The most annoying thing an editor can do

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Early in my freelancing career, I pitched a story to Psychology Today that was resoundingly declined. It felt as if the editor had tunneled through my Dell and socked me square in the nose. Years passed. Hurt turned into self-effacement. The rejection was so harsh, I would joke, I considered entering the priesthood.

Years later, as I noodled on a story about the worst freelance pitch rejections, I tracked down the offending email—and felt like a stooge. My then-tender ego had construed a gentle rebuff (to a pitch on the psychology of retail hiring) as a career-ending insult.

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Here’s the November 2007 email, from former senior editor Jay Dixit, in its entirety: “Thanks for the query. We’re going to pass on this. I don’t think it has enough applicability and relevance to most readers and not enough narrative or drama for them to be interested in it if it doesn’t affect them.”

So, the response wasn’t personal. I now realize it was almost remarkable. Here it was, that glorious escape from writerly purgatory, a prompt answer to a query.

Editor silence is the patient zero of every freelance annoyance, “all sort of all wrapped together in what you could file under respect for your writers,” says Jen A. Miller, the author of Running: A Love Story and a guru of sorts in the freelance community.

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I haven’t heard anything on my pitch. That check still hasn’t arrived. I have no idea when I’m getting corrections back. Some combination of these complaints run through my head daily. It affects every freelancer and can pop up anytime. Even Taffy Brodesser-Akner, one of the nation’s most successful freelance writers before she joined The New York Times this year, has been a victim. Name a high-profile publication—ESPN the Magazine, GQ, Texas Monthly—and you likely encountered her byline in recent years.

“I think people who ignore the little people also ignore the big ones, or mistreat them in other strange ways: not reading drafts quickly, circulating stories before they even talk to the writer about the shape of the story (as if the story doesn’t contain our hearts and souls),” she says. “All my editors now are ones who took my calls then.”

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Editor silence mixes the cold reality of business with the human desire to feel wanted. Any response from an editor proves we’re not tumbling through a chasm of loneliness punctuated with snack breaks. Somebody cares—and may pay us.

All my editors now are ones who took my calls then.

***

“THE WAY I SEE IT, freelance writing is all about hope,” says Alexander Huls, who has written for Esquire and Pacific Standard. “Hope that check will come in. Hope that your story idea is good. Hope that sources will agree to talk to you. I think a big reason why it can be a little demoralizing when you don’t hear back from an editor about a pitch is because that hope—a freelancer’s life force—gets pummeled a bit.”

So does the wallet. As journalist and author Jancee Dunn (How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids) notes, most of her pitches are time-sensitive. When an editor dallies, “the idea is in danger of being picked up by another writer, especially in the Internet age.”

Film writer Noah Gittell feels this acutely; the topics he explores for publications such as The Economist and The Guardian require a quick reply: for example, an essay, tied to The Dark Tower’s disappointing box office performance, on how Matthew McConaughey needs another “McConnaisance.”

“The difficulty is there are so many film critics out there who are having somewhat similar takes on a movie,” he says. “If you have an idea that you think is a really good idea that you’re excited about, you have to get a response quickly or else a) somebody else is going to write your article or b) the movie is going to maybe not do very well, or something is going to happen, and it’s going to be out of the news cycle.” When an editor doesn’t respond, Gittell adds, “every hour feels like it’s precious.”

For Alex Wong (The New Yorker, The Undefeated), who frequently writes longer pieces, silence puts him in an awkward position: Is an editor uninterested, or do they like the idea but cannot respond?

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“The silence makes it hard to distinguish the two,” he says. “And, in the meantime, it slows down the assembly line process of taking that pitch elsewhere, and holds back the potential of starting a story.” Or as Andrea King Collier, a 25-year-freelance veteran, puts it: “Whenever you let stories sit, you are letting money sit.”

Whenever you let stories sit, you are letting money sit.

***

LIKE MOST WRITERS, I know not to take this personally. But it’s a personal business.

Collier is determined to “keep my own power” as a freelancer. “So much of my career in the last three, four years has been over creating hacks that makes that less painful to me,” she says. Part of that involved creating a series of rules and guidelines. Among them: if Collier pitches a publication and hears nothing, she gets to decide when to withdraw the offer. Usually, two weeks on a feature is when she moves on.

Jason Fagone (The Woman Who Smashed Codes) covered querying editors on his Kill Fee podcast and on Medium. He recommends writers move on after 48 hours if they don’t hear anything. Gittell cannot afford to wait that long: He pitches multiple outlets simultaneously.

