A funny thing happens when you swap roles: Perspectives change. We know this, of course. Nonetheless, I am sometimes taken by surprise.
I’m starting a new website, and I’m in the very early stages of looking for writers to work with me on a revenue share basis. Which makes me, I suppose, an “editor.” So I began my search for charter writers — a core group for the site — by tapping into a couple of my long-standing networks. I described (rather vaguely, because I don’t want to spill all my beans) the kind of articles I was looking to publish, and asked for links to writers’ sites and clips. And mostly, I got responses from fabulous, incredible writers with whom I will be proud to work.
No part of the process is all that surprising: I’ve been an editor (a real one, complete with blue pencil… oops, I’m dating myself) before. But it’s been a while, and revisiting the process, along with a few off-target responses, reminded me of some things I am going to remember the next time *I* approach an editor for a job.
Be careful of your online persona.
My introductory letter was posted on private forums where I know the writers well and trust their work, and I was delighted with the responses.
But I didn’t post on another forum where I am a member because the writing quality is uneven. Instead, I opted to send personal letters in order to avoid forum members whose writing isn’t what I’m looking for, or whose posts often seem a bit self-centered or overly combative or super-sensitive — people who post 40 times a day, have a comment about EVERYTHING, and seem to take everyone else’s posts incredibly personally. Or those whose on-line personae include constant tales of conflicts with editors, blanket complaints about publishers, and the sense that they never seem to work with anyone they like. You know the type I’m talking about — people who are quick with snippy little comments about “another rip-off,” sarcastic glass-half-empty responses, and the assumption that the world is out to get them.
I also wanted to avoid writers whose posts indicated that they had a dubious grasp of journalism ethics (why not sell unmarked in-line links?). I didn’t want to have to debate the standards for my site with writers whose admitted practices included using other journalist’s published work as their primary research materials rather than doing their own interviews and making their own observations. I didn’t want travel writers who thought it was okay to write a travel story about a place they’d never seen. And most of all, I didn’t want to deal with writers who thought that insisting on standards, even for a little Internet start-up, equaled snobbery.
Don’t get me wrong: Certainly, there are reasons for writers to be wary and even negative in the shark-infested waters of the freelance world. I consider myself a “call it like it is and spare the rose-colored glasses” type; I’m often the first in line to castigate publishers for poor pay rates, unfair contracts, rights grabs, and ridiculous editorial merry-go-rounds. But I see a difference between professionally identifying problems and discussing how to navigate them, versus posting negative knee-jerk reactions on virtually every topic. And quite simply, I didn’t want to work with people whose semi-public posts indicated that we shared very different ideas about standards and ethics.
Not everyone reads our posts the way we intend. I know that *I* irritate some online colleagues, and vice versa. Not everyone likes each other in real life, and not everyone likes each other online, either. Posts that *WE* think are strong-minded, assertive, and direct may come across to others as aggressive, argumentative, and negative. What we imply may not be what our readers infer. Whatever we think of the “disagreeing with me means you’re flaming me and I’m running to the moderator” crowd, the thing is: THOSE people might be in a position to hire us some day. They might be quietly reading and making judgments.
Lesson to me: Internet forums only FEEL like casual water coolers. Our words and the impressions we make may have a longer life-expectancy than we imagine.
Your ego is not your friend.
Some people seemed insulted that I requested links to specific types of clips. I guess they thought that knowing them online or as colleagues meant I shouldn’t need clips, or that I should be willing to comb through their websites to find what I was looking for. Maybe they felt that they should automatically be “above the fray” for a dinky little start-up website. (I admit, I might well feel this way myself.) In some cases I did know the writer’s work and didn’t need to see anything else; I was just glad they were interested. In cases where I didn’t know the writer’s style that well, and when the clips they sent didn’t represent the kind writing I planned to publish, I (politely) asked to see other examples.
Some — including people with higher-power credentials than I will ever have — sent clips right away with a cheerful “of course.” (The clips were great, and that was that. Hmmm… maybe that attitude is WHY they have such high-power credentials? ) Others ignored me, perhaps thinking I’m a PIA if I’m hassling their accomplished selves about clips, or thinking it wasn’t worth the trouble. But the bottom line is: I’m not judging or criticizing by asking for more clips: I need a certain type of writing. That’s all.
Lesson to me: No one is above the process, and if you think you are, keep it to yourself. Or stay away. It does no one any good to write for a market for which you feel contempt.
It really is overwhelming out there.
