So You Think You Can Write? Tips from Editors

, August 19, 2014

so you think you can write

You want to expand your reach and share your knowledge, and guest blogging is a great way to do both. But, this process is sometimes easier said than done.

Articles written by beginners and professionals alike go to the same place before publishing — past the editor’s eyes. So learn the secrets of crafting the perfect pitch. We’ve polled the editors at top industry publications you’ve always wanted to work with for the answers!

kelsey jonesKelsey Jones, Managing Editor at Search Engine Journal

Twitter/Google+

What are some reasons you might reject an article? 

I will reject an article if it contains terrible grammar (that would take too long for the writer or our team to fix);if it contains repetitive or overly argumentative statements that are just being said to “fan a fire,”create controversy, or rile people up (which isn’t constructive);if it is not unique (it has been flagged on Copyscape); if it is on a topic that has been written about several times before; or if its ideas are not stated in a unique way.

How should a prospective writer grab your attention? Do you have any tips on pitching? 

Most of our new contributors now are via referral only; but, I had one writer, Shane Jones, who not only knew my name, but also knew what I had written before on SEJ and other sites and that I was fairly new at my position. You’d be surprised how many pitches I get that begin with “Dear Editor” or “Dear [Former Editor’s Name]” when my name is on the About page.

He pitched his background, gave specific articles that he’d already published elsewhere that were directly applicable to our audience, and genuinely showed a love for SEJ and what we were trying to accomplish with our site. A little attention to detail goes a long way!

pitching tip 1

The best or most popular article on SEJ — what makes it so special? Is there a universal recipe for a good article?

We have several posts that are evergreen and were written months or even years ago; but,they’re still relevant. For instance, our recent post about Instagram followers was one of our most popular this month, and it was published in March!

We try to choose topics that are universally useful to people working in marketing/the digital industry.We’ve also found that titles have a major impact on overall traffic and social shares. We often brainstorm about or tweak titles several times before (and even after) an article is published to make it just right. A good title is attention-grabbing without being outrageous; and it lets the reader know right away what they are going to get when they read the post.

Foto Congreso cuadrada Benet M. Marcos, Editor-in-Chief at Socialancer

Twitter/ Facebook

What are the top 5 reasons you might reject an article?

A failure to abide by our publishing rules. While not everyone strictly adheres to these rules, they must be observed, at the very least, during content creation.

A failure to address the subject in an in-depth manner. Some people skim over content, either because they do not want their competition to know what they know, or because they do not have sufficient time to write the requested length (a minimum of 1,000 words).

A lack of value (the article simply promotes the writer’s own products).Developers of social media tools write for us, and we allow them to discuss their tools. After all, they have the most intimate knowledge of them; but, they should write with a specific approach in mind: the reader comes first.

The content is too obvious. The reader would lose interest.

Plagiarism is detected. When trust exists and we have a close relationship with the author, this does not occur; however, on two occasions,plagarism was detected in first submissions. In addition to tools that assist in the detection of plagiarism, we employ the intuition that we’ve developed with years of experience analyzing writing styles, which can prove very useful in this regard.

For us, publishing a successful blog involves win-win collaboration. On many occasions, our editorial team helps writerscreate content, modify paragraphs and make changes that will improve the overall quality of the article to be published. I can assure you that the editing process is often more laborious that the process of creation.

What’s important to you when a new author pitches you? Do you have any tips on pitching?

We afford a great deal of importance to tone.We have to feel that the author is providing information in which he or she is knowledgeable and that they show an interest in what will be published in the blog. That is, he or she has invested time researching our blog and puts forward specific ideas as to why they wish to participate and what they might contribute. Messages in which potential authors ask to collaborate in a very generalized manner or ask us to investigate for them are rejected.

Nevertheless, these are issues that, while not specifically spelled out, are to be discussed from the onset: the author must talk about contributing, collaborating and their motives for participating. The author must provide clues that he or she is acquainted with what we offer our readers and explain how he or she might imparttheir knowledge of a tool, for example.

