How to: Solve an editor’s problem

Yesterday I was talking about how “not finding your thing” can make it harder to achieve success as a writer.  Today I’m going to talk a bit about another problem (related to the first) that some writers have that holds them back:


They focus on what they want, not what the editor or market wants.


Yes, I know I just said you have to find your thing if you want to stand out from the pack.  I’m all about finding your voice and following your passion.  But (you knew this was coming) if you hope to get paid for it, you have to figure out how it fits in a capitalistic system.  There has to be a buyer for it.


That means understanding that an editor is basically a person with a problem to solve and showing that you’re the person who can solve that problem.  A colleague of mine, a travel writer, points out that she routinely gets assignments from places like National Geographic Traveler because she’s able to figure out what an editor needs from her, not what would be thrilling and exciting for her to write about.  Case in point: a piece on whether the water at high-end hotels is safe to drink.  Not exactly the sexy “I spent seven sunny days at a villa in Tuscany” kind of thing a lot of travel writers want to write, but you know what?  Everyone wants to spend seven sunny days at a villa in Tuscany.  What an editor needs is for someone to write about the water.


The thing is, my colleague gets paid enough for her work that she can spend seven sunny days at a villa in Tuscany on her own dime, if she wants.  And don’t forget that when that editor needs someone to write a destination piece, she’s going to think of my colleague because of all the fine work she’s done for the magazine.


Now that doesn’t mean your writing life has to run the gamut from boring to coma-inducing.  It just means you need to figure out how to make what you write, what you want to write, appealing to editors.  How does it help their readers do something or understand something?  What department does it fit into?  Solve the editor’s problems, and you’ll find a lot more assignments hitting your inbox.


I don’t suggest chasing trends, especially when a long lead time is involved (such as book publishing).  Those vampire novels out now were all acquired years ago.  Now book editors are acquiring other things.  But you do need to understand certain basics about the market.  I often work with non-fiction writers on their book proposals, and I’m always amazed at the number of people who want to write 30,000 word books.  That’s not a book.  That’s a really long article.  Agents and editor talk about novelists whose tomes weigh in at 200,000 words, which is about 100,000 too many.  Those are basic problems in understanding the market that are very hard for you to overcome, no matter how brilliant your writing is.


What are some strategies you’ve used to make what you write about appealing to editors?


  1. Great post. I like what you say about presenting the less fun or less attractive topics to editors that many writers don't think about or don't want to write about.

    I might give that a go next time I'm querying a magazine.

    Any ideas on how to ask an editor what he or she wants?

  2. Pingback: How to: Finding out what editors want « Finding Your Voice

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