“I know a lot of my colleagues are very reticent about double-pitching, or they’ll give an editor two or three days to respond before they pitch somewhere else,” he says. “I know some people who will wait a week before they pitch somewhere else. In this environment, that seems like suicide to me. I can’t imagine waiting that long. Your chances of getting something placed at that point are just nil.”

Editors have told Fagone they need 72 hours or a week to reply. They invite follow-ups. He sympathizes with editors’ workloads—so did nearly every writer I interviewed—but freelancers must “draw a box” around idle time for the sake of their sanity and productivity.

“As a freelancer, really the only thing you can control is how you spend your own time,” Fagone says. “Once you start to cede control over your ability to schedule your own idea generation and development process, you don’t really have control of your life anymore. Also, there are a lot of different places to land stories. I think young writers tend to get fixated on one place or another or one editor or another, but really it’s a market. I think given the reality that editors read pitches very quickly and make decisions very quickly, even if they don’t respond quickly, I think freelancers should move on quickly too if they don’t hear back.”

Young writers, Collier says, lack self-confidence. Namely, they don’t think about shopping the story around or reframing it to sell to another outlet. Instead, she explains, they’re so happy to have a story somebody wants that they become Sally Field at the 1984 Academy Awards.

“I want them to like me, but I’ve also got to keep food on the table and the lights on,” says Collier, whose numerous bylines include National Geographic, Salon, and AARP the Magazine. “Do you know how long it really takes for a freelancer to get the fact that they are a business? It doesn’t happen the day you do it. It doesn’t happen that first year.”

Monogamy makes little sense to Fagone, who believes that if a writer has filed a story that an editor is sitting on—but has not signed a contract—they should consider taking the story elsewhere.

“The market for freelance stories is so diverse and so open,” he says.  “I just don’t think it makes sense to waste time…There’s something about the culture of the industry that encourages a kind of submissiveness. There’s never just one place to land an idea, and there’s never just one editor who would give it a sympathetic read.”

You aim to develop a network of editors who pay you on time, whose rhythms and communication patterns you know. They like your work; you like them. Though, Wong warns, you may not hear from them. (Unfortunately, he’s right.) You ditch the hurt and embrace getting the idea out there. This isn’t about finding your true love as a writer. It’s learning how passion and practicality can co-exist. Dating is a frequent comparison and an apt one.

Most editors that I work with are very cool. They want to run good stories. They want to keep their freelancers happy, but occasionally there’s going to be somebody who’s a dickhead.

“You have to know when to say ‘screw this’ and you have to know when to be chill, and it’s going to be different in every circumstance,” says Luke O’Neil, best known for his work at Esquire. “I think if you use your instincts you’re going to know whether or not it’s a person you’re working with in good faith who’s just either crazy busy or has circumstances out of their control that is going to try to do the right thing by you, or if it’s somebody who doesn’t really give a shit about you. The only way to get a feel for that is through experience and trial and error. Most editors that I work with are very cool. They want to run good stories. They want to keep their freelancers happy, but occasionally there’s going to be somebody who’s a dickhead.”

The “same radar for social cues” applies here, O’Neil says. “If someone seems like they don’t give a fuck about you, they probably don’t.”

Alex French, now a writer at large at Esquire, borrows a phrase from Jesus’s Son: Don’t crush the bunny. In other words: Play it cool. When he was a fact-checker at GQ, French began freelancing there. He started pitching ambitious stories. A lot. The editor stopped responding. He’d walk by his office. A lot. “Because he sees me, he’s going to be reminded of my pitch” was French’s reasoning. That stopped working. He began asking colleagues close to the editor for updates. French tried to figure out how to run into him on the subway platform or the Conde Nast elevator. His desperation was palpable. The bunny was crushed to goo.

GQ was a great place to work, French says. For a while, it became “a personal snakepit with my own anxiety.” It was a reprieve when the editor left.

“I think a lot of people behave this way,” French says, “but nobody acknowledges it publicly.”

***

IT’S A BUSINESS for the writers, and it’s a business for the editors. As newsrooms contract, editors get more responsibility. A pitch or a follow-up on revisions may not be on the top of their list, even if it’s on the top of ours. “It’s never personal, ever,” Fagone says. “It’s just the mechanics of how these places work.”

“One editor went to lunch with me and showed me her phone afterwards,” Dunn says. “In the course of a one-hour lunch, she had received 150 emails. So they are just barraged. I didn’t hear from an editor recently for a while, and when she finally resurfaced, she apologized and explained that after a big wave of layoffs at her magazine, she is now doing the work of three editors. This happens so often, and it makes me feel sorry for them, which tamps down the frustration.”

