Friday, August 25, 2006

Editors Sound Off

I've gotten so many questions in about queries - how to write them, common mistakes, proper etiquette - that I decided to go right to the source, namely, some of my favorite editors. I promised them anonymity, but let's just say that these guys are the cream of the crop: every one of them works at a top tier magazine that you see front and center at a newsstand. They took the time to jot down their dos and don'ts. Take note. You won't often have the luxury of peering inside an editor's brain.

Do Flesh Out Your Query. "My 2 cents is that freelancers worry so much about their queries, and they should worry about their ideas, which are generally lame. 95% of the ideas I get are generic, evergreen, lack sourcing and are too narrow. Make that 99%. So to be honest it doesn't matter how great the letter is -- the idea needs to be better developed." Says another editor: "If you have a genius idea, I don't care if you write it on a dirty cocktail napkin or leave it on my voicemail or send a three sentence e-mail...I just want it. In other words, if the idea ain't great, it doesn't matter how perfect the pitch is...."

Do Read The Freakin' Magazine First! "My biggest pet peeve, whether I'm being queried by a writer or a publicist, is when it's obvious she doesn't read the magazine. For example, I get a million pitches about women starting their own businesses -- great, but a topic we simply don't cover and never have -- which the person would know if she read the magazine once or twice. Perhaps I'm the only one, but when I get a pitch like this I'll automatically disregard every bit of correspondence from the writer forever thereafter. It's my little way of protesting against people who waste my time." This editor isn't the only one to say this. Another echoes this same peeve: "When a writer who's pitching me isn't familiar with the magazine (i.e., pitches a story we'd never run, pitches a story we ran in the last issue, doesn't pitch to a specific department, pitches to a department we don't even have, etc.). If you're going to pitch, sit down with at least three past issues of the magazine and get to know it before you e-mail me." And finally, yet another one wants you to be even more thorough: "Go to the NY public library and read a year's worth of back issues before you pitch."

"Do think about where in the magazine the story will go. Is it a department? An FOB short? If you can't find a home for it, I probably won't be able to either."

"Do consider how you'll package it. Straight narrative? Bulleted list? Infographic? This is particularly important if you're pitching an FOB item. If it's a service story, give me a short list of possible sources. This will help me judge the likely quality of your research." Another editor agrees: "Do have specific examples/people lined up and have already talked to some key sources."

"Do check in with editors periodically -- you never know when an editor might need your help!"

"Do target a specific section or column and pitch the editor who handles it. Doing both of these things speeds up the process because you've already figured out for the editor where your story fits and why, and you're not waiting for your pitch to get passed along to the appropriate person."

"Do send a few links to your nat'l clips at the bottom of your query. And if you don't have nat'l clips, don't pitch a feature. Despite how great a writer you are, it's just not likely you'll get the assignment before showing us you can handle it by writing shorts. So just pitch shorts. And you might want to write the short you're pitching--not just give me a graf--and wow me so much that I accept it on the spot. This will show me you've done your homework, know what we run, and can write the type of stuff we publish." (Note to readers: Several posts ago, I specifically said not to do this for FOBs, but hey, it works for this editor, so it might work for others! I stand potentially corrected. Just goes to show you: what doesn't work for one editor might work for another!)

"Do a Google search or a Nexis search and find out if your idea (or things like it) has been covered anywhere else, and let the editor know when and where. Just because something was covered doesn't necessarily mean we wouldn't do it to (each publication will put their own spin on it, of course), but if it's a trend item and it was a huge story in the NYTimes or God forbid, a competitors mag, that's bad. It just shows that you took an extra step." (Another note to readers: I've never done this! So I learned something new here today.)

Don't Lob an Airball into a Random Editor. "A major pet peeve is when I get a note saying, 'If you're not the right person for this pitch, please pass it along to whomever is." 99 times out of 100 I pass it along all right -- into the trash. It's the pitcher's job to track down the right person, not mine. It's easy to call a magazine and ask, 'Who edits the travel pieces?'"

