Bitten by the Hand That Feeds (Mistake #83)

It’s not always appropriate to call up an editor. Email is usually fine. But sometimes – say if you have an idea which is topical and brilliant and you need to move quickly – it is perfectly acceptable, even preferable, to do so.

Occasionally a student will need cajoling into making the call. “Editors don’t bite” has become my go-to, summing-up tip for such occasions, and just yesterday, after giving a hesitant student my reasons why I thought he ought to do it, I found myself typing out those three words yet again.

Of course editors don’t bloody well bite and of course writers are not afraid of editors biting them. So why can it be so darned tough to call an editor? Why the reluctance to pick up the phone? And why have I been trotting out this advice for well over a decade?

Let’s consider some worst-case scenarios. Everyone will have their own personal nightmares here, but here are some of mine:

a/ Editor: “We’ve heard you’re a ****** to work with. Piss off. Give up. Become a plumber.” Click. Brr.
b/ My call being recorded and later used in a ‘How to Pitch’ journalism class as a comic example of how not to call an editor.
c/ An attack of Squeaky Voice Syndrome. Think Big Bang Theory’s Raj in the presence of attractive girls.

The troublesome business, of course, is not the conversation that will ensue, but the waiting for the phone to be answered when you’ve convinced your fingers to dial. Then there’s that interminable time lapse between you finishing your opening gambit and the beginning of their response: your head is still throbbing with the relief of having delivered your line and you begin to wonder whether your eardrums still work while you imagine the editor rolling his eyes at one of his colleagues in a ‘Good grief it’s another hopeful idiot on the line’ manner.

Stand up for the call – it’s far better than sitting down. You’ll speak more clearly and be more confident. Wave your hands about if it suits you. Nobody can see you. And really pay attention. It’s easy to over-concentrate on what you want to say, but focusing on what the editor says and his cues can take the pressure off delivering your ‘script’ and ease you into conversation, which is where you want to be.

What of that opening gambit? Keep it tight and informative. One example. “Hello, my name is Name Surname, and I’ve a feature idea about Thingamies that you might be interested in. Have I caught you at a good time to discuss?” But tailor it to whatever is appropriate.

Don’t waffle. When you stop, stay stopped. And be prepared for a positive response – not only an invitation to discuss the idea, but an acceptance of the idea (it can happen). This does mean you may end up discussing money, so be prepared for that – and any other – eventuality.

Emails are easy to ignore. If yours have been ignored a few times, pick up the phone. At least it tells the editor that you mean business, even if the response is a no. And if he sees your name in his in-box in future, he is – I think – likelier to respond, either way, once he’s had several instances of contact from you. I tend to remember my students from assignment 3 onwards – it takes that long to get them into my consciousness, so the rule of three is a good one to apply, I think. Two ignored emails? Call for your third.

You’ll feel great once you’ve done it, relieved and pleased when it’s over, and you know as well as I do that you will not be needing an anti-rabies shot once you put the phone down.

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