The Freelancer’s Guide to Working with Editors: What 4 Editors Want You To Know
Nada Alic / WNW Member
Editors have always terrified me. So much so that I had to become one just so I could get over it. I was a teenager when I worked with my first editor (after winning a Seventeen Magazine competition #humblebrag.) The editor was probably in her early twenties but she seemed otherworldly to me: cool, well-dressed, and confident in a way I’d never seen before. Although misguided at the time, I was certain that she had the power to really change things for me as a writer, which was technically true, since my essay about a high school crush was the only thing I had ever written in my life. But once the piece was published and the competition was over, I never heard from her again. Obviously, I was a Canadian suburban teen with no bylines and a very slim grasp of grammar. It was a fluke, and yet I was devastated.
Throughout the years I have been on both sides of the often precarious freelancer/editor dynamic and I’ve learned a lot about the challenges that come with both roles. I was an editor for most of it and I tried really hard to make everyone feel heard and understood; mostly I succeeded but sometimes I left people feeling ignored or slighted. Editors are often under an enormous amount of pressure on both sides. I sometimes wanted to tell freelancers that, just so they could get a better picture of what I was up against and maybe give me a pass. For every one-on-one email thread I had going, there were dozens more happening at the same time. On top of that was an entirely other world of meetings, presentations, and other workplace activities I had to participate in. But to an extent, it’s on us to manager better or establish clearer boundaries, because freelancers rely on clarity and prompt communication from editors: their livelihoods depend on it. The more time I wasted, the further they were from getting paid.
Now that I’m a freelancer, I find myself back on the other side of it, learning how to best communicate with editors, anticipate their needs, and generally try to read their minds. I am still learning how to do this gracefully, but sometimes I have no idea how. So I invited four editors to tell me everything there is to know about their jobs in the hopes of demystifying it for myself, and for freelancers everywhere. Erin Klassen is an editor and founder of Without Pretend, an independent publisher, Mike O’Donnell is the editor of this very magazine, Working Not Working Magazine, Stella Cabot Wilson is an editor at Catapult, and Caroline Pham is the former editor-at-large for GOOD Magazine and an editor at Medium; she now freelances for clients like Apple. More on them below!
There’s a mythology around editors: how to approach them, what’s the appropriate number of times you can follow up on an email, what format they prefer things in, etc. What advice do you have for freelancers for corresponding with editors?
Erin: When I start working with a new writer or artist, I often tell them to follow up with me if they don't hear back within a reasonable timeframe (3-5 days). My inbox gets pretty hairy and it's easy for me to lose track of an email, especially if it's not at the top of our editorial schedule or what I call "on fire." I'd offer the same advice for freelancers who are reaching out to us cold, hoping to collaborate in the future. Someone who follows up stands out and I am always really appreciative of creators who take initiative. Editors are often juggling correspondence with other freelancers, staff, and external vendors all at the same time, so it can pay off to be forward and make things easier on them.
Caroline: Approaching an editor, particularly one you don’t know, can be intimidating. Be professional, but keep it light and to the point. (Professional does not mean a “To Whom It May Concern” tone. Please don’t start with that.) Don’t just reach out with a “Hey! Love your magazine! Can I write for you?” I always appreciate if someone kicks it off with a little context regarding who they are, what their areas of interest are, and relevant clips. That way, I have at least a sense of the writer and where they’re going before I get into a pitch. Also, for those starting out, keep in mind that while published clips are generally preferred, relevant clips could include something like an article you self-published on Medium. Just don’t send a copy of a college paper you wrote, please. I still cannot believe people do this.
Following up every other day is not a good look. Following up after a week? Totally fine in my book. Just know that editors are generally not trying to ignore you, keep you in the dark, or punish you. Don’t let your mind spiral too much.
If you’ve already been working with an editor: Don’t run away from us after you’ve been assigned something or owe us a draft! If you’re struggling with something, be transparent about issues you’re butting up against, but be judicious about how often you’re reaching out and for what purpose. Turning in a draft and sharing that you’re unsure about structure or flow in certain areas is perfectly fine and welcomed.
Stella: I don't have any hard and fast rules for how I like freelancers/potential contributors to interact with me—so far, every piece or pitch I've worked on has developed a different life and relationship and I'm really willing to move forward with whatever direction seems natural.
However, I will say that I always follow up with my writers as soon as I possibly can—I'm always considerate about my writers' time and energy and it goes a long way if I can tell a freelancer is also treating me with respect and understanding. Editing is not my only job—I'm also a programs assistant at Catapult and there are a lot of different things on my plate. As long as an editor is treating you with respect, give them the benefit of the doubt. But if two weeks go by with no word, I think it's more than appropriate to check in and make sure your pitch didn't get lost in their inbox. Just act like a reasonable person! That's all I ask.
