From ‘the Horse’s Mouth’: What Editor Feedback Can Teach You

By Craig Corbett 16 August, 2016

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This article was previously published on Entrepreneur Magazine

“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” Norman Vincent Peale

After spending hours, days or weeks slaving over an article, we writers often battle the temptation to click “Send” and wash our hands of it. But the game isn’t over until we see our words in print. And before we cross the finishing line, we have to get past the gatekeepers.

What’s important, though, is to consider their perspective: Editors at leading publications receive hundreds of article pitches each day, and it’s their job to choose content which adds value to their specific readership. There’s also a time constraint there: Editors simply don’t have enough time to respond to every email and offer detailed feedback for every piece of content they receive.

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So, for you as a writer, your best plan of action is to offer exclusive articles to a handpicked selection of editors, follow up once if they don’t respond within 24 to 48 hours, then move on to the next contact if this radio silence continues.

However, if the editor does take the time to get back to you, it’s important to be extremely receptive to his or her feedback, regardless of whether that feedback is what you want to hear or not.

In addition, always take the time and effort to respond to this editor’s email, and make any suggested edits in a timely manner.

To back up what I say, I offer several tips below, along with real editor responses from leading publications. My point? To highlight common gripes editors have with submissions, and the lessons we can learn from their comments:

1. Always be graceful.

“No thanks, I’ll pass.”

Editors are swamped with contributions, and if they take the time to read your pitch and respond to your email, you should always accept their comments with grace, even if they reject your submission.

Building positive relationships with the media is important, so be sure to respond with a polite email thanking them for their time. A polite message will put you in good standing with an editor, and improve the chances of his or her giving your next submission the time of day.

2. Make your article accessible.

“I like it, generally. The opening is pretty good but might be presuming the audience knows more about the topic than they really do. This is a common error nearly everybody makes when discussing the topic they are immersed in.”

Making your article accessible to a general audience is important if you are going to pitch to leading publications. When you are a developer, and you spend all day surrounded by other developers, it’s easy to forget that normal people don’t know much about Javascript!

So, while the purpose of your article should be to further the conversation, and add value to a publication’s readers, they shouldn’t have to be MIT graduates to understand what you’re talking about.

If you want to really delve into a topic, and use industry jargon and technical terms, focus on an industry-specific niche publication. Otherwise, take a step back and assess whether you have explained your argument in a comprehensive, digestible manner your mother could understand.

To reach that goal, first outline the narrative of your argument in the introduction and opening paragraphs. What am I talking about? And why is it important now? While you don’t want to come across as patronizing, be sure to explain complex topics in layman’s terms.

3. Offer real value.

“Thanks for sending. I’m not seeing any useful takeaways here, though. The story tells us hardware is a tough business in the U.S. (which is a topic we’ve covered before) and doesn’t provide any solutions. So I’ll have to pass.”

Always offer takeaways. People are busy, and read to learn and be informed. So, help them do that and do it as briefly as possible: Scientists say that our attention spans have been drastically shortened since the advent of the internet and smartphone. That’s the reason most leading publications now include at the top of an article the amount of time required to read it.

The “takeaway” from this tip, then, is that it’s important to offer “actionable advice” to readers from the outset, to keep them engaged, and stop them from clicking on to the next article.

“Actionable” means what it says: Instead of writing, Why I think social media marketing is important, you’d be wise to alter your focus to something fellow entrepreneurs can truly benefit from. An example: Five ways to improve your social media marketing. While your opinions may be valid, most publications do not want to act as soap-boxes, and have specific opinions sections for such types of articles.

4. Make sure your content fits the publication.

“Thanks for reaching out — this is a bit on the outside of our readers’ interests (our primary audience is real estate agents and brokers, not consumers), and we also prefer that contributed articles be original whenever possible.”

Always take the time to hand-pick publications which cover your field. Journalists, editors and the publications they work for have a beat, an area of expertise or a general theme which they focus on. There is no better way to receive a snappy –or non-existent — response from an editor then pitching content which has nothing to do with the publication’s specialty.

Most leading publications cover a range of topics and themes, but when you’re targeting industry-specific publications, be sure to scan previous articles and make sure your content fits in.

Also, avoid publishing your article on social media, community pages or, heaven forbid, a competitor publication, before pitching a specific target publication. Most magazines and websites accept only original and unique content which has not been released anywhere else online.

Don’t think you can pull the wool over an editor’s eyes, either. If he or she publishes your article, only to have a reader or colleague highlight the fact that it has appeared elsewhere, don’t ever expect anything from this person beyond outright (and warranted) indignation.

5. Make sure your content is original.

“Hi, Thanks for the proposal about startups having accountants as CEOs. Officially, we’re rejecting the article. But that’s not because we didn’t like it. It’s because we recently ran an article on accountants’ role in startups.”

Be sure to search whether your topic has been previously covered by a certain publication. You can write the best, most insightful article even seen, on Big data trends for 2016, but if your target pub has already covered this topic, it will almost certainly be a no-go.

In general, during the planning stages of your editorial process, always do a quick Google search to see if a topic has been covered, and if you get too many hits, try a different angle. That said, if you feel you can bring something new to the table, give it a shot, but be sure to target a publication which hasn’t covered your topic before.

6. Check the publication’s style and register.

“It’s definitely a new topic to us, but the dry writing won’t do much for the viewership. Articles like this (such as the previous health tech, etc) just won’t resonate with our readers using the rather formal tones.”

One of the reasons it is always better to highlight target publications before you start writing is to choose the register and tone best suited to those publications. While Vice magazine encourages colorful language and Hunter S. Thompson-esque imagery, the same cannot be said for the Wall Street Journal. On the flip side, technical and academic style writing that would be suitable for a broad sheet like The Economist will not resonate well with the readership of The Next Web. Always think about your target audience before you put pen to paper.

7. Remember that timing is key.

“Just as a note for the future, you really shouldn’t email people in gaming media during E3 — the busiest time of year in this industry—and expect a response right away.”

Timing is important when you’re pitching any sort of content. Placing your story into the wider narrative will improve its chances of acceptance. For example, if you pitch a story about top tech Christmas gifts in July, the chances of its getting picked up are next to zero. If you pitch a story about technology which could save your life in a disaster in the aftermath of a devastating storm, you’ll have a good chance.

Also, be conscious of large events occurring in your industry, and avoid pitching stories in the week preceding or following them. Journalists and editors flock to events like TechCrunch Disrupt like bees to nectar, so if you send your pitch at that time, you risk being pushed to the bottom of an inbox where your story will never see the light of day.

Gracefully accepting feedback — both positive and negative– is an important life skill in our business and personal lives alike.

In sum, whether you’re dating, applying for jobs or reaching out to the media, rejection can be hurtful and disappointing, but a screaming, wailing tantrum is not going to change anyone’s mind. Respect the fact that the person has taken the time to acknowledge you, say “thanks” for the honest opinion offered and heed any advice tendered to improve your chances the next time round.

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