“Editors Puffed Up With Their Own Busy Tinpot Importance”

Avery Comarow responded with some outrage to yesterday’s post about an editor’s dark reaction when a writer went above him on the masthead to complain about how she was being treated:

“I handled freelance writers at a science mag and would have reached for the phone to apologize 30 seconds after hearing from above that I’d let a writer fall through the cracks–not because I wanted to get my boss off my back but because there’s no goddamn excuse for treating writers like that. I’ve BEEN a freelance, been treated that way, and fumed helplessly because I knew I wasn’t going to get satisfaction from story editors puffed up with their own busy tinpot importance.”

Avery worked at Money magazine, Science 86, and U.S. News for many years. In defense of the articles editor, who worked at the Washingtonian for many years, some background.

Before about 2003, editors didn’t operate in the digital world we take for granted today.  Communication with freelance writers was mostly by mail and phone calls. And there were far more freelance writers pitching stories to print outlets—there weren’t the many websites where writers now can get published. At the Washingtonian, every day we received letters proposing stories, phone calls from freelancers, writers coming to the magazine’s office wanting to talk to an editor.

Four or five editors, including me, dealt with freelancers—it depended on how accomplished the writer was and the subject matter of the query. When a freelancer called, we asked that the query be put in writing. The story proposals did often accumulate—it was more important to work with staff writers and do all the work to get a magazine published.

Sorting through the queries from freelancers went something like this: 85 percent could be quickly rejected—the subject matter didn’t fit what we published or the writer didn’t seem to have the potential to do a good piece.

Maybe 5 percent made us quickly say yes—a good writer, a good subject appropriate to a Washington magazine.

It was the other 10 percent that caused headaches. An interesting writer, an interesting subject, but a maybe, not a quick yes. With the best intentions, we didn’t want to say a quick no, we wanted to encourage the writer, we hoped we could find a place for it in the magazine. The list of maybes would grow and writers sometimes were left hanging. Too much optimism, too much indecision, not enough space.

The record wait was 10 years. It was a 3,000 word story by Henry Taylor, a distinguished Virginia writer and poet, about drilling a well. We bought it because it was so beautifully written; but it wasn’t timely, it wasn’t all that Washington, it was just a nice look at life out in the country. Finally a month came when four pages opened up, we published the story, and Taylor was amazingly nice about it.

The point is that we did do our best to publish a good magazine and treat freelancers decently but it sometimes didn’t go well. In the pre-digital age it was harder to communicate but even now there often are problems between editors and freelance writers. At a nationwide meeting of magazine editors and writers about five years ago, a panel of writers talked about what they wanted from editors. It was an hour of writers mostly complaining about how hard it was to reach their editor, how hard it was to get an answer or a decision.

As a Shoe comic strip once said, the indecision of the editor is final.



  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    Can a freelancer approach more than one publication simultaneously? Or, do you have to submit a proposal or a story to publications one at a time?

  2. Richard, no firm rules on that. The more successful publications that paid good fees to writers usually didn’t like simultaneous submissions but it’s okay to do it at some publications and websites.

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