You’ve done the hard work of landing an assignment for your great story idea. Good reporting and good writing, of course, will make your piece stand out. So will the work you do with your editor.
Here are a few important things to keep in mind to ensure that collaboration is a success and you build strong relationships with editors:
Preparation Makes for Better Execution
Over the years, I’ve been on both sides of the editor-writer relationship. I’ve pitched stories as a writer, and I’ve polished the work of others as an editor. Good editors value collaboration. They want their writers to succeed.
At the dawn of any new assignment, I like to have a detailed conversation with the writer to land on a common vision for the piece. It’s both helpful and efficient if I can talk with the writer before the reporting work begins so they understand what I need and how I see the story fitting in with the rest of the publication.
Remember: your piece is one of many that will be packaged together in a magazine’s issue. What may seem like a great approach to you may already be replicated with another story that’s slated to run with yours.
How much of yourself should you bring into the story? Is there a service angle that needs to be considered? Will your piece strictly be a go-see-do story or is the editor looking for a more nuanced portrait of a destination?
The more questions you can ask before you begin the work, the more time you’ll save for everyone involved in bringing your story to readers.
You’re Not Alone
A few years ago I was assigned a piece by my editor at Yankee to write about Portsmouth, New Hampshire, during Christmas. I brought my family along for the visit and pulled together what I thought was a solid reporting trip. But then, I wasted countless hours trying to find my way into the piece. I couldn’t generate a decent starting point.
Finally, I went to my boss and laid out my issues. Where I was stuck. Why I was stuck. We talked it through in a way that got me away from my notebook and into the essence of the story.
I had come to Portsmouth to find a little holiday spirit. So that’s what I went after and the writing proved to be a lot smoother after that.
Getting stuck isn’t a sign of failure. Sometimes a short conversation with your editor can unlock a fantastic idea or approach that you couldn’t release on your own.
In extreme situations I’ve even asked to look at the writer’s notes. The point is, you shouldn’t feel like you’re stranded on an island and can’t call out for help. An experienced editor is there to work with you to make your piece great.
From First Draft to Final Draft
There’s a scene in the film A Christmas Story that always comes to mind whenever I file a story with an editor. In it, the main character, Ralphie, turns in his essay on what he’d like for Christmas. As his teacher hands back the graded papers, he goes into daydream mode and imagines that she can’t stop gushing to the rest of the class about his piece. A-plus-plus-plus-plus-plus. Alas, reality doesn’t quite work out that way.
A first draft is rarely, if ever, a final, spectacular draft. Your editor will more than likely have some suggestions on how you can tweak your piece. Maybe they’ll even ask for a rewrite. When that happens, spend some time carefully going over their input. An experienced editor is open to collaboration. Meaning, their word isn’t gospel.
They’ll value your thoughts and even welcome your explanation for why you made certain choices. What they’re not looking for, however, is a defensive rebuttal to their edits.
Dissect what they’re asking for, and then come up with some options for getting the piece where you both want it to be. Editors have long memories. The easier you can make life for them, the more likely they are to want to work with you again.