What Do Editors Look For in a Freelance Writer?

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When I was editing the alumnae magazine at my alma mater, I was asked the question “What do you look for in a freelance writer?” My answer, I’m sorry to say, was, “That depends.” It depends on the theme of the issue. It depends on what kind of story I’m looking for. Are you better at people profiles, at straight reporting, at writing ad copy? Or, maybe you contacted me with a great story idea that I can’t refuse.

I can’t tell you what every editor looks for in a writer, but I can tell you what skills I appreciated in the writers whose stories I edited. I came up with these three qualifications, which help me when I’m pitching to editors. I hope they help you too!

Your Expertise is Useful

Can you do tech writing? How about copywriting for Facebook ads? Maybe you can read about what happened in the Supreme Court last week and translate it for a reader that doesn’t speak legalese. If you make it clear that you can offer expertise in a challenging area, I’m more likely to offer you freelance work. You are inserting your expertise into my gaps in expertise. And that’s valuable to me.

You’re a Versatile Staff Writer

Say you didn’t contact me with a bang-up story idea I couldn’t resist. Say you sent me some writing samples and asked me if I could use you for regular freelance work. I’m more likely to say yes if I can see that you’ve written a wide variety of stories on different topics and in different styles. Can you write a story about a staff member for a campus newsletter, then turn around and write about scientific research as it relates to the average person? You’re in.

You are Conscientious to a Fault

I can’t say it enough: proof and proof and proof again. I was recently on a hiring committee that was reviewing resumes for a social media position. The minute someone noticed a typo, that resume was in the trash. If you are putting your best foot forward, and you type “summery” instead of “summary,” that’s not a good portent of things to come. Editors notice mistakes. It’s their job. Proof your writing samples and your query letter. Then have someone else proof them. As your editor, I want to know I can trust you to be accurate (and, frankly, to not create more work for me).   

Bonus points if you see that my publication adheres to Chicago Style and you make mention of your familiarity with Chicago style in your query.

Those are three basic qualities I looked for in a freelance writer.

Tell me: What qualities do you promote when you query an editor? I’d love to hear about any feedback you’ve gotten from editors too!

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