Mike: Editors receive a lot of submissions and with editorial staffs forever shrinking, they’re doing more work and maintaining more professional and creative relationships than they probably should be. So I think it’s good to be upfront with the pitch in your first email and then send a follow-up 4 days to a week later if you don’t hear back. The odds that an editor has “accidentally” missed two emails are pretty low, so a third follow-up might be excessive. As for the pitch itself, sometimes I get emails that are mysterious, encouraging a response before sharing more. I can understand reasons for doing this, like not wanting to spill your guts before you’ve even officially introduced yourself. But realistically, I’m not falling over myself to learn more when I’m simultaneously reading engaging pitches.
If you don’t have a particular pitch in mind, it’s helpful for the editor (and for you) to include links to existing writing samples. That way I can see if your writing style and voice serve the larger editorial brand. To that same point, I really appreciate when a prospective illustrator attaches work samples. It makes it much easier to connect the dots to which existing article might benefit from their specific visual style. This turnaround can be a lot quicker than adding you to a long and winding rolodex.
How/where do you find creators to work with?
Erin: I work closely with my creative director and my editorial team to build a list of artists and writers we hope to work with — but where we find them? Usually Instagram, or via other publications they've worked with. We also have an open submission form for our magazine, The Vault, but the majority of the people we work with are writers and artists we solicit.
Caroline: I find new creators and people I’m interested to work with everywhere. I could be scrolling through Instagram or Twitter and find someone with an interesting perspective ranting about an issue that might turn into an opinion piece. I could be mindlessly surfing online and find designers or other various creators to try and bring into a project I’m on. I could be walking on the street and see a mural or billboard that jogs something for me. You really never know. All that to say, it’s a great, wide world out there.
Stella: So far, the majority of the pieces that I've taken on have come from our Submittable slush. It's always so exciting when I get to reach out to someone who submitted their essay and tell them I'd like to publish their essay or short story.
I've also had a few people reach out to me directly—not totally out of the blue, but through a personal connection; they'd taken a class at Catapult and knew I was an editor, for example. I also keep an eye out for people tweeting about interesting topics on Twitter—I've DM'd writers several times telling them to pitch me if their viewpoint or opinion grabs my attention and I think they might have a Catapult piece in them.
Mike: I’m really fortunate that the magazine I run (and the one you’re reading right now) is associated with a global community of awesome creators. It makes it pretty easy to find people to work with. Since the WNW Magazine is all about celebrating the work from the WNW community, I naturally source writers and illustrators from this same pool. And if I come across an exciting new artist or writer while browsing other editorials, exhibits, or publications, I add a step to my process by introducing myself and sending them a link to sign up on the WNW platform. I then brief them on a particular topic or project with which I’d love to get them involved.
Have you ever ghosted a freelancer? Why or why not?
Erin: Never ghosted, but we've had a few instances where we've had to rethink projects mid-way and move in a different direction. It's usually a case where the style of their work isn't a fit for our vision at the time. I would never leave someone hanging without communicating first, though. Burning bridges in our industry leads to a poor reputation. Freelancers talk to each other, and we want to be the kind of publication people are excited to work for.
Stella: I want to say "No! Of course not!" but actually... I have. Every once and awhile I get emails in my inbox from folks who clearly have never read Catapult. Nope, I don't want your diagram that shows how to cut a cow into steaks. No, I don't want your listicle or "how to" piece.
It's one thing to reach out with a true connection ("I saw that you tweeted about this essay and I'm writing something with a voice you might find engaging!"), but if you don't have that connection, please follow our submission guidelines. They are right on our website and we do read all our slush; if you are a good fit for us, you'll get published.
Caroline: Ugh. Unfortunately yes, I’ve ghosted someone. I really try not to, but the incident I’m thinking of in particular was a freelancer who turned in a piece that was egregiously out of the scope of their assignment. I sat on it for at least a week and a half trying to figure out how much time or wine it would take me to turn it into something I could even begin working with, and when they half-heartedly turned in another “draft” which was still in the same realm as the original, I decided to let it go. Overall I think ghosting is unprofessional and a disheartening experience, so I advise against it 98% of the time. But sometimes you have to weigh your own mental capacity. If the person on the other end is openly flouting the parameters of an assignment or clearly not trying, sometimes you have to let it go.
Mike: We get a lot of writers and illustrators reaching out to contribute on the WNW Magazine, both members of the community and freelancers who have come across the Magazine first. It’s obviously not realistic to collaborate with everyone who reaches out, and I’m forever trying to fine-tune a response that properly conveys that I’m not rejecting them and their work, which I’m not; it’s almost always instead a budgetary decision or a question of the right fit at that time. Both explanations sound familiar, and some freelancers misinterpret that familiarity as being a trope of rejection. Which is fair. But really, they’re tropes of the process for an editor, a process that depends on...budgets...and right fits at the right time.
Once I have a conversation with a freelance contributor about writing something or creating artwork, I see it through. As an editor, I’ve experienced ghosting from contributors and it’s, usually at most, an inconvenience having to find replacement content on the fly. But if you ghost a freelancer as an editor, it goes beyond inconvenience: you’re costing them money they could almost count on but also time that could have been dedicated to sourcing another project.
