18 Things Your Editor Wants You to Know

As a writer, I know that hitting “send” can feel like throwing your work into a frightening void. Now, as a magazine editor, I’m the one behind the curtain. Over two years reviewing essay submissions, fielding pitches, assigning reported work, and editing accepted pieces, I’ve collected scraps of insider info that I wished I’d known before I became an editor. So — I give them to you.

Here are my top 18 tips for writers:

1. I want you to succeed. Every time I open a new piece or pitch, I’m rooting for it to be great. It’s not just that it makes my job easier. (Though it does, immensely.) It’s just a delight to read good work — and that’s what our readers want, too. I’m on your side.

2. When pitching, express enthusiasm. Pretend you work for the publication and want to see it succeed and do great work. (You’re on our side, too, right?) Say, “I’m fascinated by this question, and I haven’t seen it covered. It might be a fit for your readers because of x.” (You already know that you should be quite familiar with the publication, right? Of course you do.)

3. Sometimes I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for. That is, until I see it. If you can anticipate what our readers will respond to, or what our coverage is missing, you’re golden.

4. Use a conversational (but polite) tone in email. If you email like a cold fish, you’ll probably write everything else like a cold fish too. See #5.

5. Add voice and life to essays and articles. This is the number one thing I cannot edit for. If you make a typo, I can fix that. If you are clumsy in using quotes, I can fix that. If you have a tangential sentence or paragraph, I can fix that. If you are boring, I cannot fix that. If you’re bored writing it, why would anyone want to read it?

6. Find the through line. Your piece should have a point. You don’t need to hit the reader over the head with it — please don’t — but your essay or article should have a driving or unifying thread. After reading the piece, the reader should feel that they gained something — and as the writer, you should know what that something is when you’re writing.

7. Sometimes what I really want to say is, “Your writing needs work.” I don’t say that, because between strangers over the medium of email, it sounds unnecessarily cruel. But if you felt puzzled while reading #5 or #6, or you’re not getting the response from editors that you want, it might be useful to find a writing class or a writing group to provide instruction and feedback.

8. Don’t say “I followed your guidelines; why wasn’t my piece accepted?” I have actually been asked this. Look, it could be literally any reason. Although I’d like to, I just don’t have time to give individual feedback. (And do you really want to know if my answer is #7?)

9. Don’t take edits personally. Everyone needs to be edited, even editors. At least three people after me look at the pieces I edit, and they always have additional edits. And they’re usually good ones, things that I missed and that make the piece better. Editing is just part of the process.

10. Editors make mistakes. Don’t argue or assume the worst if you don’t get paid or something — just ask politely. Mistakes happen. We’re human.

11. Be enthusiastic and pleasant. You’ll get more work. Because we are human, editors like nice people.

12. Don’t be sloppy. We’ve all forgotten to attach the document to the email, and we all make typos. No worries. But if you’re sending a piece that is in two very obviously different fonts (has happened) or that just dumps block quotes into a document in succession (ditto), don’t send it.

13. Be careful with previously published work. Don’t submit previously published work unless the publication accepts it, and you have clearly disclosed that. (Blogs count as published work. Small updates do not make a piece new.)

14. I don’t want to micromanage you. If you’re not sure what angle I want, ask “Would you like A approach or B approach? I prefer A b/c x, but y weighs in favor of B.” Not “Here are the quotes from my experts, which ones do you like?” (Yes, I’ve been asked this.)

15. Don’t use my personal email or social media to reach me. I’m just so overwhelmed already with messages from multiple venues. (Aren’t we all?) Exception: It’s fine to ask on Twitter if you can email me at work, and I’m happy to give you my email address.

16. Keep pitching. Even if you’re an established writer that I assign work to, feel free to pitch. Pitches make my job easier. Make them specific. Make them easy to say yes to, and inspire confidence in me.

17. Observe simple care and courtesies. Such as: If you must be late (really try not to be late) then always check in with the editor. Don’t expect me to keep track of your invoicing — it’s just as easy for you to look at your emails and invoices as it is for me. If I ask for two experts, don’t ask me if one is OK. If I ask for edits, send them back to me as a redline so I can easily see what you changed. Make my life easier — and I’ll like working with you.

18. Be curious. Ask good questions. Dig a little deeper. Take a true interest in the subject matter. Find the surprises. Share them with us. It’s hard for an editor (or a reader) to resist a curious writer.

Sharon Holbrook is the managing editor of Your Teen for Parents magazine. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and many other publications. Find her on Twitter @sharon_holbrook.