How to keep editors happy as a freelance writer

1. Writing to length is a good start in pleasing an editor. Writing to length is an old-fashioned virtue that has a disproportionately positive effect on editors. Freelancers who get a reputation for overwriting are doing themselves no favours. To underwrite the specified length is almost as bad. The article may be intended to fill a particular spot, and no-one likes a hole in the page.

What then is meant by ‘writing to length’? If we’ve been commissioned for 800 words, it isn’t necessary to file 800 words on the nose. The benchmark standard is never to underwrite and not to overwrite by more than 5% - i.e. 840 words in this example.


2. Meeting the deadline is essential. The deadline is sacrosanct in journalism because our article is part of an intricate, time-critical chain of production. All sorts of excuses are heard for why deadlines are missed: crucial new information emerged at the last minute, we got ill, the baby got ill, our mother-in-law got ill, we suffered a plumbing emergency and so on. In extreme cases we can agree an extension of the deadline with the editor – but this is a card that can be played only rarely if we want to keep working.


3. Clean copy ticks the right box. Overwhelmingly, copy is submitted by email. We should paste the article onto the email itself unless we are told otherwise. Many publications won’t open attachments because of the added risk of viruses.

In the email, we can feel free to offer standfirsts or footnotes, but we have no obligation to do so. The commissioned length of the article refers to the text alone.

Good, clean copy is free of factual and legal errors, and is also tidy in the smaller but still consequential areas. It’s free of grammatical errors, hence a need if we’re weak in that area to brush it up. Copy is also free of spelling mistakes. Spellcheckers in computer programs help but can’t pick out properly spelt words used in the wrong context – affect and effect, for example.

Meanwhile, regular contributors should make an effort to absorb house presentation style.


4. Three to five quoted sources are needed for a news-related feature. One of the biggest markets is for news-related features – informative articles on issues of topical interest. These articles combine facts with interpretation, with little place for our own opinions. The focus is on the sources.

But features can be both over-sourced and under-sourced. To cram seven or eight quoted individuals into an article isn’t a sign of impressive research. It over-eggs the pudding, leaving readers confused or unclear about what is the message of the feature.

The idea of three to five sources applies almost regardless of the length of the article. It’s a matter of structure. Thus it applies to an article of 2,000 words as much as one of 800 words. Above 2,000 words is another story, but very few articles in newspapers or online magazines pass that limit.

An edited extract from Byliners – 101 ways to be a freelance journalist, by Cedric Pulford. A practical workshop on freelance journalism is being run by Cedric Pulford on October 28 and 29, 2011. For further details, or to purchase a place at the London-run workshop, please email


14th September 2011

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