Ted Scheinman, senior editor at Pacific Standard, gets up to 30 cold pitches a day. His boss, Nick Jackson, is big on respecting writers, so Scheinman devotes an hour a day to responses. Offering prospective writers what he wants is time-consuming and “a constant struggle,” but the former freelancer finds it worthwhile. Regularly, writers who miss the mark initially come back with a usable pitch after Scheinman spells out what he wants. The magazine gets a wider range of material and buoys its reputation as a writer-friendly publication.

“Being as transparent as possible, that word gets out,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll hear from a first-time pitcher, ‘Hey, so I’ve heard you’re mainly looking for reported culture features for the back of the book.’ That’s great. That really simplifies my job. If you treat freelancers decently, like human beings and like colleagues, then that also gets around among freelancers. You have some goodwill.”

I’d probably say that if a writer doesn’t hear from me, it’s 95 percent of the time that’s my fault, not theirs.

Timing is huge for editors. Consider Naila-Jean Meyers, a senior editor at The New York Times’ sports department. She has weekends off, so an email written on Saturday will get buried under “probably 150 other emails” by Monday morning. When Meyers covered the US Open this summer, she only answered tennis-related emails. When we talked in late September, she had no room for pitched stories until at least mid-October. On top of that, the paper’s sports department was relocating that day—just after its editing structure was overhauled.

“I’d probably say that if a writer doesn’t hear from me, it’s 95 percent of the time that’s my fault, not theirs,” Meyers says. “I get a lot of email. It’s not easy to keep up with all of it. At a really basic level that’s what it is: Keeping up with correspondence is difficult. I get a lot and It piles on and it piles on. If I don’t answer right away, then the chances of me forgetting it or the chance that I never read it in the first place are pretty high. So I would hope that reporters don’t take silence personally, because I would be very hard-pressed to think of a reason why it would be personal, and not just me getting bogged down in my own emails and not having a very good system for managing story pitches specifically.”

Not having an easy answer—or having to forward an email—means a writer could be waiting. “I think those can get caught in a pile,” Meyers says. “I wish, after all these years, I had a better system for it. I have yet to commit to anything so efficient.”

“There’s no one way to do this shit right right now,” Scheinman says.

***

SOME OUTLETS (such as The Washington Post) provide a specific online forum to pitch or be considered for stories. More provide instructions on how to query. Editors provide calls for pitches and offer tips on Twitter, the 24-hour hotel bar of journalist social media. Yet the silent treatment persists.

Programs don’t answer pitches or send invoices to accounts payable. People do. Editors change jobs, change their minds, or, in Miller’s case, unexpectedly die (she wouldn’t get into the details out of respect for the editor’s family). O’Neil spent over a year—including discussions and reporting—waiting for The New York Times Magazine to move on his story. It was relegated to its website, where he was paid less than the print rate. O’Neil declined to sell it elsewhere for fear he’d have to do a full-scale rewrite. “It’s one of those examples where you’ve just got to kind of suck it up,” he says. “I’d only do it for a place like The Times. I wouldn’t do it for some regular-ass website.” Former Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist John Gonzalez loves freelancing full-time. He hated chasing down around $8,000 in fees from airline magazines. “I think they were trying to play fast and loose with books,” he says. When his editorial contact, a friend, finally surfaced, he corrected Gonzalez’s grammar. The relationship, both personal and professional, ended. It took almost a year for Gonzalez to get paid.

When it comes to (normal) day-to-day correspondence, Dunn wonders if there’s a better way.  Even responding “no” to a pitch would work. “It takes a few seconds,” she says, “and it’s so much better than being ghosted.”

Freelancers owe it to themselves to follow up or to move on. “I don’t take it personally,” Meyers says, if a writer lands a pitch originally sent to her elsewhere. “It’s your work, you want to get it placed, and if I didn’t get back to you fast enough that’s on me.”

All Miller asks is for editors to keep writers they’re working with informed, and to remember who is on the other side. “If you think a writer is a commodity that you can discard,” she says, “then a magazine is a commodity that I can discard too.” 

OK, sometimes it is personal.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove a quoted source after additional reporting came to our attention.

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Pete Croatto is a freelance writer who lives in Ithaca, New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Grantland, SI.com, VICE Sports, and Publishers Weekly. Find him on Twitter @PeteCroatto.