a writer has done a good job, say so. While editors get constant feedback from their colleagues, writers, and even readers, writers sit alone in a spare bedroom and wonder what other people think. So offer thanks where thanks are due. (And "Hey, that revision looks good" does not count.)

Editors and writers: We want to hear your proposals for 11th, 12th, even 13th commandments! Click here to post them and read other suggestions.

Elsewhere on Senior magazine editors and top freelancers revealed their tics and turn-offs at our "freelance survival strategies" panel in New York. You can read the transcript here. (You must be an AvantGuild member to read event transcripts.)

Before taking the freelance plunge, Peter Flax was a senior editor at Health magazine. His writing has appeared in Men's Journal, Sports Illustrated Women, San Francisco magazine, and other publications.

Read more in our Archives. Send your feedback to Jesse Oxfeld.



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