How to Read an Editor’s Mind
Knowing what an editor is really looking for… that’s the secret to selling your story. Knowing. And then delivering exactly that.
Often, you may think you know. After all, you’ve read the guidelines. You’ve flipped through a couple of back issues. But, often, your understanding falls just short (or maybe well short, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt).
Here are a few tips for getting inside an editor’s head. (Bear with me as I attempt to illuminate for you here what it is we, as a species, are looking for.)
I’m going to lay out a few “accept-or-reject” scenarios:
Say I’m editing a publication that covers international destinations. My readers are savvy and well-traveled. They’re looking for off-the-beaten-track places, places they can get to “first.”
That said, they like to travel well, comfortably, even luxuriously. But they aren’t averse to a bit of adventure. They search for good values. And they’re interested in “on-the-ground” tips that can save them time, money, or frustration.
So here in my e-mail in-box I find a collection of queries and articles, and I’m determined to get through them quickly. I’m going to give each one a five- or ten-second glance.
I begin opening the documents and find…
** 1) New U.S. passport rules now require passport for international travel in the Western Hemisphere — 600 words. Here’s what the new rule entails, how to get a passport, and how to get one if you need it fast.
ED THOUGHT: Send rejection letter — This is a useful tidbit of intelligence, but not worthy of 600 words. Our practical tips like this never run to more than 300 words and I don’t feel like cutting it. It’s not that good. I could send it back to the writer to trim. But she should have known from the outset to write less. I’m not going to bother with this.
WHAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM THIS REJECTION: There’s the obvious thing — read the guidelines. If they say the “Practical Tips” department only runs articles of 300 words or less, then take the time to figure out that that’s the department where your piece belongs and trim it.
But beyond that, the message here is that if this idea had been really unique, had really caught my interest, I might have well forgiven the writer the fact that it was too long and decided to buy the article anyway. I’d cut it or have the writer do it. Bottom line: Idea is king.
** 2) A film-buff’s round-up of places to see and things to do in Paris. It starts with a pretty decent introduction and then lists seven movie-spots to see.
ED THOUGHT: Send rejection letter — Actually, this is a great way to slice that city — it’s a good story idea. But the format doesn’t follow what we do for destination articles at all. By taking a more careful look at our back issues, this writer would have realized we follow a carefully scripted format in that department.
The idea does, in fact, give me pause. But I’ve never worked with this writer before, I’ve got a pile of other submissions to get through, and so I’m not going to stop. Had this met our format more closely, I’d definitely have given it a closer look.
WHAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM THIS REJECTION: Sometimes your idea is, in fact, right on. But if you haven’t taken the time to tweak your story for the particular publication where you’re aiming to land a by-line, it may not matter that your idea is appealing. An editor isn’t going to take the time to completely rewrite your piece for you… and if you’re an unknown entity, then she’s not likely to take the time to ask you to do it, either.
When you’re defining a story, you’re always going to have the best luck when you target your piece for a specific publication. That may mean that you end up tweaking your story just a bit for three different publications. But you’ll always find more success with that targeted approach than you will sending out a standard-issue piece and hoping one of the places to which you send it picks it up.
** 3) A proposal for a piece titled “Summer in San Vigilio.” It’s a ski town in the Italian Alps, I learn from the query. The article will tell me about all there is to see and do — from hiking to climbing to sunning by mountain lakes and enjoying cheese in local dairy huts.
ED THOUGHT: Send rejection letter. I can’t tell what makes this place particularly special. It just sounds like a piece about off-season in some ski town. The dairy huts sound intriguing. Maybe there’s something there — but if the writer couldn’t highlight what’s unique in her query, I’m pretty sure it won’t land up right in the article, either.
WHAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM THIS REJECTION: It’s critically important that you put specifics in your query. Just as you’d take care to paint an enticing picture with the first few sentences of your article, so should you invest the time and effort when you’re pitching your article.
You may know that the lakeside villas near San Vigilio rent rooms, are positively stunning, and some you even get to by boat (which is cool). You may know that when you’re hiking here on any one of the many well-marked (though seldom-crowded) trails you’re treated to fields of flowers, amazing views of snow-capped peaks, and crystal lakes that reflect images of both. And you may know that on the trail, for a taste of local culture, you can stop at a “dairy hut,” to sample cottage cheese and smoked bacon.
You may know all these details — great details — that make this place distinct. But you do yourself no favors when you title your article “Summer in San Vigilio,” which doesn’t really tell your editor anything and then proceed to generalize in the body of your letter, too.
Make sure your query reflects the fact that you’ve figured out what will interest an editor’s readers. Include those specific details that will whet an editor’s appetite for more.
In this case, the writer would have immediately improved her changes of my buying this story had it been titled, “June in San Vigilio, Italy: Alpine Hikes, Lakeside Villas, and Amazing Cottage Cheese” or something to that effect. Details. Details. Use them to paint for me a picture.
KNOW THY READER
I hope you will agree: we editors are not such a bad bunch. We simply want proof, up-front, that you’ve read our guidelines thoroughly — and followed them.
We want it to be evident that you’ve taken the time to read some back issues critically — closely enough to see what we’re doing in each department and to target your article for a particular spot.
And we want to be taken in by your idea. Enchanted by it. We want to get excited about your story… because we can see from your description that our readers will be, in turn. And the way you make that happen is by including in your pitch many of the same details you’ll include in your article. Show us what makes this place or this idea of yours so special.
You needn’t be clairvoyant to read an editor’s mind. That’s because you’ll find it’s quite easy to do once you’ve taken the time to get acquainted with her publication.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]