Tips from an editor: Do’s and don’ts for a freelance writer

Many people imagine the life of a freelance writer to be a somewhat glamorous one. Oh those writers, they drag themselves out of bed late, answer emails in their pyjamas and then spend their days sitting in cosy coffee shops writing on all kinds of fabulously interesting topics.

While all that may well be true in some cases, in order to be able to sustain yourself financially as a freelance writer there’s one very important and non-negotiable factor in the equation: you need to have the work to do in the first place. You need to impress the editor!

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So just how do you go about becoming an editor’s teacher’s pet? Read on for the do’s and don’ts of impressing an editor – straight from the horse’s mouth.

The freelance life

When you’re a freelancer, particularly when you’re first starting out, it’s not like a ‘regular’ full-time job where work just magically appears on your desk or your inbox and you get in and do it – and get paid, regardless. Freelancing means going out and hustling for work (albeit more than likely on the phone or by email), which can be almost as time consuming as the writing itself. But if you’re resourceful, reliable and turn in good, ‘clean’ copy, you’ll earn yourself a good reputation and increase the possibility of getting regular or repeat work – which is the equivalent of hitting the jackpot in the freelancing world.

What is an editor looking for?

As a busy editor managing a large pool of writers, I’ve learned to be able to develop a keen sense of someone’s potential very early in the relationship. I simply don’t have time to handhold a writer every step of the way, and I expect a certain level of proficiency from the get-go. That might not sound very charitable, but I can guarantee most editors feel exactly the same.

However, the good news is that it really isn’t hard to ingratiate yourself with an editor if you prescribe to a few simple do’s and don’ts.

DO: Know who you’re working with

Every editor’s pet hate is when a writer gets their name wrong, because it certainly doesn’t bode well for the quality of their future work. The nature of freelancing means you may be working with multiple editors, but we all like to think we’re you’re top priority and there are no excuses for this one. Check and check again.

DON’T: Make promises you can’t keep

Probably the second biggest peeve is when a writer promises the world and then isn’t able to deliver on time or to spec. If you can’t meet a deadline, or you don’t have the expertise for a particular job, be honest from the start and politely and respectfully decline the work. If you’ve already accepted a job and find yourself unable to turn it in on time or with the level of detail required, contact your editor as soon as possible so you can either get an extension or they still have time to assign it to another writer. Remember, an editor is usually a ‘middle man’ and they may be juggling client expectations as well as a team of writers.

DO: Read the brief

Before you even put fingers to the keyboard, take the time to read the brief thoroughly. If you haven’t been provided with a brief, ask for one – even if it’s just an email with dot points clarifying the basic requirements of the job. Every article or piece of content serves a different purpose, so it’s imperative you deliver to the letter in terms of word count, formatting, tone, house style guidelines and any other aspects of a brief.

DO: Get the tone right

Getting the tone right is a tricky part of writing, but it can also be a lot of fun. As a freelancer, you’ll more than likely write everything from white papers, blog posts and biographies, to travel guides, social media posts, op eds and news pieces. Every one of these requires a different ‘tone’ and you need to develop the skills to switch between one and the other. For instance, a blog post that I commission about the sun-kissed holiday island of Menorca for Bartle Holidays needs a very different tone to a landing page for Lowerhire, a client in the insurance sector. While the former calls for a casual, engaging tone to talk about the wonderful villas and attractions of Menorca, the latter needs to be more formal and corporate in order to convey a large amount of information in an easy-to-digest way.

DON’T: Miss the point

This is intrinsically tied in to following the brief and getting the tone right, but it deserves its own mention. Most writing work is commissioned to create a vehicle for some kind of salesmanship, so it’s important not to get side tracked by the detail and forget about the purpose and the audience to which it’s aimed. So for a blog post or landing page for an educational travel company like The School Travel Company, for instance, it wouldn’t be appropriate to promote adult-focused activities or attractions in a destination. By the same token, writing copy about petting zoos and water parks wouldn’t be appropriate for GN Holidays, a company whose tagline is ‘fun and friendly holidays for over 40’s’.

DO: Be interesting

It’s very easy for an editor to spot the writer who’s doing the thing they love. Their work is informative, concise, on brief and not churned out as a rote piece just to generate a yawn and an invoice. A writer who loves what they do is able to find a unique angle and deliver genuinely interesting and engaging copy. And, by the way, it’s a funny thing, but it works both ways; because if you make a concerted effort to write interesting words, it’s a lot more satisfying for you as well.

DON’T: Skimp on research

Some writing requires in-depth, accurate research with citations, but if you have a particular expertise, other jobs might require very little research. I work with a writer who is an ex-professional skier, so I regularly commission him to write for Chaletline, a company that sells holidays in ski chalets, for expert pieces that I know I can rely on. On the whole though, you’ll probably always need to conduct a certain amount of research, and it’s extremely important that you don’t try to fudge it. Never rely on just one source (and never, ever rely on Wikipedia) and fact-check everything. Not only is it unlikely you’ll get away with poor research, when you’re found out your reputation will be damaged and you probably won’t be given anymore work.

DO: Self edit

Understand that while an editor’s job is to edit, it’s not their job to fix shoddy writing. Not to put too fine a point on it, if you deliver work of a low standard, with bad grammar, typos and spelling mistakes, you won’t be working with that editor for very long. Once you’ve finished a piece of work, put it aside for a day (or at least a few hours) and come back to it with fresh eyes. A final read-through shouldn’t be an after thought; it should be part of your process. Everyone makes mistakes, but that’s exactly what self-editing is for.

DO: Accept revisions gracefully

Even if you think you’ve followed the brief to the letter, studied the client and turned in a good piece of writing, there are going to be times when you make errors or simply miss the mark. Always accept revisions gracefully and return them in a timely manner: aka as soon as is humanly possible. Remember, the deadline has now passed and your editor is probably under his or her own pressure to deliver to the client. If you feel like a revision or rewrite is unfair (for example if the brief has changed through not fault of your own), always be up front with your concerns, but be prepared for a little give and take. It happens, and you need to weigh up whether it’s worth losing future work over. Don’t be a pushover, but don’t be unreasonable.

DO: Make the editor’s job easy

Finally, while it seems like an easy piece of advice, it’s amazing how many writers don’t consider that what an editor really wants is an easy life. We are generally busy, really busy, and we’ll always value the writer who turns in clean, timely copy and makes it genuinely easy to work with them. It’s simply not worth the time and effort to commission work to high maintenance writers and this is most definitely an industry in which someone who is prepared to go the extra mile is rewarded.

Laura Bolick is head of content marketing at LeadGeneratorsDigital, a boutique online marketing agency specialising in the travel industry.