Editors receive hundreds of queries, bios, and clips and a LOT of them show that the writer and the publication aren’t a good match. Editors have to read a lot of stuff from writers; they can’t read someone’s whole catalog of life work. Pick two or three really strong pieces, preferably pieces that match the style of the market you are approaching, and make them your focus. As an editor, here’s the kind of information in a clips list that worked best for me (I’m making up the details here):
“Touching the Sky in the Berkshires.” ( National BigShot Magazine, December, 2010): A first person account of navigating three new aerial parks in Berkshire County. Received the “best of adventure writing award” from XYZ group, 2011; Contains interviews and service information.
THAT description tells me whether the article might be written in the kind of style I’m looking for, it and saves me clicking on something that isn’t a good fit, never mind wading through clunky PDF files.
Lesson to me: Don’t pick clips to demonstrate how great I think I am or how important the magazines I’ve written for are, but rather, select pieces that show editors how my skills, background, and style are exactly what they are looking for.
Any articles you write online are your ambassadors.
A lot of writers have been experimenting with blogs or with content mill sites such as Examiner and Suite101. What these have in common is that they are very lightly edited, if at all. That’s great for me as an editor: Unlike, say, an Outside magazine piece, which I assume went through three rounds of painstaking editing and fact-checking, and which may not even resemble what you originally wrote, your content mill/blog pieces show the real you. Trouble is: A lot of writers think of those markets as fourth tier (rightfully so) so they don’t lavish the same attention on them that they give to their print pieces. To add insult to injury, if you get any editorial help at all, it’s often slap-dash and superficial. No one is spending an hour on your prose. Too often, the result is like going to a business meeting in your sweat pants.
Because I need writers who don’t require much editing, I checked out clips on blogs and content mills. A number of pieces had great elements in them, but were sloppily written. I’m not going to make a big fuss over a few typos (I can’t, being the Queen of Typos myself), and I have made far too many mistakes in my own writing to think perfection is attainable. But when I read something that seems like a first draft — flabby language, sloppy word choice, lack of specificity, and the sense that I’ve read it all somewhere before — I’m left to wonder about either the writer’s skill (is this the best they can do?) or the pride they take in their work.
Lesson to me: If it has my name on it, it represents me, loud and clear.
Don’t try to sell an editor what she doesn’t want.
If I’m looking for a gourmet French meal, don’t try to sell me funky Asian fusion. I got a number of responses from writers who are specializing in niches so small that there will be only limited opportunities for me to use their work. In some cases they want to sell their niche to me. Okay, fair enough: if the content fits my site, I’m willing to try. But the fact is, my site requires a high volume of a certain type of focused writing, and my roll out plan is tightly planned. While I will be needing a dozen pieces on some subjects of general interest, I won’t be needing a dozen pieces on traveling with your great-grandmother, your parakeet, or trying every beer in Belgium. Trying to convince me that I really want Jamaica when I asked for Cuba isn’t going to cut it — for me OR for the writer.
Lesson to me: Not every market works for every writer.
Give them what they ask for.
In a couple of cases, I got replies explaining why clips weren’t available; could the writers write on spec? In one case, no matter how many times I read the e-mail, I couldn’t even tell if the writer planned to send clips, or did or didn’t have them. Writers with no clips? Easiest way to deal with this for me: Move on.
It’s never been easier for a writer to put up articles showing they can handle a certain type of writing. At a blog or a content mill, writers can often write on anything they want. So if I wanted to break into writing about precious gems (a subject about which I know nothing, have no qualifications, and have never written a word), I could do my homework, write a dozen pieces for a low-barrier-to-entry online market or a blog, do what I needed to do to make sure they were top notch, and then use them to approach a gemstone publication.
Lesson to me: Give the editor what they ask for. If you don’t have it, write it.
The Editor-Writer Relationship
Don’t get me wrong: The vast majority of responses I got were fabulous, professional replies from incredibly qualified writers, and I am thrilled they are interested.
But I’m also grateful for the few off-key responses, because we learn from those, too. They reminded me — and now they have reminded you — of some important editor turn-offs.
Oh: And just so no one thinks I’m putting all the onus of the writer-editor relationship on the writer, let me just say that I got dozens of responses to my initial announcements, and — unlike MOST editors I have dealt with in the last decade – I responded to all e-mails within 24 hours, and most within minutes. The relationship goes two ways.
Authors and editors – both of us, no matter which role we inhabit – I’m thinking maybe the Golden Rule thing might work?