Quick, call your mum: your first proper piece has just been given the green-light by a commissioning editor.
First off, congratulations. Pitching can be a thankless and uninspiring task so getting your name (nearly) up in lights as a young, unknown journo deserves real credit. If you were anything like me the first time you had a pitch approved, that article was your Sistine Chapel: you spent countless hours finessing, fine-tuning, reading and rereading it to make it the most perfect Pulitzer Prize-winning work the world has ever seen.
So you’re all set to hit that “send” button and blow some minds, but is there anything else you could be doing to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible? Remember, this could be the first in a long line of commissions with the publication; the last thing you want to do is leave a bad impression with the editor, scuppering your chances of getting that next gig.
As an editor myself and having spent the first 18 months of my career working as a freelancer, I know what it’s like to sit at both sides of the table (and it’s not all steak and caviar on this side either). So what would I have told my younger free-pitching self back in the 00s? What should I have done before the big send-off? Plenty…
I should note here that no two editors are the same: some, for example, really do want you to chase them hourly in that self-hating, masochistic way; others prefer you to hold off for at least 24 hours.
But one thing that most editors do share in common is that they come with an instruction manual: a set of writing guidelines. This could be a one-pager sent out on commission or a link to a page on the publication’s website. However the guidelines come, go back and read them. Among other things they’ll outline the format in which a piece should be submitted, some considerations with regards to sources (is that survey you mentioned big enough?) and offer some general style guidelines.
Found them? Read them again and make any necessary changes. The last thing you want is a return email reminding you of what you should already know.
It goes without saying that your article should be submitted before the deadline. That said, you don’t get bonus points for submitting early so use that spare time to work on your piece: go back and re-write that para you were unsure about; see if there’s a stronger stat to pull out from that research report.
If there’s one thing that really drives me up the wall with submitted copy, it’s the abuse of word counts (those poor word counts: what did they ever do to you?). Most editors should be fine with 50/100 words either way on a 1,000 word web feature, but when I asked you for a snappy 650 and I get a 2,000-word epic, it means I have to spend precious hours cutting your hard-work to pieces, which makes neither of us happy.
Before you send, check your word count: does that colour intro really need to go on for so long?
You’d be surprised how many first-time writers think that presenting a source in the Harvard style (hello, 2008) is enough to warrant a strong link. Aside from all the ethical and legal issues that surround showing your working, links to where you found a fact, figure or quote is good for the user experience and gives a sub or commissioning ed a good starting point to check out what you’re checking out. After all, it’s our job to corroborate what you write; who’s to say you’ve not cooked the numbers to suit your argument?
Some eds will prefer that you embed links directly within the copy; others like you to put all the links at the end of the piece, so check (see Point 1). I like to have them placed immediately after the linked point (in.brackets.com).
If there is no link, for example a press handout or an eyes-only report, let the ed know or send on a copy.
At the very least, make sure to paste your article, in full, into the body of your submission email. By all means, attach it as a PDF or a Word document too, but some CMSs are a complete nightmare when it comes to direct copies from document files, mainly because
… and no one wants to suffer the military-grade punishment of rejigging every word back into line. Do your editor a favour and submit copy in a well-formatted style that’s easy to read.
Offer up an image or two: is there an arresting or interesting picture to go with your piece? Send it with the article. Whether it’s one of yours or a shot sent to you by a contact or interviewee, the more relevant pics an ed has to hand, the happier they’ll be.
Headlines and standfirsts: they probably won’t get used but have a stab at a headline and standfirst; it’s great practice for your own editing and writing skills and still might help inform what the subs end up using.
Follow up: the body’s not even cold so don’t overdo it, but ensure you keep the dialogue with the editor open. You might have a follow-up story, something completely different for another section or just an admission that you’re available.
Photo courtesy of Jono Kane