Selling to, and working with, editors

Understanding the Editor

Let us now praise editors by Gary Kamiya

In this piece, Kamiya explores the role of the editor as gatekeeper and ego-tender, pointing out that “to people not in the business, editing is a mysterious thing.” Editors, the author suggests, wear multiple hats, including those of “craftsmen, ghosts, psychiatrists, bullies, sparring partners, experts, enablers, ignoramuses, translators, writers, goalies, friends, foremen, wimps, ditch diggers, mind readers, coaches, bomb throwers, muses and spittoons—sometimes all while working on the same piece.” Kamiya makes some hugely important points, all of which you should keep in mind when you’re approaching editors with your ideas. Editors are largely overworked, in situations where they are often handed additional tasks and chores for the same salary they were earning last year. Sometimes they’re grouchy, but given the pressures they face this is fairly understandable, and it’s best not to irritate them (unless you really don’t want to be invited back).                

– Matthew Hays: “Perfect Pitch” (in The Bigger Picture)

The Big Fix by Ivor Shapiro

Q: How do I maintain a good working relationship with my editor?

A: The short answer is simple: hand in clean copy on time, and behave professionally. For more detail, follow these tips:
•    Do get to know your editor between assignments. If you live in town, ask to meet in person. Suggest a coffee, talk about journalism, reporting, and writing in general, rather than just about your piece. Get a sense of him or her as a person.
•    Do make sure you fully understand your assignment. Talk through the story idea, focus, and approach thoroughly. Raise any questions that come to mind. If you get an assignment letter, read it several times over, highlight the main points, and post it on your bulletin board. If you are not sure you can deliver what the letter asks, call your editor and troubleshoot the assignment together. The time you spend clarifying the assignment is time saved on revisions and additional reporting later on.
•    Don’t agree to do a story you don’t believe is true. Be clear and open with your editor. You may convince him or her to let you do the better story!
•    Do listen carefully and note everything your editor says. If you don’t understand something, say so! If you don’t agree with something, politely raise it and discuss it. In all conversations with editors, do as much listening as talking.
•    Do read your contract carefully. Understand what rights you are giving up, for how long and for how much.
•    Do ask about resale rights and electronic rights.
•    Do get in touch with your editor if any of the following situations arise:
–    you think you can’t make your deadline
–    you find out things in reporting that affect or change the assignment’s core premise
–    you find out things that could improve the story but change the focus
–    you change your mind or get confused in any way
•    Do make sure your editor is not surprised by developments that affect the nature or do-ability of the assignment. Troubleshoot problems right away.
•    Don’t call your editor to read him or her your lead or to ask for some quick writing advice. Editors are busy. Write the best draft you can, highlighting any missing facts or areas of uncertainty or potential problems (keeping these to a bare minimum).
•    Don’t waste your editor’s time with questions you can solve on your own (for example, facts you can research online or at the library, emails or phone numbers you should be able to find).
•    Do submit your draft on time. If that becomes impossible, do raise the alarm well in advance and set a new deadline with your editor.
•    Don’t take criticism personally. Remember, your editor is the only reader who will talk back to you, and readers—not you—are the best judges of your work. You are almost always too close to the story to assess it clearly without assistance. If your editor tells you that your story has lost focus, or is too short or too long, or muddled or unconvincing or poorly organized, or could be improved in other ways, she is right about 80 percent of the time. The other 20 percent of the time, you pretty much have to act as if she’s right, unless you’re asked to do something that is inaccurate, misleading, or dishonest.
•    Do trust your editor (until he or she gives you a good reason not to).
•    Do communicate clearly, completely, and undefensively. It’s not just this story that’s at stake—it’s whether the editor will want to work with you next time, or you with the editor.

– Ivor Shapiro: “Glad You Asked: The Big Fix”  (in The Bigger Picture).


Pitching a no-hitter is only exciting in baseball. In this industry, you want your ball to fly right into the centre of the editor’s hitting zone. And the best way to do that is to grab their attention from the get-go. Here’s some advice from those that have been there, done that. 

Selling the Salesman

If anyone knows a good pitch, it’s the folks at Marketing magazine. Here’s what freelancer Ryan Bigge did to sell his story about selling an uncool beer.

TO: Marketing Magazine

I noticed that Labatt 50 redesigned its bottle recently, and is now advertising its product. This interests me because back in 1999, I was at a conference put on by D-code, and I got a chance to speak with someone at Labatt’s. I told her how Labatt 50 had a kind of cachet because it had no cachet — cool because there was nothing cool about it. For example, I would sometimes bring 50 to a house party, knowing that no one else would, thereby ensuring that my beer would not get stolen.

Amazingly, Labatt’s knew this — and she said that they were afraid of advertising 50 or leveraging this weird, anti-cool cachet because  it might ruin the aura or whatever you might want to call it.

The other interesting thing about Labatt 50 is how it is viewed much differently in Ontario, than say Quebec (where it’s still very popular with a certain demographic of older men). As well, it was discontinued in BC for a long time (sometime in the 80s) and then reintroduced in the late 90s.

So I guess the fact that 50 is redesigned and is being advertised is  kind of a story, but perhaps a history of Labatt 50 might be a more  interesting article. By looking at the history of the beer, and how its meaning and popularity has changed over time, we might learn something interesting both about marketing and about ourselves (as Canadians).

Please let me know what you think.


Ryan Bigge                  

– From Matthew Hays’s chapter on pitching in The Big Picture.

The letter resulted in Bigge’s story, One Beer, Two Solitudes (Marketing Online, May 5, 2003).

The Pitching Coach

The Youth Awareness Network runs a site for young users and creators of media, including pointers for pitching a story to a print media outlet, and a model query letter.