Science. Communication. Community.
Reporters and editors need each other, but this mutually beneficial relationship can sometimes be rocky—particularly for freelance reporters who might work with editors at a dozen different news outlets over the course of a year. In the interest of editors and freelancers everywhere, I asked a freelance writer and an editor to talk it out.
Below, you’ll find a conversation between freelancer Jessica Morrison and editor Laura Helmuth. Morrison is relatively new to professional science journalism (less than two years). However, she has already written for outlets including National Geographic, NOVA, the Chicago Tribune and Slate. Helmuth is the science and health editor at Slate, and previously worked as an editor for Smithsonian magazine and Science.
They both had questions and they both took the time to come up with thoughtful answers. Well worth a read (which is why I’m posting this, after all).
Jessica Morrison: Let’s say someone is cold pitching you a story for Slate. What would make you open, read, and then respond to an email pitch from a person you’ve never heard of or met?
Laura Helmuth: I respond to all legitimate pitches from writers. (I don’t usually reply to press releases and I don’t reply to cranks.) I think most editors do this, or try to—although I could be giving some of my fellow editors too much credit. If you don’t hear back from an editor, give it several days or weeks (proportional to how often the place publishes—monthlies are usually slower than minute-lies like Slate) and then check in to make sure the story didn’t get stuck in someone’s spam filter. That happens all the time, especially with messages that come from an author’s own domain name.
As for what makes me pay close attention to a pitch rather than give it a quick glance and a “no thanks”—that mostly depends on how well the pitcher seems to *get* my publication. I’ve edited for Science’s news department, Smithsonian magazine, and Slate, and each publication has a completely different audience and style and set of interests. The best freelancers are able to adapt their story sense and their pitching style to match the publication they’re targeting. The most common reason I give for turning down a pitch, and this is true in every editing job I’ve had, is that the story just doesn’t fit with the publication. If I see an obvious place where the story should go, I let the writer know.
One mistake some writers make is sending along a resume or set of clips with their original pitch. Keep it simple when you’re trying an editor for the first time: Focus on the story, explain why it’s special if there’s some non-obvious reason, and introduce yourself at the end without a lot of fuss. Editors don’t care about qualifications, only about how good the story idea is.
Presentation matters, too—even in the pitch, try to write in a style that’s compatible with the publication you’re pitching.
How do you decide where to pitch a story, and how do you find the right editor? It seems like this must be one of the most frustrating things about freelancing. We editors are relatively invisible since our names aren’t on the work we edit. Is it all just word of mouth? How can editors let freelancers know how and when to find them?
JM: Ha – “minute-lies” – I dig that. When I’m thinking about where to pitch a particular idea, there is, unfortunately, very little method to my madness. I have a decent sense of what kind of stories a particular outlet runs because I read the outlets I’d like to appear in, but otherwise, I just toss ideas out there. And by toss ideas out there, I mean I send editors that I’ve met or developed relationships with half-formed ideas via email or even DM [direct message], and with a bit of luck, they get accepted. But I can’t recommend this harried method in good faith, since I’ve heard in many workshops that pitches should be polished. For what it’s worth, I have never sent a cold pitch, and I never start writing before a story has been accepted.
How do I get to know editors? I go to meetings. When I was still in graduate school, I started going to ScienceOnline, ScienceWriters, and AAAS. I found mentors who introduced me to their mentors, their editors, their colleagues, their friends. Sometimes I’ll reach out to editors on Twitter – to comment on a link, then add to general conversation, to make myself known. When I want to know something about how an editor works, I’ll ask a freelancer colleague.
Writing for an editor for the first time can be daunting. From your experience, can you describe what you expect the editing process to be like when you commission a new writer? I have to assume that you don’t expect perfection, yet I always worry about disappointing an editor. Tell me you’ve seen it all!
LH: Oh, yes, I have seen it all, including practically unreadable first drafts from established writers and beautiful ones from newbies who apologize for the poor quality.
The main thing to keep in mind when working with a new editor is that we like to know stuff. We’ll ask all kinds of pesky questions during the back and forth over the pitch. It might not be obvious why we’re asking them—they may have to do with other stories in the works that we don’t want to overlap with, or some in-house decision to do more or less of a certain kind of story. Answer as many as you can and let the editor know which questions you can’t answer yet.
The direct questions end when you start to report and write the piece, but you should definitely keep the editor in the loop, especially if problems come up. If you hit a snag in reporting and the story takes a detour, or if you need more time, just let the editor know. We can almost always help fix the problem or change the deadline, and it’s always best to ask for more time as soon as you know you’ll need it.
After you turn in the story, just remember that editing isn’t personal. (Well, sometimes it is, but it’s best to assume you’re working with a humane editor rather than a psychopath until proven otherwise.) It’s tough to nail a new publication’s voice, story structure, and level of detail on the first try. You’ll either be asked to define words you thought were perfectly clear or you’ll have your metaphors turned into jargon—whatever the editor suggests to make the story fit the style of the publication. You can avoid some of this by reading a bunch of stories in that publication immediately before you start writing—but you won’t avoid all of the errors. Editors make the same changes over and over and won’t be surprised to see a first-timer not knowing all of the institutional quirks.
When you get a story back from an editor and see a lot of changes, it’s perfectly fine to tell a friend that the editor is an idiot who ruined the story. Go ahead and vent, growl, throw things, regret that you ever went into journalism. But then send a message back letting the editor know you got the edit and estimating when you can turn it around. Make as many of the changes as you can. If some of the requests make no sense, let the editor know why what they’re asking for won’t work—and suggest alternatives. Keeping your editor informed is the best way to start and maintain a great relationship.
That’s great to hear that you go to meetings to meet editors, and that it’s a fairly effective method. That’s why I go to meetings—to meet freelancers. And good idea to use Twitter in this way. A surprising number of science editors are regulars on Twitter.
What are some helpful pieces of advice or guidance that editors should offer writers, especially starting-out writers? After we editors have been working for a publication long enough, I think we stop being able to see what must be confusing to an outsider.
JM: This one is kind of tough because starting-out writers are getting started in so many different ways – some have no idea how to pitch or find an editor, some are coming out of grad programs that have taught these skills, others are transitioning from staff positions, but one thing that likely no starting-out freelance writer knows is how your particular publication progresses from accepting pitch through editing to choosing artwork to publishing.
Beyond setting a deadline, it would be useful to know how long (generally) a piece will take to move from edits to published. Is the writer expected to find art? Do you prefer to receive copy in a certain format? Am I responsible entirely for fact checking? Contracts often include this information, but we all know how confusing contracts can be. A clear, concise (give me bullet points!) set of pitch-to-publish guidelines could be useful for us Type-A types.
We probably should have talked about money a little bit. A mentor once told me to never write for less than fifty cents per word. If you were going to give a starting-out freelancer money advice, what would it be?
LH: The per-word rate made more sense when stories were in print and space-restricted. Now that people are writing more for online publications and stories can be much shorter or much longer than was usually the case in the past, I advise people to think more about how much *time* you’d have to put into a story. I don’t have a great per-hour guideline, but I’d love to hear in the comments if anybody has done the math to figure out how to price their time. It’s also a good idea to negotiate, especially if you have a scoop or a fresh take on a story that is perfect for the publication you’re pitching. Editors can’t always increase the fee, but you can ask—we want our writers to be happy and well fed.