“… So you mean I have to call him?”
Few people in the office understood my reticence to pick up the phone and ask someone some questions. It would only take a couple of minutes, after all, and it was critical to the story.
But I hadn’t gravitated toward the written word because of my loquaciousness and charm. On the contrary: The solitary nature of writing was a huge part of why it always seemed to suit this introverted nerd.
Having just taken my first big-girl position as a staff writer for The Penny Hoarder, however, I quickly learned I’d need to find my voice — like, my spoken one — if I wanted to make it in the industry. Interviewing sources was non-negotiable if I wanted to keep writing for a paycheck.
I wasn’t about to give up that hard-won title; I’d never really believed I’d ever get it in the first place. So I looked up a few articles about how to conduct effective phone interviews, took a deep breath, and started dialing.
How writing is different on the professional level
Interviewing was only one of a set of journalistic skills I had to learn on the fly.
I’d double-majored in English and philosophy as an undergrad and spent a year studying poetry at the Master’s level, so I was no stranger to putting words on paper. But many aspects of this new type of writing eluded me.
For one thing, I was really long-winded. And AP style was a calculus I couldn’t fathom. (I still can’t understand how they possibly decided the correct spelling is “drive-thru.”)
But over time, I was able to learn to think like a journalist — or at least get better at it.
I figured out how to maintain objectivity and avoid inserting myself into my prose. I picked up on the inverted pyramid and learned how to properly identify sources by their titles.
Soon, I found myself conducting interviews nerves-free — or, OK, nearly. I could turn around an urgent, timely post in 15 minutes flat, like a real newsroom pro.
It took time, patience, and a lot of fantastic mentorship and coaching; I’m truly indebted to the incredible writers I worked with.
But, man — wouldn’t it have been nice to know about some of the most common errors ahead of time?
What editors wish untrained writers knew
You don’t have to go to journalism school to be a journalist. In fact, some of the most celebrated journalists didn’t.
But there are things you need to keep in mind if you’re an untrained writer looking to make it as a professional — whether you’re reporting for a newspaper or just doing some occasional freelance blogging.
So we asked some editors to dish on the most common errors they see coming from unschooled writers.
Here’s what they said.
1. Editors are busy; pitch concisely
Pitching is one of the most important skills a freelance writer can learn. I mean, let’s face it; if you don’t pitch well, you’re not going to have any work in the first place.
Once you do the footwork of coming up with a great idea, deciding on a venue (or three) and finding the right editor to pitch it to, then comes the real project: Selling your story in as little space as possible. Editors get a lot of email, after all, not to mention their other duties.
Concision and clarity is key to pitching successfully.
Freelance editor Heather van der Hoop’s been at it for six years now, and she says one of her biggest pet peeves is receiving “long, rambly, stream of consciousness thoughts” in place of proper pitches — ideas as vague and unanchored as “I want to write about how to make money as a freelancer.”
That’s not gonna cut it.
A great pitch should give a clear thesis and explain why the story’s a good fit for a specific publication. You also need to establish yourself as a trustworthy and credentialed writer — all, ideally, in just a few paragraphs.
It’s no easy feat. But as in all things, practice makes perfect…and insight from seasoned writers never hurts, either.
2. And know ahead of time that pitches get rejected. A lot
Rejection is a huge part of making a living as a writer, and railing against it isn’t going to help your case.
“[Some] freelancers assume their pitch is the right one at the right time,” explains Christopher Gaffney, editor in chief at the Journal of Latin American Geography. But sometimes, your pitch will be rejected simply because the editorial board isn’t in a position to take it on at the moment.
Gaffney says he’s been on the receiving end of angry, pleading emails from jilted writers, and has even been accused of holding prejudiced editorial perspectives. But as a freelancer, you aren’t privy to the internal debates taking place at the publication. And unless your editor gives you a specific reason, you just don’t know exactly why your idea ended up in the pass pile.
So if an editor passes on your story, just shrug it off and move on to the next publication — or rethink your angle if you’ve heard “no” more than a couple of times.
3. Learn how to find appropriate sources
Learning how to host an effective interview is one (important!) thing. But before you even get there, you have to find the right interviewees in the first place.
It’s another of van der Hoop’s peeves to receive stories wherein the writer didn’t properly vet her sources, or perhaps couldn’t find fitting ones at all. Is this person an actual expert in the field? What are his credentials?
Furthermore, reporters are obligated to present as unbiased a story as possible, which means avoiding a reliance on sources with vested interests in a particular angle. “Get [multiple] sources with different points of view,” van der Hoop advises.