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What is the most popular article on your blog, and what makes it so special? Is there a universal recipe for a good article?

The article “Twitter: cómo pasar de 100 a 3.000 seguidores en un mes” has proven to be the most popular on our blog. In a little over a year, we have had approximately 50,000 visits, with an average duration of five minutes per user. There are a series of extremely interesting factors that have led this post to capture the attention of readers, and of Google:

  • The article offers first-hand insight. The matters expressed in the article should be the result of the personal experiences of the author. In addition, the entire process should be explained in a transparent manner. The “experience” factor is extremely important.
  • The post is structured in the manner of a step-by-step “process,andit expresses a methodology that anyone can follow.
  • The title is highly successful in terms of encapsulating the expectations of the reader. There are three key purposes of the title: to considerably increase followers, to do it in a short space of timeandto how to do it.

I believe this post presents the three elements of this “universal recipe.”However, there are clearly other questions that must be addressed, particularly in relation to the method of structuring articles (something that, in general, few authors do). It should be born in mind that the reading of Internet content is fragmented and that users generally do not have the time to read. Therefore, as an online publisher, you have to capture the reader’s attention from the outset and make sure that he or she continues to read your content for as long as possible.

If the post is of good quality, this can be achieved via the structuring of the article:

  • The first paragraph must address a problem that you know your readers are affected by.
  • In the second or third paragraph, a brief outline of what will be discussed should be provided (creating expectations).
  • After this point, each section should be structured under large headings, with images placed every 300 or 400 words to make the content more visually appetising and easier to scan.

The longer the post, the better it is for Google, obviously, and also for the reader who wishes to acquire a more in-depth understanding of the subject matter. Readers who wish to gain knowledge in your field will have your post as a reference page.

amberlyAmberly Dressler, Managing Editor at Website Magazine

Twitter/Google+

What are the top 5 reasons you might reject an article?

The article is promotional. As part of contributor guidelines, we require that articles are educational, not promotional. We consider promotional/biased articles as those that have in-article links to a company’s website, ones that list the author’s product or service as the only solution to the problem identified, and ones that promote the author’s business as one of “the best” or “the top” services in his or her particular niche (for example, “The Top 5 Project Management Systems” may include solid suggestions, but the fact that the author included his or her own project management system in the list, makes it something we cannot publish).

The article is not exclusive to us. It’s clearly important to run original content on a website — for both search engine and editorial integrity. At Website Magazine, we not only include our article exclusivity clause in our contributor guidelines, but also ask the guest author to confirm their article’s exclusivity and do a search of our own to ensure it checks out. Sometimes, however, potential contributors will think it’s OK to repurpose an article they published on their company blog; but, exclusivity, to us at least, means an article has not been published anywhere else — including a company’s blog, newsletter, etc.

The article is too basic. Website Magazine’s readers are responsible for their company’s web success, at leastin some way. When a guest author doesn’t write for our audience’s knowledge level (as describedin the contributor guidelines), it becomes pointless for us to publish their piece. At that point, we are not only wasting our editorial team’s time but also our readers, because a reader who has been working in SEO for five years, for example, doesn’t need to read “Why SEO is Important.”

The article isn’t relevant. Just as when an article is“too basic,” if it is not relevant to our coverage, it will be easily rejected.

The article fails to establish a connection. There have been many occasions where a potential contributor emails us (usually from a Gmail or Yahoo account — in other words, not a company email address) looking to expand their writing portfolio.

This is fine, of course, but then I notice that the writer is only linking their references to a particular website or that they mention a company in the article that isn’t the most popular choice for the topic they are discussing — and the list goes on. When this happens, it means that these “freelance” writers might have been paid by the company to generate links. If there is a murky connection between a writer and a company mentioned in their article, that’s definitely a reason to reject an article. Another example of this is when a freelance writer contributes articles for one company — when they are being transparent — and then another company the next time. I’ve asked contributors to only submit for one company in the past. There’s no clear contributor guidelines violation here, but it makes me feel uneasy.

