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

by | Jan 14, 2015

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?