As far as the hunt itself goes, again — practice makes perfect. But keep an open mind and think outside the box. In the social media age, you might be surprised who you can find in your existing connections. (And don’t forget about HARO, either!)
4. Deadlines are important
As in, really important. As in, if you want to work with a publisher again, you’d better meet them.
“In my experience, non-journalist freelancers are terrible at sticking to deadlines,” says Olive & Company Inbound Marketing Director Jeff Roberts. “I don’t think they understand the ramifications of not meeting a deadline — especially in print publications.”
Think about it: Your final, published article will need to be vetted by an editor or two, at the very least. Depending on the piece, it may also need to spend time in an art, marketing, public relations, SEO, or fact-checking department…all in time for strict press deadlines.
Time is of the essence, and that due date in your ledger has meaning for a whole lot of people besides you.
Do everything in your power to stick to it.
5. Verify everything, especially names
J.R. Duren, a personal finance reporter at HighYa, was a marketing writer at a private university before making the transition to journalism. And when he got to his new position, he discovered it came with a brand-new source of stress.
“Every time I wrote a long front or A1 story, I was insanely anxious because I didn’t want to get a call the next day from someone saying I misspelled their name,” Duren says.
Obviously, it’s not just names that require diligent attention to detail when you’re writing journalistically. Unlike in a creative work, real people — and their reputations — are on the line.
“Every fact needs to be verified. If it’s not truth, it’s fiction,” Duren goes on.
There’s certainly a little less pressure in the digital publishing space, where a few clicks can fix a discrepancy.
But as a writer who’s misspelled a name before — that of an author I admire greatly and to whom I unintentionally tweeted my error — I can tell you: after-the-fact edits don’t make it any less humiliating.
6. Remove yourself from the prose — and yes, that sometimes includes your style
As a creative writer, this one was a little hard for me to swallow. But as it turns out, everything isn’t always about me.
When you’re writing professionally, your personal touch is eclipsed by the needs of the publication’s editorial board and readership.
Almost always, that means your opinion or perspective isn’t called for — unless you’re writing a personal essay.
And even if you’ve got objectivity down pat, remember: For many publications, it’s less about beautiful prose and more about pragmatism.
“Readers typically come to our articles after typing a specific search query into Google,” says Priyanka Prakash, managing editor at Fit Small Business. “They want the answer to their question or issue right away.”
“Journalists are trained to prioritize clarity and brevity; creative writers are trained to paint a picture with their words,” adds Roberts. “These are divergent goals and can lead to several additional rounds of edits and hours of re-training.”
In other words, yes, your writing may be beautiful… but it can also cost a lot of members of the editorial board extra time. (Which might make them hesitant to re-hire you.)
7. Be prepared for substantial edits
While we’re on the topic…
You’ve probably heard the old writing advice, “kill your darlings.” But when you take your writing to the professional level, you need to be ready to watch others do the honors.
No matter how long you’ve been writing or how tough you think you are, it can be difficult to see your hard work cut to pieces. But do your best not to take it to heart, because it’s all part of the biz.
Many publications have very strict length or word-count limits, or specific tone and style guidelines. Drafts might pass under one, two, or 10 editors’ review, so it’s no surprise you’ll get back something different from what you started with.
“The craft of writing is never done by just one person,” say Gaffney. “Editors are a major part of the writing process.”
Just because your elegant turn of phrase sounds perfect to you doesn’t mean it’ll work for the publication’s audience — which a good editor (hopefully) has more insight about than you do.
8. Your lack of a degree really doesn’t matter…if you’re good
At the end of the day, if you want to be a professional writer, you have to be good at it — and that doesn’t necessarily require a degree.
What it does take is lots of practice and dedication.
Tim O’Hagan’s been in the business for a quarter of a century, having authored almost a dozen books and presently serving as senior editor for Reader’s Digest. He’s worked with a lot of freelancers, and contends that the keys to great writing are effort and exposure rather than mere education.
“I firmly believe that any journalist, with or without a degree, who starts from the ground floor… and gains exposure to working in the media in all its forms will outperform… peers who have a theoretical backing of a degree, but relatively little exposure,” he says. A degree can be helpful, certainly — but the real skill is built in experiencing “the daily realities of getting the story, writing it with discipline and pathos, putting a strong headline on it, and making it so good everyone will read it.”
In other words, and yet again, it’s going to take practice and perseverance.
But that’s what writing is in the first place, right? Putting one word in front of the other, again and again, knowing you may even have to scrap it all and start over — but knowing, too, that when the it finally turns out right, all your effort will be worth it.