Bonus: The article is poorly written. In this situation, it is a bit tougher to reject an article, because I could take my time and spruce it up— which I do quite frequently — but there comes a point when you just have to ask the person to re-write it. Again, that takes time, as I try to provide detailed instructions on what needs to be improved.

An author writes you for the first time — what is likely to grab your attention? Do you have any other tips on pitching?

I read and respond to every single email that includes a pitch. That said, when a potential contributor takes the time to research our previously published content and form a detailed synopsis, it helps. By not including an article synopsis, there becomes a chain of unnecessary emails. A poorly written pitch is when a person writes in saying they are a fan of our magazine, has 15 years of experience in web design, and wants to see about writing for us.

An excellent written pitch includes the author’s name, their job title, a short author bio, and a 40-100 word article synopsis outlining the who-, what-, where-, and when-type info of the article they want to contribute. By including all of this information, there is a lesser need for back and forth, and I can provide suggestions about their article synopsis and assign a word count.

If a person is unsure about exactly what they want to write about, a bulleted list of three-to-five article titles is also fantastic. My best advice is to just be prepared.

pitching tip 2

The best or most popular article in/on Website Magazine — what is so great about it?

The best or most popular articles on WebsiteMagazine.com or in our print issues are ones that address common problems within a particular niche (e.g. SEO, social media, design,development, etc.) and provide actionable tips to overcome the issues, as well as include real-world examples.

What are some of the most common mistakes that authors make in style, structure, composition or any other aspects of writing?

Some common mistakes that contributors make are not appealing to a “scanner” audience: using first person in the wrong setting, and rushing to turn an article in. As for a “scanner” audience, this simply means that writers should include subtitles, lists when appropriate, and relevant images because authors have very little time to capture a reader’s attention. At Website Magazine, we also frown upon first-person narrative point of view (including “I,” “me”and “you”).It often comes across as unprofessional, and we are a business-to-business publication.

Lastly, by rushing to turn in an article, many contributors miss mistakes they would have caught had they waited a day to review their article with fresh eyes. Of course, all contributed articles are reviewed by Website Magazine’s editorial team, but sometimes there are mistakes that only the original author can catch.

trevorTrevor Klein, Content Strategist at Moz

Twitter/Google+/LinkedIn

What are some reasons you might reject an article?

We’ll reject an article outright if it’s already been published elsewhere, contains plagiarism or if it simply isn’t relevant for our audience. If a post shows promise, though, we’ll generally recommend improvements to the author, offering to take another look if they’d like to make revisions. Some of the best ideas start out in really rough shape, and we want to help extract and distill their virtue whenever we can.

How should a prospective writer grab your attention? Do you have any tips on pitching?

There’s the obvious tip: Be a real person. The moment I get a whiff of an automated message, your email gets deleted — I just don’t have time to respond when I don’t know if a person is on the other end. Make your pitch brief, personal, and TAGFEE; and don’t mention anything about a link — that’s a dead giveaway that you’re pitching the post for the wrong reasons.

pitching tip 3

Beyond that, do some homework and get to know our readers. We spend tons (I mean tons!) of time getting to know our audience and what they want to read. If you can convince us that you’ve got something they’ll find valuable, you’re far more likely to get our attention.

Is there a universal recipe for a good article? Please share any insights on writing for Moz.

There’s no universal recipe because different articles are fantastic for different audiences. A post that would do fantastically well with the Moz audience might be thrown out by a BuzzFeed editor because it just wasn’t right.

For our audience, posts that provide unique value and are both credible and (most importantly) actionable tend to be the best performers. Case studies and results of experiments do well, especially those that offer our readers a way to be better at their own jobs. Our purpose is to teach people to be better marketers. If you’re pitching a post to Moz, the first question you should ask yourself is whether your advice can help people in that endeavor.

One post that performed spectacularly well was Dr. Pete’s post offering readers a tool to test their title tags after a design update from Google. It was easy to read and extremely actionable; and it provided a resource that folks in our industry can use… well, until Google updates its design again!

mikeMike Allton, Content Marketing Consultant and Authorat The Social Media Hat

Twitter/Google+/LinkedIn

What are 5 reasons you might reject an article?

