What Editors Look for in Freelance Writers: 8 Ways to Impress

What Editors Look for in Freelance Writers: 8 Ways to Impress

Being an editor is a highly personal job with a bizarrely impersonal structure.

All day long, I slice and dice articles that writers have poured their hearts and souls into. Often, I go hours without speaking to anyone. I work with more than 30 writers whom I’ve never met, yet I feel as if I know them.

On paper, the writers I work with have nothing in common. One’s a stay-at-home mom, another’s a whistleblower, and a third is a full-time backpacker who uses freelancing income to travel the world. But the quality of their writing binds them all together.

After reading hundreds of articles from prospective writers, I’ve realized that there are a few things I look for every time:

1. A distinct voice

A unique voice is the number one thing that makes me scoot to the edge of my chair when I’m reading an article. I feel like I know my writers because their voices tell me about their personalities, what they find funny, how empathetic they are, and how much they love what they do.

I wish I knew how to teach voice, but it’s not something you can force. You can read the greats and try to absorb their style, but the best you can hope for is a convincing imitation. A writer can only develop her own voice through experience.

2.  Personality that leaps off the page

My all-time favorite writers are those who make me want to read snippets of their articles out loud in the office to anyone who will listen. A writer with an infectious personality produces articles that demand to be read because they’re so entertaining. And if you’ve got my attention, you’re probably going to get the job.

While it’s not appropriate for every article, I’m a sucker for witty pop culture references or masterful sarcasm. I once had a writer who sent me an article called “5 Ways to Run Your Startup Into the Ground.” It was fantastic because it presented actual advice by showing what not to do.

3.  Clear, unpretentious prose

This may earn a few gasps of outrage from the literary community, but nothing turns me off more quickly than flowery language. Some of the most overused $5 words I see include “plethora,” “germane,” and “onus.” (We keep a running list of most-hated words on the office whiteboard.)

When writing for the web, it’s better to be understood than admired for an extensive vocabulary.

4.  An “ear” for syntax

Good writing doesn’t leave you looking for the seams; it makes you forget you’re reading altogether. A piece of writing should “sound” good in your head and feel like a one-on-one conversation with the writer.

5.  Cliché-free expression

George Orwell once wrote a list of rules for effective writing, and my favorite is, “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

Any writer who tells me to “think outside the box,” “jump on the bandwagon” or “get more bang for my buck” is going to get my darkest Grumpy Cat scowl.

6.  Knowledge of AP style

I won’t ever write someone off if he doesn’t stick to AP style, but at least a basic knowledge of style is a major plus. Most of our editors were trained as journalists, and most of the publications we work with favor AP over Chicago style. Regardless of which style you use, consistency and readability are key.

7.  Deep expertise in a specific industry

Again, this is more of a “nice to have” trait than a requirement, but writers with a lot of knowledge about healthcare, tech, entrepreneurship or digital marketing are extremely valuable additions to our freelance roster.

Right now, there’s a big demand for writers who know the ins and outs of the Affordable Care Act, encryption, cloud technology, the Internet of Things, lean and agile methods, content marketing, social media and affiliate marketing. I pay special attention to writers who send links to articles they’ve written on specific topics relevant to their expertise.

8.  The ability to follow directions

Because we work with 700+ publications, the ability to follow directions is crucial. I’ve found that writers who can’t rein themselves in on word count or stay on topic are always difficult to work with.

Of course, writing is incredibly subjective, and as a freelancer, trying to appeal to every client or editor’s sensibilities can be frustrating. It doesn’t help that what supposedly “works” for online content is constantly in flux. Some editors only publish listicles, while others won’t publish any. Some publications insist their readers won’t read anything over 500 words, while others are starved for long-form content.

Call me optimistic, but I truly believe that readers know what’s good — even if they can’t articulate it — and that the thirst for fantastic writing isn’t going anywhere. Now more than ever, there’s a demand for writers who can inform, entertain and create a one-on-one connection with readers. I’m out there looking for them, and I know other editors are, too.

How do you highlight these traits when you pitch an editor?

Filed Under: Freelancing
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  • “Some of the most overused $5 words I see include “plethora,” “germane,” and “onus.””

    Wow, not only am I shocked that anyone uses any of those words, but the fact that enough people use them for you to consider them overused. Consider me flabbergast.

  • Ms. Z says:

    Thank you for this article! I’m more of an informative writer as I’ve written hundreds of SEO articles as a subcontractor; some that relate to my travel passion, but wondered how I would be perceived if I opened myself up too much. Appealing to the type of publication and editors is great advice as I learn to allow my personality to shine through. I guess I’m afraid of being too forward, offensive or casually silly depending on the subject. Most recently I’ve been writing academic essays and research, and would love to zero in on my specialties, real estate, music and holistic health.

