Freelance writers, even those with years of experience, can run into challenges working with the editors who commission their pieces. At the “How to be your own copy editor (and advocate),” panel at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin, editors and successful freelancers shared tips in a session that evolved into a broader conversation between the panel and the audience.
Freelance writer Meryl Davids Landau began the session by offering a few tips based on her own experiences as both a novelist and a writer of nonfiction health and science articles. She said writing fiction made her non-fiction writing better, and suggested that writers try to make the anecdotes in their stories read more like fiction. “Put yourself in the readers’ shoes and ask if they are enjoying reading the article,” she said.
Landau also suggested that writers get ideas by attending scientific conferences, or simply by thinking of story that they are best situated to write, perhaps due to personal connections or contacts.
The three editors on the panel — Rob Waters of MindSite News, Carmel Wroth of National Public Radio (NPR) Shots Blog and Matthew B.H. Ong of The Cancer Letter — all emphasized how important it is for writers to stay in contact with their editors. “The most important thing about the relationship between an editor and a writer is that it is a relationship. As an editor, I want to connect with my writers,” Waters said. It never hurts to overcommunicate, Wroth added, provided the writer keeps in mind that editors are themselves suffering from information overload. It’s particularly important for writers to reach out when a story veers away from the original concept — and Waters and Wroth both said that a writer communicating that should also propose a solution.
A writer who has far too much information to put into a single article can always pitch a series to their editor. “They will probably say no,” Waters said, but at that point, the writer is free to pitch the other article to another publication (unless the contract with the original publication says otherwise).