The top five reasons I would reject an articleinclude: poor spelling and grammar, insufficient knowledge of the topic, clear commercial intent behind the post, too many external sources, and too light on truly helpful or interesting information.

What are the best — and worst — things a potential contributor could do in a pitch letter?

Letters that read like a form letter and don’t demonstrate any real knowledge or interest in my site are an instant turn-off. The best letters are ones that show the author has already spentfive minutes of research coming up with a topic that hasn’t already been addressed on my site in the past. The best contributors are ones who’ve invested time forming a relationship with me on social media by following my posts and engaging with them.

pitching tip 5

What was your most popular article?Why do you think it took off?

How not to use Google+ — this is my most popular post ever.It was helpful and unique, and it took a different spin than the typicalarticle (how not to do something versus how to do something).

It also helped tremendously that I had taken the time, before that article, to create relationships with other peers and colleagues online — influencers who read and share my posts and get them seen by a larger audience.

RgJEoTr4_400x400Kathleen Garvin, Director of Content Development at SEMrush

Twitter/ Google+/LinkedIn

What are some reasons you might reject an article?

I’ll flat-out reject an article for two reasons: it either has nothing to do with the industry, or the author/pitch-person is trying to arrange a spammy link exchange. Other than that, I consider a decent amount of pitches that come my way.

If an article with potential has grammar or spelling issues, I’ll try to work with it within reason (I’m a one-woman editing show!). Likewise, if a post is something we’ve covered a lot (think: an intro to keyword research piece) I’ll do my best to help the author flesh it out or introduce a new angle.

How should a prospective writer grab your attention? Do you have any tips on pitching?

Short and sweet wins this round for me. Because I get pitched a lot and help out in areas outside of editing and the blog, I appreciate those who respect my time. A quick intro, article idea and a good attitude help get — and keep — my attention. I also have a special place in my heart for those who adhere to our guidelines, which helps cut out a lot of back-and-forth. :) When it comes to tips for pitching, don’t be afraid to tackle a hot topic. Especially if you have a dissenting viewpoint.

pitching tip 6

The best or most popular article on SEMrush— what makes it so special?

SEMrush SEO Tips and Tricks for Small Business was a huge success for the SEMrush blog. Our accompanying SlideShare also received a lot of attention.

The post was popular because it offered lots of actionable advice for SMEs. The fact that a number of experts contributed and shared with their networks also didn’t hurt.

Is there a universal recipe for a good post?

When you’re looking to make a “bang” with an article, consider your audience — what do they want to know, and who do they want to hear it from? Round-up articles bring a lot of voices to the table. SlideShares and infographics are also share-friendly.

When it comes to everyday content, we evaluated the blog (comments, views, time on page, etc.) and used this information to approach certain bloggers about becoming regulars. Remember, it’s not all about you — it’s about what your readers want!

 

  • http://www.socialancer.com/ Benet M. Marcos

    I’m not only grateful for having been invited to participate on this
    round-table but also amazed with my colleagues’ experiences on online
    editing and pitching. Thanks to you all for the great content!

    • http://www.semrush.com Elena Terenteva

      Thank you, Benet! You taught me a lot and it’s great to be able to share your insight with our readers as well

    • Elena Terenteva

      Thank you, Benet! You taught me a lot and it’s great to be able to share your insight with our readers as well

  • http://www.socialancer.com/ Benet M. Marcos

    Sure, send us an email to editorial@socialancer.com with your proposal and links and we’ll have a look at it. I must say we only accept articles in Spanish. Thanks!

  • KGarvin

    Thanks for the kind words, Kerry! Good luck with your site!

  • ShaneJones15

    Honored to be included as an example in the Good Pitchers list! :) Thanks Kelsey for the shout out – every time I work with you it’s a pleasure!

    Kelsey = one of best editors I’ve worked with! So make sure you if you pitch her – you don’t waste her time! :P