Don't Be a Nag. "I hate it when a writer calls over and over to ask if i've gotten the pitch. Calling to check once or even twice is fine, but after that, it should be clear that the editor isn't interested. (And I apologize on behalf of all of us -- in a perfect world editors would have time to respond to every pitch, not just those she's interested in.)"

Don't Take Things Personally. "The editor is working for the reader, not for you. The goal is for everyone to be happy but in this order: 1. Reader, 2. Editor-in-chief, 3. You."

"Don't treat the assistant badly. Be nice to the little people." Before you know it, they'll be the ones assigning. (Note to readers: truer words have never been spoken. I can't tell you how many assistant editors I've befriended. We moved up in the ranks together, and they now feed me work.)

So there you go. A few thoughts from the mouths of people whom really matter.

Does that help? Does that open up more questions?


Larramie said...

That bit of info on the Google search was terrific! Please thank all the editors for sharing.

Anonymous said...

The first national assignment I ever got was parenting magazine "short" of sorts -- like the ones in the back of the magazine, just a few hundred words. My query was long, but structured like a query, and the editor who assigned it said "You did a great job--write it up exactly like the query." Just something else to consider between the "never write the whole piece" and "send in a completed short" bookends.


Anonymous said...

I LOVED this:

Don't Take Things Personally. "The editor is working for the reader, not for you. The goal is for everyone to be happy but in this order: 1. Reader, 2. Editor-in-chief, 3. You."

Thanks for taking the time to get these tips, Allison, and thank your editors. They're fantastic! I've been writing queries for years now and still learned new tips.

Joan Price said...

I appreciate these tips, Allison. I gathered tips from editors for an ASJA conference panel a few years ago, and the editors I interviewed echoed yours.

Joan Price

Trish Ryan said...

"Don't take things personally" and "Be nice to the little people"...great advice no matter what you're doing!

Thanks for pulling this together, Allison - a great reminder that editors have a real job to do, and our job is to make their's easier :)


Star Lawrence said...

I still believe there should be courtesy in the business world and if a small business person like a writer sends a lengthy, well-thoughtout letter, his or her fellow executive can press REPLY and say, "Thanks, but not for us."
The "no answer" answer is so common these days--and so lacking in respect. Just sign me Old School.

Anonymous said...

My time is much too valuable to squander 30 seconds responding to your query but if you don't spend half a day in the library looking at a year of back issues, you're a loser.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this. You have no idea how on time this is for me!!

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Glad that people found this so helpful! Joan - thanks for posting your own findings. I'll also be surveying some of my writer friends in the coming weeks to garner THEIR dos and don'ts, just as something to look forward to!

I don't disagree that editors should at least write you a "not interested" email back. But don't shoot the messenger! I was just passing along their thoughts. And to be fair, the one who apologized for not always getting back to people wasn't one of the ones who said to go heavily research her mag. That said, I don't think it's unreasonable for editors to have an expectation of you to have read the mag before pitching...just as it's not unreasonable of US to hope that they'll get back to us with a quick email.

Kristin Ohlson said...

I spent years sending the wrong sorts of queries out. I figured that if I loved the idea, it just HAD to fit into the publication somehow. I was a slow learner, I guess. But I also sold several articles to major publications without ever reading an issue.

Toni-Ann said...

Allison THANK YOU! This post is chock full of the information I've been after! I am so grateful to have these tips and am definitely looking forward to writing my querries now, as opposed to before when I was putting them off because of the fear of the unknown (and of course intimidating) editor! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I bugged you about querries, so I have to express my gratitude for the post! :)

Erica said...

Great tips! I'm a newbie, so it's nice to have this info BEFORE learning from a mistake!

Anonymous said...

It is impossible to STUDY ever magazine we pitch as freelance writers. And it's a bit ridiculous to think that we should have to study a year's worth. When would we write, market, sell?

I won't shoot the messenger though, but some editors really need to get a dose of reality and realize that without our wonderful, creative and intuitive ideas, they'd be the one up a creek ;)