Beyond the Query: Cultivating Relationships with Editors

June 1, 2016

Freelance Files

By DAWN STOVER

I was a magazine editor in New York City. He was a freelance writer in North Carolina. He wrote to me with a new pitch every few days. I replied with an occasional assignment and a lot of rejections. Eventually I stopped responding altogether.

The writer’s pitches were pithy and timely, and always included a paragraph about why he was qualified to write the story. If there was a query-writing textbook, he was following it perfectly.

But in the end, that was the problem. His pitches were formulaic, and each described him differently. “Does he think we don’t know who he is by now?” my colleagues and I wondered.

This writer didn’t seem to realize that freelancing isn’t all about writing good queries. It’s also about building and sustaining connections between human beings. I’ve been on both sides of the writer-editor relationship, and I’m still learning that lesson.

But how do writers cultivate relationships with editors?

Act like a pro

This should go without saying, but the horror stories I hear from my editor friends suggest that it bears repeating. The freelancers who get repeat assignments don’t just have good ideas and writing skills; they’re also dependable, courteous, enthusiastic and cooperative.

“We’re looking for consummate professionalism,” says Janet Raloff, who edits Science News for Students. “If someone can turn in clean copy on time, I’ve got lots of work for them.”

Eric Johnson, a freelancer in Switzerland, agrees: “Being reliable sets one apart from the field.” Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for writers, even established ones, to miss deadlines and fail to follow instructions carefully. At one magazine where I worked, the editors joked about a monthly award for the most preposterous excuse, named after a repeat offender. (Full disclosure: the first draft of this article was a few days overdue to my editor.)

One way to stay on schedule is to avoid the temptation to promise whatever you think an editor wants to hear; it’s better to be realistic than optimistic if you want to build a reputation for reliability.

Editors don’t appreciate taking a back seat to another client or to your personal life, so keep the details of your schedule to yourself.

Heed editor’s needs, have a shared vision

Freelancers often start with a story they want to tell, and then think about where to sell it. “The reality is, if you want to get into a publication, you have to shape your piece to the editor’s needs,” says Andrew Blechman, a senior editor at Yale Environment 360.

Put yourself in the shoes of the editor you’re pitching, a person who is probably overloaded with emails and responsibilities. Demonstrate that you are familiar with the editor’s outlet — and if possible, his or her own work. Before you send a pitch, find out whether the editor prefers to communicate by phone, email, text or some other method — and what they expect from a query. A news editor, for example, may value a prompt pitch over a carefullycrafted one.

Stay focused on the story your editor wants — not the one you want to write.

Whether I’m in the role of writer or editor, I think of each story as “ours.” Writers and editors are partners, not adversaries. When we work well together, we make each other look good.

In an earlier era, editors were expected to discover and nurture new writers, and to build stables of established freelancers. Although few editors have that kind of time and budget anymore, loyalty still has value.

Keep going back to the editors who make your stories shine, and who have appreciated your work in the past. Read mastheads and industry news to keep tabs on your favorite editors’ movements, and follow them to their new postings.

Perhaps the biggest frustration for freelancers today is when editors, even ones we know personally, don’t respond to our inquiries. There are many reasons for this, often unrelated to the merits of a specific story. Writers can be unresponsive, too; as an editor, I sometimes have to wait days for a response to a simple question.

But if you approach the writer-editor relationship as an equal partnership, you won’t be afraid to follow up with a friendly reminder or a phone call.

It can also be valuable to communicate with your partner during the time after a story is assigned but before it’s due. It’s not just a matter of keeping your editor posted on your progress, although that’s essential if your story changes in any significant way. A good editor can also help you think about how to structure your story and stay on track with your reporting.

Don’t stop communicating with your editor after a story is finalized, either. Too often we focus on what needs fixing and don’t take time afterward to thank each other for a job well done. Editors don’t get the recognition of a byline, so they appreciate hearing from you when you love what they did with your writing.

Network, network, network

Cultivate editors the same way you cultivate sources. Follow them on social media, with the goal of engagement rather than self-promotion. Join their conversations. Notice the work they’re doing, and tell them what you like about it.

When you introduce yourself to an editor, tell that person why you would like to work with him or her. Be specific and genuine; editors can spot insincerity a mile away.

The goal is to create relationships with editors before you pitch a specific story. For any pitch, you’re pitching yourself along with your idea. If an editor has a sense of who you are — not just from your writing but also from your community connections — that can help to build a relationship.

Tap your network of fellow SEJers. For example, on the freelance listserv, you can ask for information about contacting specific editors (if you’re not on the freelance listserv, you can sign up here; SEJ memberlog-in required).

A pitch slam is a good place to meet editors, even if you’re not pitching. But keep in mind that pitching at a pitch slam isn’t primarily a way to sell a particular article; it’s a way to get noticed as someone who can recognize a good story and present it in a compelling way.

Even if you don’t participate in pitch slams, it’s a good idea to practice explaining your story idea as an “elevator pitch,” so that you’ll have an answer ready when an editor asks what you’re working on. If you meet an editor who seems open to your ideas, follow up quickly with something in writing, while the conversation is still fresh in the editor’s mind.

Seek out opportunities to meet editors at conferences and other gatherings. Look for common ground: people you both know, subjects you both cover, geography, shared activities such as parenting or sports. Ask mutual friends to make introductions, and offer to return the favor.

If this sounds like an old boys’ club, it doesn’t have to be. At one SEJ conference, I got an assignment in the women’s restroom. Challenge yourself to reach across traditional divides such as geography, socioeconomics, ethnicity, gender and age.

For example, I live in a cabin in rural Washington state, but I don’t see that as a handicap when it comes to getting assignments from New York City editors. I encounter different story ideas and sources than when I lived in Manhattan, and I emphasize that in my pitches, because any media outlet needs a diversity of ideas to attract a diverse audience.

The care and feeding of editors

I know a lot of smart, creative people who aren’t good at relationships. Maybe that’s one reason they’re freelancers. But if you’re more like a lone wolf than a Labrador retriever, that could be hurting your freelance business.

In this economy, lone wolves don’t have the luxury of waiting to be discovered. They have to act more like Labrador retrievers if they want to find a place by the fire and get fed. The same goes for editors: Writers are drawn to those who are the most approachable and friendly, not the snarly types.

Many of us might benefit from spending less time on our pitches and more time reaching out to editors. It’s difficult for any freelancer today to survive without at least one or two steady gigs, and getting those is usually a matter of developing a long-term relationship with an editor who trusts your judgment and professionalism.

The care and feeding of editors came home to me, literally, after I worked with a writer on an investigative feature article about several American soldiers who were left behind alive after the last battle of the Vietnam War. He hadn’t written for the magazine before, but I believed in him and his story and championed both for the many months that it took to shape the story for publication. Afterward, the writer surprised me by sending a jar of cookies and a thank-you letter telling me that he had just received a book contract.

Editors aren’t the only people who like cookies. Barbara Fraser, a freelance environmental journalist in Peru, recently told me that one of her favorite editors is also a Girl Scout leader who always keeps a couple of boxes of Thin Mints tucked away for Barbara’s next visit to the United States.

Now that’s an editor I’d like to meet.

Dawn Stover is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in White Salmon, Wash., and a contributing editor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She was an editor at Popular Science magazine for almost 20 years, and previously worked at Harper’s and Science Digest. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Conservation, High Country News, New Scientist, Outside, Backpacker, The New York Times, ForeignPolicy.com, MSN.com and other publications. She is a charter member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a volunteer co-coordinator of the SEJ Mentor Program.

 


* From the quarterly news magazine SEJournal, Summer 2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.