  • Evangeline says:

    Hi Tarah,
    I hope you don’t mind me asking you a question as I’ve been wondering something and would love to get an editor’s opinion.
    Last year I had an article accepted by a magazine; the editor told me it would run in a few months and that she’d get back to me. A few months later, I checked in and she assured me that she still wanted to run it, but it would be a little later in the year than planned.
    More months passed…still nothing. I wrote her again, just to check in, but received no reply that time.
    Now it’s the new year and it has been a couple more months, so do you think I should I write again, or just let it sit? I don’t want to annoy her, especially as she has been kind and professional throughout, but I’d like to know the status of the article. (It’s a print magazine that doesn’t run where I live, so I can’t check to see if it’s been used or not.)
    What would you do?
    Thanks for your thoughts,
    Evangeline (Freelance Writer in Nepal)

  • robert myers says:

    O.k. I’m standing outside my cave entrance wondering about the stars and planet I call home. Questions abound as I ponder how to get started writing for and with a thing called freelance. As a retired aircraft mechanic, I started writing short articles for my community monthly newsletter. I’ve had many good comments about my articles and a snarly critic that attests to my cave type lifestyle. She’s a retired English teacher, but she’s probably very sweet. Old women are like that…sometimes. In all truth I’d like to expand my writing, but my subjects are varied and I try to keep them upbeat as much as possible. I also write about my life experiences, sometimes with a Christian twist. I do ponder the stars, remember?
    My biggest question is, what direction do I head and how do I sort through the many subjects in order to be of any worth?
    Thank You

  • Stacey says:

    So in short… have wonderful writing skills and be willing to follow directions (down to the word count).

    I think those are reasonable things. Thank you for sharing.

  • Leigha Landry Wanczowski says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Tarah. I’ve had a multitude of writing-related positions, including an editor, but am freelancing now. One thing I always try to follow, which aligns with what you wrote, is that clear copy is a given – or better be! – and clever copy is a bonus. Like someone else mentioned, my clients are always most pleased when I can mimic their tone. And that’s how I approach them. When done well, the pitch shows them my writing abilities and functions as a sample.

  • Hi Tarah, great list! I’m both an editor and a writer, and I think clear copy is important. I’m also glad you mentioned cliches. I used to teach, and I gave my students that same Orwell quote. “Knock it out of the park” is another cliche that makes me cringe. So I would look for clear, original writing – and clean copy. I think it’s important for writers to pay attention to their errors and do an edit before turning copy in.

    • Tarah Benner says:

      Thanks, Jennifer! Yes, our editors actually keep a running list of horrid clichés to remind ourselves not to use them. It can be tough though because they’re so common in speech.

  • Becca Borawski Jenkins says:

    This is one of the few pieces on how to present yourself to an editor that I’ve seen that actually rings 100% true. As an editor, I agree completely on this one (except we use CMOS instead of AP).

  • David Russell says:

    Tarah, Thanks for painting a verbal picture of editorial life on “the other side” of the leger. For 15 years I transcribed verbetum, and for 4 months have been intently developing my writing voice. Your topics list in demand means more avid reading for myself. Are topics like home improvement, bios, inspirational pieces chronically in demand?

    • Tarah Benner says:

      We have seen some need for topics like home improvement. For those types of articles, I’ve found publications are often looking for a bubbly, “bloggy” style of writing. Inspirational pieces are always in demand because these span a variety of industries. We often need writers who can write inspirational pieces about succeeding as an entrepreneur, balancing professional/family life, etc.

  • Musu says:

    It is definitely important to have your own voice as a writer. It’s a lesson I learned in the earlier part of my freelance journey. Being able to stand out is crucial; especially if you’re looking to connect with people.

    Thanks for sharing this great information!

  • Great post!

    I really like the point about “personality that leaps off the page”. This is really so true. People, and I would presume editors, are attracted to different and likeable personality.

    If we as writers can appear more different through our written voice that is what is so appealing to readers.

    Great advice Tarah, loved it!

  • This is helpful, Tarah. Thank you.

    Personally, when I pitch a company or an editor, I try to add a personal touch. I mention something they’ve worked on or one of their services. I try to show enthusiasm for their field (supported by samples in the same field).

    One thing that’s worked for me sometimes is using the same tone as the ad or the company/publication website. If it’s light and fluffy, I’m going to be all unicorn and rainbows. If it’s serious, then a serious email it is.

    Speaking their language is definitely a good way to connect with them.

    Thanks for sharing your tips! 🙂


    • Tarah Benner says:


      You’re so right! Writing with the tone that fits the company/publication is a great way to show editors that you’re the type of writer they’re looking for. And if you can show passion for what they do, that’s definitely a plus!

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