How to Make Your Writing Stand Out to Editors

As a freelance writer, much of your time will inevitably be spent sending your work out to various publications. Whether you’re a poet, blogger, or journalist, much of your career will involve submitting samples to editors/editorial boards for consideration.

And it can feel intimidating — especially when you’re a new writer — to send your work out into the world in the hopes of getting published. I touched on this briefly in my first blog post, 3 Free Ways to Get Published as a New Writer, but today’s article will dig into more specifics on this entire process.

As someone who’s been on both ends of this — as an author seeking publication and as an editor selecting pieces for publication — I’ve got some handy tips to keep in mind.

I also recognize that the best advice will vary depending on the type of writing you do. So, I’ve divided these tips up based on genre:

Tips for creative authors submitting literary work

This advice will be best-suited for authors of poetry, creative non-fiction, and short stories. Most publications you’ll submit to will be literary magazines and journals which ask for pieces of polished, high-quality writing during their call for submissions. If you’re a poet, this will usually be around 1-3 poems. If you’re a fiction writer, this will usually be one piece of approximately 1000-3000 words. 

Here’s how to make your work stand out:

1. Know your audience. 

Try to get a good sense of what kind of publication you’re submitting to. Do they typically publish experimental work, or are they more “high-brow”? 

Better yet, have you submitted to this publication in the past? If so, did they accept or reject your submission? Let that guide you; if you’ve been successful before, aim to take a similar approach. 

If you’ve been rejected by their editorial board in the past, make a conscious effort to tailor your selections to the kind of work they do publish. This doesn’t mean that you need to change your writing style altogether. It just means looking at your catalogue of work and selectively picking the pieces that seem to suit their tastes. 

For example, if you submitted a long-form poem to a publication in the past and they rejected it, take a look at their past issues. Do they seem to prefer snappy, short, and minimalist poetry? If so, next time, pick one of your shorter pieces to send instead.

2. Make note of how much they pay upon publication (if they do at all).

Next, you’ll want to be sure that you understand exactly what publication entails. Read the call for submissions carefully.

Will contributors be paid for their work? If so, how much? Will contributors receive free copies of the publication? If so, how many copies? 

If the publication doesn’t offer compensation (which is quite common), ask yourself: Is it really worth it? Will this specific publication look good on my writer’s CV? Does this publication offer a wide reach in terms of their audience? If so, it may still be worthwhile.

You should also keep in mind that when you later go to apply for writing programs, residencies, or grants, many review boards will refuse to count publication credits as “professional” unless they involve some form of payment. So, choose carefully. The most realistic strategy is to submit to a mix of both paying and non-paying publications.

3. Follow their instructions closely.

Again, I’ve touched on this in a previous blog post, but it’s absolutely imperative that you follow the guidelines listed in the publication’s call for submissions. 

It’s useless to send your work out if you’re rushing through the process and ignoring specifications like font style, font size, file format, length, or title format. Messing up just a single specification can immediately disqualify you from consideration. Some editors are more lax than others, but there’s no way to tell how forgiving a certain editorial board will be. Always play it on the safe side by following the rules.

And, as mentioned before on the Writing Advice blog, you’ll want to make note of whether or not a magazine/journal allows simultaneous submissions. If they allow you to send your work for consideration to other publications at the same time, they’ll likely ask you to reach out and let them know if — in the meantime — it gets accepted elsewhere. 

If they don’t allow simultaneous submissions, then don’t send your work to other journals while waiting to hear back. Of course, this rule can be restrictive for authors and make you wait long periods of time to send your work out to multiple places, therefore limiting your chances of getting published in general. If this bothers you, simply don’t submit to publications who maintain this policy.

4. Take your time, and then be patient.

It doesn’t make sense to rush through this process. Don’t try to bang out 10 different tailored submissions to various journals in one day. Take your time to carefully choose the right publications, understand their compensation rates/guidelines, and prepare your writing sample for submission. 

Many magazines and journals only accept submissions from the same author once per year, so you need to make your one shot count! Put adequate time and effort into your submission. 

But once you’ve done the work and sent your submission in, try to be patient. Editors are often strapped for time. Many publications take several months, or even up to a year, to respond to submissions. 

Try not to take it personally if you’re left waiting — and many calls for submissions will include an estimate of how long it will take to hear back. If it’s been a while and you’re unsure of the status of your submission, you can (politely) follow up with the editors. But — again — try not to take it personally if they don’t respond for a while.

I know that — as an author — the waiting period can feel grueling and frustrating. But I also know that — as an editor — it’s a really lengthy and complicated process to sort through submissions, read them, and correspond with all the potential contributors. Try to have a little grace with us, if you can!

Tips for submitting/pitching your non-literary work

This advice is more applicable to freelance writers of articles and blog posts. You’ll likely be pitching to websites, magazines, or newspapers. This differs from literary work in one very important way: submitting creative writing usually involves sending a sample of “finished” work, whereas pitching an article for a website involves sending an overview of a proposed concept (before even writing the article). 

Here’s how to master the pitching process:

1. Figure out the voice of the publication you’re submitting to.

Your pitch will be most effective if you’ve read several different articles from the publication in question. Get to really know the tone of their writers, and get a sense of what topics they generally cover. There’s no use pitching a light, fun lifestyle piece to a website that solely focuses on tech.

Keep in mind that you want the pitch to both fit in with their current overall voice while still adding something unique to the conversation. Search their website to make sure they haven’t published a story like yours in the past. 

2. Keep it brief.

A pitch should feel snappy, concise, and interesting. You want to pique the editor’s interest while not overwhelming them with excessive details. This is a pitch — not a full article — after all. In general, a pitch of 100-300 words is a good starting point. Be sure to include a potential title (or two) and a summary of your article concept as a whole. 

3. Make sure you’re contacting the right person.

The biggest mistake you can make when pitching is to send it to the wrong person. A pitch is doing nothing if it sits in the incorrect inbox. Take the time to figure out who you need to contact. Checking the “submissions” or “guidelines” page on their website is a good place to start.

Their website will likely list a specific person (like a managing editor) to send your email to, or will simply list a centralized email address that they use to accept submissions (without mentioning who you’re sending it to exactly). If you can find a specific person, all the better! That way, you can address them directly in your email. 

Think of it like applying for a job — you want to get your work in front of the right person, and if possible, you’ll want to address the hiring manager (or, in this case, editor) directly to show that you’ve put in the effort. This is not necessary, but it certainly helps.

Wrapping up

There you have it — my top tips to get noticed as a freelance writer. I hope you found them helpful. As always, be sure to subscribe to the blog to be notified of each new article. 

Happy writing!

And let me know in the comments: What’s your favourite way to make your writing stand out?

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