It takes a lot to annoy me, it really does. But if you’re assigned a 500-word article and you send me upwards of 1,000 because you “didn’t know what to cut” and you leave off a headline and your byline, chances are I’m going to eventually get my red pen in a tizzy.
OK, so maybe I don’t use a red pen anymore, but you catch my drift.
One of my editorial colleagues, Todd Pruzan, with whom I worked in the past on content campaigns for Federated Media, AOL, and American Express, feels my pain.
“Don’t abuse the assignment word count,” Todd affirms. “If I assign you 1,000 words, don’t send 2,000. If I assign you 100 words, don’t send 200. There’s no extra credit on the offer; on the contrary, you’re provoking a partner who’s supposed to support your work.”
After all, when it comes to being a successful freelance writer, one who becomes an editor’s darling (you know you wanna!), there’s a lot to be said for following the rules – both written and unwritten. Some of the basics: Heed the editor’s directions, especially when it comes to word count, story angle, sourcing recommendations, etc. And watch your formatting! There’s nothing uglier to an editor than a document created on an iPad in 18-point font within two-inch margins that’s later opened up in Microsoft Word. (Oh, my eyes!)
But don’t just take it from me. Read on for more of what Todd has to say, along with some insight from a few of my other red pen-wielding colleagues.
Do Your Job
That means never telling an editor something many of us have heard a gazillion times too many: Oh, I couldn’t decide what to cut, so I’m just sending it all. “Part of the purpose of the word count is to help the writer figure out the narrative shape of the story,” reminds Todd, who now serves as editorial director at Ogilvy & Mather. “Even if she is dying to spend 5,000 words on a story, she may need to figure out how to tell it in just 500. That’s the writer’s job.”
Whenever Todd receives a draft that flagrantly exceeds the assigned word count, he sends it right back without reading it. Of course, he does so in the most diplomatic manner – “by assuring that the writer would be a lot happier with his own edits than he would with mine, which is always true.”
Write for the Reader
For Tom Musbach, managing editor for social media at Bank of the West, a writer’s lack of consideration for the reader’s experience can derail an editor’s effectiveness and a writer’s chance of a follow-up assignment. Among some of his pet peeves: Writing an introduction that takes too long to get to the point.
“One sentence is the best target when writing for the Web,” explains Tom, with whom I collaborated when he was at the editorial helm of Yahoo! HotJobs and I was managing content syndication for Experian Interactive’s ClassesUSA. (I’m fairly certain we never committed any long-lead sins back then, since Tom’s still taking my emails. Thanks, Tom!)
Similarly, communicating in long paragraphs (of which the former paragraph is bordering on – I’m aware) is an instant turnoff. “Nobody wants to see that on their screens,” Tom advises. Instead, he suggests, use subheads or bullets to break things up. “Help the reader easily move through or scan the piece.” It’ll not only preserve the productivity of your process, but your relationship with the editor as well.
And don’t just think you’re done once you reach that old school-journalist –30– marker (uh oh, I’m showing my age!). More and more media outlets like Bank of the West require writers to also prepare suggested Tweets to accompany their articles. Now we know most of us editorial folks can’t count, but you need to stay within Twitter’s 140-character limit on those, no matter what. (Yes, you can retweet that… it works!)
A Rose By Any Other Name… (Is Probably a Mistake)
According to Melissa Ezarik, managing editor of University Business, some writers need to be sent back to Fact-Checking 101. Getting names of people and organizations right is always important, but since University Business magazine’s audience is higher education leaders, Melissa explains, it’s even more key that they get college names and locations correct in stories. As editorial director of The CollegeBound Network for almost two decades, believe me when I tell you that Melissa’s spot on with that fact!
“It always surprises me the number of manuscripts that come in with the school names not fact-checked. Is it Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, or St. Mary’s College of California? Wheaton College in Massachusetts or in Illinois? It’s OK if a writer can’t pronounce Bryn Mawr during a phone call, but not OK to spell it Bryn Mar in the manuscript.”
Watch Your Slashes and Tags
Really, a lot of it boils down to knowing and understanding the industry for which you’re writing, as highlighted by Michelle Lowery, co-founder of Passion Fruit Creative Group and editor of ISOOSI Blog.
“We write for the Internet, right? You’re contributing to a WordPress blog, right? So why in the name of Strunk & White do you use Microsoft Word formatting in your posts?!”
Other culprits that drive Michelle, one of the smartest online editors I know, into a meta tag mania:
- Links that are hyperlinked instead of coded;
- Headings that are bolded instead of set off with header tags;
- Bullets and numbering instead of creating a list with <ul> or <ol> tags.
(Ya like those bullets there, Tom?!)
Bottom line, says Michelle (and I concur – she knows her stuff!): If you’re creating more work for the editor to actually publish your post after she proofs it, you may not see a follow-up gig.
“Writers: Learn some basic HTML,” Michelle encourages. “It’s not hard, and your editor will love you for it.”
Don’t Be That Writer
On the topic of love, something most of us editors love to do is poke fun at the overuse of cliches … when they’re not from our writers, of course.
“Some people seem to think using cliches qualifies as original writing when they gather a bunch of them together and slap a title on it,” vents Elizabeth Weiss McGolerick, who has served as an editor for my content and social media consulting firm for almost a decade. Her favorite ones to hate: When all is said and done and That being said. “They really bust my britches,” she jokes.
That being said (oops!), it’s also important to double- and triple-check your work before clicking submit so that you can check for irksome adages, as well as for what my dad used to call “dopey mistakes.”
As Elizabeth explains, “I don’t think anything is more annoying than the misuse of your and you’re, their and there, it’s and its.”
For Jane Locastro, an editor at Frontline Medical Communications, it’s “Poor Old Auntie Cedent” — when writers use plural pronouns for singular nouns — that drives her ever so slightly crazy.
–“The FDA released their statement yesterday …”
–“If a patient exhibits symptoms, check their history and do a full exam …”
–“The company is having their annual sale …”
Not to mention that “good writing is not defined by how many words you can come up with to avoid the use of ‘said,’” Jane says (I was inclined to use “adds,” but I’d like to stay on her good side!).
–“This the first study of its kind to examine the effect of bad writing on editors’ brains,” she declared.
–Opined Dr. Jones, “If writers made no mistakes, we would not need editors.”
–“I’d be interested in hearing another opinion,” she commented.
David Griner, social editor for Adweek and, fittingly, one of my social media friends (I haven’t worked with him yet, but I’d love to!), cites complement/compliment, none is/none are, and misplaced modifiers at the top of his annoyance list.
“Waiting at the curb, the bus hit her,” is one of his favorites, he tweeted me recently. David reviews pretty much every article Adweek publishes as part of his process of pushing each one to social media, so he’s seen a lot (two words, not one!).
“I also co-edit our blog, AdFreak, and serve as a backup news editor, so all in all, I review about 30-50 articles a week and front-line-edit maybe 10 or so,” he adds. “Our writers, editors, and freelance contributors are top notch, though, so it’s definitely rare I catch anything serious.”
As it should be, David — as it should be!
Are you an editor? What makes you start swinging your red pen around? Writers: What deadly editorial sins are you guilty of? Comment below…