As editors, you often tell me that one of the most frustrating experiences you have with outside writers is their tendency to phone it in for a project.
You can offer up interesting projects, pay good rates, have a reasonable editing process, and *still* get stuck with a sub-par piece. What else can you do to make sure that writers are giving projects their best effort?
It’s a great question, and I’m pretty sure I know the answer — or at least an answer. A year or so ago, I was contacted by Doreen Manning, who edits the gorgeous and inventive WPI Journal. I don’t take on a ton of new clients these days, but one sentence in an early email to me was especially intriguing:
It’s brilliant. Let’s unpack this sentence, because while I assume it was 100 percent true, it’s also an incredibly persuasive pitch — and I’ve now written several stories for her:
What she said: “I have three solid writers”
What’s going on behind the words: If an editor has found at least a couple writers she likes to work with, that’s always good to hear. Occasionally, I’ll hear from editors who say something along the lines of “I’ve never found a good freelancer, and I’ve hired tons of them!” For most freelancers, that’s a red flag. If an editor can’t find a good writer among dozens, the problem might be the editor, not the writers.
What she said: “each issue”
What’s going on behind the words: This phrase indicates that she’s happy to give ongoing work. This is the holy grail for most freelancers: a client that they can count on for years. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you can, avoid hiring writers for that “one piece” that needs someone with expertise in a specific subject. Hire someone you trust for lots of different projects, and who can get to know your institution almost as well as you do. What writers may lack in specific knowledge about a subject they will more than make up for with deep knowledge about your audience and your institution’s priorities. They won’t just be writers. They’ll be ambassadors for your school.
What she said: “pretty desperate for a fourth one”
What’s going on behind the words: Doreen had mentioned that she had four features in every issue. She is ready to be done searching for that final elusive writer. She wants this collaboration to succeed.
What she said: “if you work out”
What’s going on behind the words: This is not a done deal! Yes, she wants this to be successful, but there’s no guarantee. So, she’s saying, bring your A game — especially since there’s just one slot left. With this clause, I knew I wasn’t a shoe-in, and that made me want to give my very best effort.
What she said: “it’ll be like investing in the Journal’s future!”
What’s going on behind the words: One of the most dispiriting things freelancers hear is how “expensive” they are. It’s definitely not cheap to hire a writer, but when editors see it as an investment — the chance to bring in new voices, new approaches, or expertise that they don’t have on staff — it truly is an investment that can pay dividends over time.
You don’t have to use this exact phrase when you’re reaching out to a writer. But you can use the larger principles to come up with a few sentences that will make it easy for a writer to say “yes” to your assignments and deliver their best work.
Here’s what you want to communicate to your prospective writer (or illustrator, photographer, designer, or anyone else):
● I am reasonable to work with
● I hire regularly
● I view this as a partnership and want it to succeed
● I also expect you to do your part
● I appreciate that this is a collaboration that is valuable to both of us
Want to see the stories I’ve written for WPI? Check out the profile of Ashley Daisley, who explains what makes the products we buy irresistible; a profile of Urvashi Tyagi, who’s helping the tech world crack one of its toughest codes (it might not be what you think); and a profile Anna Chase, whose engineering work on Star Wars toys at Hasbro helped make them beloved among the most discerning collectors.