Last updated: Thursday 24th of July 2014
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Also by Ruth O'Neil:
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Teaching Others to Write (article)
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What Editors Really Want: 10 Tips for Freelance Writers and Book Authors

by Ruth O'Neil

Have you ever tried repeatedly to get into that one elusive publisher or magazine only to get rejected over and over again? Ever wonder what makes the editor tick? What exactly is it that they want from you? You're not alone.

Sometimes writers may feel that pleasing an editor is like an impossible task. In all my years of writing I have learned one thing, (well, more than one, but we'll only focus on one); writing is subjective—at least somewhat.

There are a wide variety of reasons why writing is rejected and it may not necessarily be because of bad writing. Sometimes the writer may simply have not followed the rules. There are days the editor is in a bad mood.

There was one magazine I used to write for where the editor accepted just about every article I sent her. I appreciated it because of the consistent income. However, this editor retired, leaving a new one in her stead. While I have sent several more articles to the new editor in the years since, I don't get any response whatsoever. I find that frustrating! Has my writing changed? No. The editor has and that made all the difference.

However, there are definitely some pet peeves editors have and eliminating these from your writing will increase your chances of acceptance. Here are some tips on what an editor wants. Some of these may seem simple, but they are often neglected.

Before you even begin writing your story, plan it out. Write an outline and a synopsis and then begin the actual story writing. If you are more organized in your thoughts from the beginning of the project it will show in the end product. This is something I have to deal with as a writer myself. Many times when I don't plan first my thoughts are random and disconnected all over the place. Take the time to plan for best results.

Use a simple Word program to write your story or article. Most editors will transfer your document into another program. Word documents are easy to transfer. If you use some obscure program the editor may not be able to open it. That can be frustrating to them if they can't read your work and to you because you have absolutely no chance of acceptance.

Don't add "pretties" or weird formatting. For the most part all those decorations and special formatting will not get used anyway. Many times they do not transfer when put into a different program. Keep it simple. Keep it standard, unless otherwise noted by your editor. Standard is text double-spaced on 8 ½ x 11 paper, one space between sentences, and 1-inch margins.

Edit your work; don't leave it up to the editor to make corrections. Check your spelling using the spell check on your computer and also with your own eyes. Spell check doesn't catch everything. Check your grammar. Do all your subjects and verbs agree? Make sure to vary your sentence structure and write in complete sentences. Editors don't mind making changes to your writing, but they don't want to do a complete re-write for you either. That's your job, not theirs.

Complete your work. Don't send an editor an "almost" done article or story. Wait until you feel you have done the best job you can and then send it. If you aren't sure the editor would like it, send a query clearly explaining your story and see if it's appropriate. Check the guidelines first to see if the publication accepts queries or full manuscripts only.

Have other people read your work. Encourage them to share their opinion and give you advice about where your story is lacking. Choose writers who will give you legitimate advice as far as technicalities and also people who like to read for the simple enjoyment of it. Book clubs are great for this purpose if you are working on a novel. My book club caught an error in my novel when I had used a scene twice. It was really only a couple of sentences and easy to fix, but it was redundant just the same. My eyes had read it so many times it was all too familiar. You do need to choose your readers carefully. Don't ask people who only ever give you rave reviews; you don't learn that way. Get people who will give constructive criticism.

Read the writer's guidelines more than once. Highlight important information as some editors like to receive manuscripts differently than others. I have one editor I work with that wants everything single spaced, 12 point font in Arial. She is the only one that wants different than the norm formatting. But there are also several other key pieces of information that guidelines can request of you. Many publications want information about yourself included in your cover letter. If you do not include this they will ignore you. Believe me, I know. I've learned from experience. Some guidelines request pieces by specific dates. If a magazine uses a theme list make sure you study it so the editor doesn't toss your article simply because it's past the deadline.

Submit your manuscript professionally—and how you address the editor. Address the editor by last name. Even if an editor addresses me by my first name I still use their last name. My mom used to tell me to address those older than me by their last name unless told otherwise. This is a good business practice as well.

Be timely when your editor asks for a revision. If she gives you a date, make sure you meet that deadline. Be early if possible, yet don't rush your work. If for some reason you can't help being late, make sure to let him know and you can possibly make other arrangements.

Don't rush the editor when he is working on your book. Your book is probably not the only book he has. One of the rules of writing is to set a piece aside for a while. Editors need to do that as well. Sometimes we look at a piece so many times we glaze over mistakes or things that need changing. If a long period of time has passed, send a polite email. Conversations do get lost in cyberspace from time to time, but be polite and not accusatory.

By applying these principals to your writing you can increase your chances of being accepted. Once you get your foot in the door with a publisher, assignments and subsequent articles, stories, or even books may be requested of you. Wouldn't that be nice to have editors telling you what they want instead of playing the guessing game?

About the author:
Ruth O'Neil has been a freelance writer for more than 20 years, publishing hundreds of articles in dozens of publications. Her first novel Come Eat at My Table came out earlier this year. Her second is on its way. When she's not writing, Ruth spends her time quilting, reading, scrapbooking, camping and hiking with her family. Visit her blog at or website at

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