As an editor, what’s the one big thing you wish freelancers knew about you and your job?
Erin: When I'm working with writers, it's important for me that they know I'm an editor who is also a writer. When I'm ripping their first drafts apart, I want them to know that I know exactly how it feels on the other side, too. It's not easy and it can be really emotional, but if everyone is focused on making the work as good as it can be, that's what's most important.
Caroline: I’ll speak for myself here — though I think this is true for many editors I’ve worked with — but the anxiety and sweat that you feel when reporting and writing a piece? I feel that when editing, too. Even when assigning stories. I feel a great sense of responsibility, not only to my writers, but to the story overall. I don’t take any of it lightly. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I hope writers don’t take any of it personally: the edits, the extensive notes, the extra time spent, or haggling over details. It’s all in efforts to make the story the best it can be.
Stella: I am never looking for a reason to *not* publish your piece. In fact, I am always looking for some piece of writing to grab my attention—to read a line or a paragraph, and say, "Wow, I would be so excited to work with this author." I want your good words to exist and if I think I can help them, I will work with you. Sometimes I read something good but it's not something that I can serve, so I'm not going to edit that piece. I genuinely want you to succeed even if I don't accept your piece, and sometimes your success is reliant on me letting your piece find a different editor.
To make a long story short: If you are a good fit for us, we will publish you. It will happen, somehow. Getting published is less about whether or not you are any good and far more about finding a publication that is the right fit for your work.
Mike: An editor’s job is to find and share stories and work that their audience will find value in. I personally enjoy listening to my contributors’ ideas and concerns and offering considerate feedback that invites a conversation. That level of engagement and collaboration usually means I’m coming to understand where my contributors are coming from and now have an active interest and investment in sharing their story and talents. The hope is that your readers will sense and respond to that attention.
For a lot of freelancers, good editors are almost god-like. They represent new opportunities, exposure, and income. Plus, they’re cultural curators: they’re like the cool kids who know about everything before the rest of us do. Tell us, what’s the most human, down to earth thing about you?
Erin: I spend many whole days in sweatpants. I work from a home office so why not be comfortable? Also — I'm very messy. I try to keep the office in reasonable shape but my bedroom is a pigsty and I vacuum once a month. The nature of the work I do means that no one really sees what's behind the curtain, and I definitely take advantage of that. Does that make me human or gross? I'll let you decide!
Caroline: Oh man. Maybe that’s true for some editors, but I actually think the writers are the cool ones who know about everything first. The only reason editors have this collection of “cool” information and stories is because freelancers and writers are pitching them constantly. We just happen to be the ones curating and shaping them. I consider myself to be very luckily surrounded by cool, talented people who inform me about the world all the time.
Stella: I am also a writer! I also write pitches and submit to publications and receive rejections! Being an editor doesn't make the writing side of the process less hard, but it certainly has reminded me that outside a few legitimate jerks, most people in this business are in it because they also love words and stories and sharing knowledge with others--we're all working together to put good writing out into the world. Don't lose sight of that.
Mike: In my opinion, editors aren’t the cool kids for covering all of the right projects, people, and events before you’ve heard about them. They’re cool for being curious and wanting to share the excitement they felt when they stumbled across something that resonated personally. Since I can remember, I’ve always gotten nerd-level highs from telling my friends about a new film, record, or visual artist that’s made an impression or impact on me and why. And not because I then get a gold sticker for having good taste. I’m passionate about the things I like because they provide a collage of the kind of person I am (and want to be); it’s a way of connecting (and dreaming.) I don’t like when people post articles on their social channels and just write “This.”, as if we’re going to have some meaningful human connection because we both read (or didn’t read) the same article. Tell me why for you and I’ll tell you why for me.
Caroline Pham is the editor Freelance editor, producer, writer, and creative consultant living in Los Angeles. She is currently working as creative lead (writer) at TBWA / Media Arts Lab on all things @apple. Previously, she edited at Medium and was the managing editor at GOOD Magazine.
Stella Cabot Wilson is a Contributing Editor and the Writing Programs Assistant at Catapult. She grew up in Colorado and Wyoming and has lived in Birmingham, Alabama, and New York City. You can find her on Twitter @ssrosecw.
Erin Klassen is an editor, writer, and community-builder. She founded indie publishing house With/out Pretend in 2015 with the dream of building a home for women’s stories, and launched The Vault, a literary magazine in 2018 to continue that mission. She enjoys listening to Nina Simone, eating food, and talking about the future.
Mike O’Donnell is the managing editor of the Working Not Working Magazine. Thanks for being here.
Nada Alic is a Los Angeles-based editor, writer and content strategist with 9 years of professional experience. Currently, she's working on a collection of fiction. Previously, Nada was the Editorial Director for e-comm arts platform Society6. Before that, she was agency-side, managing editorial for Gap Inc. properties. She also built Etsy's first Canadian HQ, and has had work featured in VICE, Nasty Gal, Ephemera Mag, Time Out LA, Cool Hunting, and People of Print.