The Care and Handling of Writers
An editor’s primary task is to bring great stories and writers into the magazine’s columns. Good writing certainly makes your job easier, and talented writers will make your publication stronger, giving it more credibility and respect.
Of course, even good writers can have a bad day at the keyboard. When a story is short of the mark, the editor’s job then is either to reject it or to improve, even transform, the manuscript with an editing touch.
To work effectively with writers, you have to know your three editorial Rs: Recruiting, rewarding, and rewriting.
How do you find good writers? Freelancers can be recruited nationally with a call-to-arms in the monthly Writer’s Digest and the annual Writer’s Market directory. Look at stories in other magazines you respect. Go online and check out newspapers, looking especially for business or feature writers who have magazine potential.
Recruit at tradeshows. Check out faculty at schools and colleges in regions where you want a reporter.
Solicit online or through the mail with a letter and a contributor’s kit. In your letter, open with a little flattery. Show that you are familiar with their work. Send a copy of your magazine or samplings of stories you think are role models. Include contributor guidelines, which explain who you are as a magazine and who your readers are. Explain what you want;and how stories are to be reported, written and delivered.
Woo opinion leaders with references to features they may want to respond to, by invitations to write or by gratis subscriptions. Once a few leaders begin to appear in your book, others will follow. An assignment letter should spell out expectations you have regarding the story, deadline, word length, terms of payment and rights purchased. Both parties should sign the document. Be firm about deadlines, and be careful of extensions. Avoid Friday deadlines as they inevitably become the Monday after.
There are many ways to reward a writer. First, if you love a story, tell the writer. Put a byline on the cover. Confer on editorial changes. Send galleys to review in advance. Mail an early copy of the issue with a thank-you note when off press. Include an author blurb with the story. Do a thumbnail profile with photo for the Contributors Page. If the writer has published a book, promote it in the blurb with an e-mail address so that readers know how to reach the writer and order the book.
Have an editorial budget for contributors, however modest. Professional contributors should receive honorariums. Freelance journalists will require a word rate that can range from a dime to a dollar or more.
I recommend paying on acceptance (not publication), and buying first-serial or one-time rights for the magazine, plus additional payment for Web usage. When paying by word, the rate is based upon published words, not draft word count. The pay by published word policy should be in the assignment letter and in the contributor guidelines.
Some tightening usually is required, but if the writer is good, nothing drastic should occur. The key is for the editor to have a sense of how long the story should be and give the writer that as the assigned length. I always suggest that writers go long, never come in short or on the nose, because good editing is a tightening process.
If the story comes in short of the goal, the editor should get back to the writer and give her/him a chance to do additional reporting and rewrite to meet the original assignment’s needs. But in the rush to press, this is not always an option. I feel that an editor should be able to take a story in from the ten-yard line; but when major rewriting is necessary just to save the piece, why should the publication pay for words not used and for editing time required to take it in from midfield?
John Brady is visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He conducts editorial workshops for professionals and is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy. For information on his Editor’s Tool Kit, email him at Bradybrady@aol.com.