Freelance writers, even those with years of experience, can run into challenges working with the editors who commission their pieces. At the “How to be your own copy editor (and advocate),” panel at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin, editors and successful freelancers shared tips in a session that evolved into a broader conversation between the panel and the audience.
Freelance writer Meryl Davids Landau began the session by offering a few tips based on her own experiences as both a novelist and a writer of nonfiction health and science articles. She said writing fiction made her non-fiction writing better, and suggested that writers try to make the anecdotes in their stories read more like fiction. “Put yourself in the readers’ shoes and ask if they are enjoying reading the article,” she said.
Landau also suggested that writers get ideas by attending scientific conferences, or simply by thinking of story that they are best situated to write, perhaps due to personal connections or contacts.
The three editors on the panel — Rob Waters of MindSite News, Carmel Wroth of National Public Radio (NPR) Shots Blog and Matthew B.H. Ong of The Cancer Letter — all emphasized how important it is for writers to stay in contact with their editors. “The most important thing about the relationship between an editor and a writer is that it is a relationship. As an editor, I want to connect with my writers,” Waters said. It never hurts to overcommunicate, Wroth added, provided the writer keeps in mind that editors are themselves suffering from information overload. It’s particularly important for writers to reach out when a story veers away from the original concept — and Waters and Wroth both said that a writer communicating that should also propose a solution.
A writer who has far too much information to put into a single article can always pitch a series to their editor. “They will probably say no,” Waters said, but at that point, the writer is free to pitch the other article to another publication (unless the contract with the original publication says otherwise).
Landau had a somewhat different take. “For me, as a freelancer, if you have over-reported, that means you failed,” she said. Generally freelance writers aren’t paid by the hour or by the interview, so spending extra time means a lower per-hour rate of pay.
The panel also discussed compensation. “I haven’t found a way to put a value on a story that isn’t the [industry standard of] word rates,” Waters said. That standard rate per word presents several problems, including incentivizing writers to write longer than necessary — and the fact that sometimes writing shorter is more difficult than writing longer. When it comes to asking for more money because a story is taking longer than expected, Wroth said, “I’ll consider more money if it becomes more work for the writer because of something I asked for.”
Pitching of course is key, and editors said it’s important to have a clear idea of both what the article is about and the publication it’s for. “Please research,” Ong said. “Look at who is reading the publication.”
Wroth suggested imagining what a Facebook blurb introducing the final article might say, and using that as the starting point. “It’s a promise to the reader,” she said, “so you need to figure out what your promise is, and then make it happen.” Having this succinct idea of the article is important even from the time of the pitch. “When you don’t know what your story is, there’s a lot of struggle for everyone,” Wroth said.
Sometimes a first draft needs to be cut to bring the story back to that succinct idea. “I don’t over-interview, but I do overwrite,” Landau said. “As a writer, it can be hard to cut your words.” She suggested putting any cut text into a separate document to help make it a bit easier mentally. (Waters jumped in with an agreement, calling the text in that separate document the “orphans” of the piece.)
Other editing tips from both the panelists and the audience, whether reviewing one’s own work or someone else’s, involved trying to see the piece from a different perspective. For example, set it aside and read it again in a few hours, read it out loud, or start with the last paragraph and read each paragraph working toward the first one. While doing so, writers should look carefully for repeated words as well as verbs, which should be precise and sharp.
When asked what stories they were looking for, Waters said he is interested in data-driven stories on long COVID and related mental health symptoms. Wroth also mentioned an interest in COVID articles, despite noting that everyone is suffering from COVID fatigue. “There’s a bucket called COVID-adjacent that I think is important right now,” she said.