Interview with Margaret Guroff — Executive Editor at a Large-Circulation Lifestyle Magazine

Margaret Guroff, an executive editor at a large-circulation lifestyle magazine in the U.S. speaks her mind on what editors expect from freelance writers.

Guroff is affiliated with John Hopkins University as Faculty of their Advanced Academic Programs, where she works one-on-one with science writers completing their masters theses.

Guroff was in a conversation with freelance health and personal essay writer, Viney Kirpal.

The interview provides a fairly comprehensive guide for writers. It gives you a glimpse into how an editor thinks, so you can work better with your editors, and actually get published. The greatest benefit will be experiencing smaller rejection rates and unanswered pitches. My own experience is when your pitch matches their need, they reply with alacrity! So, make the most of Guroff’s advice. — Viney Kirpal

Viney Kirpal (VK):  What are the challenges an editor faces?

Margaret Guroff (MG): I think the main challenge might be juggling multiple deadlines under a heavy workload. We’re always trying to imagine and research big stories for the future, improve our current formats, and launch new formats and products, while at the same time working with writers, other editors, designers, and production staff on whatever issue is in production at the moment. We also spend time on the sort of work that keeps an office going, like revising contracts or ironing out computer support issues. Reading and responding to unsolicited email, including pitches from freelancers and publicists, is generally done in little bits of downtime or spare time, in my experience.

VK: Is it true editors prefer a board of established writers over freelance writers to ensure quality? If so, what chance do freelance writers have to get published?

MG: Editors who work with freelancers do tend to develop a stable of writers they turn to first, for the same reasons that anyone else would hire the same company or worker repeatedly: When you find people who you trust to do good work for you, you tend to stick with them. But editors aren’t born with a stable of writers. They have to build one, and that tends to be an ongoing process, since freelancers come and go — they get full-time jobs, change careers, etc. When you’re first starting out as a freelancer, it can feel like all the spots are taken and that there’s no way to break in because you don’t know any editors. But every freelancer who has been able to develop long-term working relationships with editors also felt that way at the beginning.

VK: Why do editors reject pitches? What’s the percentage?

MG: A pitch can get rejected for any number of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with the quality of the pitch or of the freelancer. Maybe an idea too similar to something that the publication has already done, or maybe it just comes too early or too late in the production cycle. For example, the lead time at the print publication where I work is 6 months or more. Mother’s Day is in May, so if you come to me with a Mother’s Day idea in February, it could be the greatest idea in the world, but I can’t do anything with it, because my April/May issue is already finished by February.

As for the percentage of rejections, it tends to be extremely high at the magazines where I have worked. I would guess we probably accept one percent of the over-the-transom pitches I receive. But even the freelancers I often work with pitch me a lot of things that I can’t use for one reason or another. If you’re going to be a freelance writer, you need a very thick skin!

The pitching process is how you get to know the kinds of stories the editor is looking for. It’s also the best way to demonstrate to an editor that you have a lot of great ideas. If someone pitches me a story that is close to what we need, but not quite right, I’ll let them know why it didn’t work, so they can get closer next time.  I know what types of stories I need for each of my sections, so I know when I see an idea that might be a good fit. And sometimes, I’ll have a story idea that I need to assign, and if someone has been pitching me good but not-quite-right ideas for a while, I might assign my story idea to them, just because their pitches have shown me that they’re eager to do good work for me.

VK: What mistakes do writers make frequently?

MG: One mistake I see frequently, especially from early-career writers, is getting very attached to a particular idea and trying to argue the editor out of a rejection. If it’s a no, then it’s a no and you should try a different publication. Arguing for a specific idea that has already been rejected gives the impression that you only have that one idea, which is not a good impression to give if you’re trying to become someone who gets repeat work from an editor.

By the same token, once in a while I’ll send a question to a writer about a draft I’m editing, and they’ll respond by saying “As I said in the draft…” They believe that their writing was perfectly clear, and I’m just not understanding it. But if I don’t understand what they’ve written, then by definition it wasn’t clear. It’s important to remember that if the first draft were perfect, no one would be happier about it or quicker to admit it than the editor, who will always have plenty of other work to attend to. If an editor is asking questions or suggesting changes about your draft, it’s because the story is not yet in line with what they need.

On a much more practical level, when you email a pitch, you should always include a phrase like “freelance pitch” or “story idea from writer” in the subject line, so that the editor knows right away that it’s a writer’s pitch. Some pitches have subject lines that look like press releases and don’t get a response for that reason. Of course, your subject line should also include something enticing about the story you’re pitching, so the editor wants to open your email.

VK: That’s interesting! How would you then describe your ideal contributor?

MG: It’s someone who has studied the publication and knows the kinds of stories we look for; sends me great ideas; submits well-researched, well-written, and well-documented copy on time; and cheerfully works with me on any needed edits.

VK: Aspiring writers feel dejected on receiving rejections. What advice do you have for them?

MG: That’s so normal, and so hard! You put a lot of work into a pitch and have a lot of hope for it, and then it gets shot down, or, worse, you just never hear anything back from the editor at all. It might help to think of it all as part of the process of finding the editors who are right for you to work with. An editor who doesn’t respond to your pitch at all, even after a couple of polite follow-ups, is probably not someone who you would be able to develop a good working relationship with anyway. And if you get a rejection from someone who’s willing to tell you why they couldn’t use the pitch, that can help you to tailor future pitches to better meet their needs. I don’t know a better way to convince an editor that you have a lot of great ideas and you’re easy to work with than by sending them pitches, following up politely if they don’t respond, and happily acting on any feedback you may get from them.

VK: Thank you, Margaret. Your insider’s insights are surely going to change the perspective of many a writer and the way they pitch. Thanks again, for giving us your valuable time amidst an exacting schedule.









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We're dedicated to helping freelance writers succeed. We send you reviews of freelance writing companies, assignments, and articles to help build your writing career. You can view our privacy policy here, and our disclaimer. To get started, simply enter your email address in the form on this page.