What do Editors Want? Health Editor Denise Schipani Tells All
Editor’s note: I’m very excited to present this interview with Denise Schipani, a successful health writer and editor (and also my friend). Denise is the features editor of the popular health website MedShadow.org and the author of Mean Moms Rule: Why Doing the Hard Stuff Now Creates Good Kids Later (Sourcebooks, 2012). If you dream of writing for the types of glossy magazines found on the grocery store rack, pay attention to what Denise has to say. Her experience as a magazine editor will serve you well.
RN2Writer: Welcome, Denise! Please tell us a little bit about your background as a writer and editor.
Denise Schipani: I spent the first 16 years of my career as a magazine editor, starting with my first editorial assistant job at CHILD magazine, which I started two weeks after graduating college. I worked there, at American Baby magazine, at a U.K. health/beauty mag called Zest, at Bridal Guide, and at a custom published woman’s magazine called All Woman.
It was when All Woman folded, when I was 8 months pregnant with my second child, that I went freelance. In the 10 plus years since then, I’ve written about everything from pregnancy and parenting to health and fitness to … well, as I like to say, whatever anyone will decently pay me for. Right now, I’m a features editor for a health news/advocacy website — part time and from home — and I continue to write, edit, and project-manage for a number of other clients.
RN2W: In the context of a print magazine, how does a freelance writer fit in to the editorial scheme? What is the writer’s role?
DS: A lot depends on the way the magazine works. When I was coming up in magazines, writers were carefully cultivated by publications. The editors’ job would be to stay on top of their beats, come up with and research story ideas, and then farm those ideas out to freelance writers, working collaboratively. There was also always room for writers to pitch ideas that could be fitted to the magazine’s tone and style.
RN2W: What does an editor expect a writer to deliver, both in terms of product and professionalism?
DS: I can’t say what all editors want, but I know what I’m looking for: Really good research chops. When I was a newbie editor, I had a quote from the TV journalist Linda Ellerbee above my desk. It said, “A journalist doesn’t have to know things. She has to know how to find things out.”
I can edit style, if a writer turns in prose that’s dry. I can create transitions if the sections of a piece don’t flow well. But I don’t want to re-report a story. On the flip side of the same coin is a writer who finds ALL THE INFORMATION and doesn’t know how to excise what’s not necessary to the story. I recently edited a piece that was supposed to be around 1500 words and it was 6,000. The guy didn’t know when to leave a quote or an explanation on the cutting room floor. That’s product – you also asked about professionalism. I have no time for writers who are precious about their work, disrespectful of my time, combative, uncommunicative, or sloppy.
RN2W: Please explain the query-assignment-delivery-fact checking process. How does this work?
DS: Again, this will vary hugely depending on the magazine or other outlet. But in a very general way, if a writer queries and the story sounds like a good fit, the assignment is made (maybe with adjustments if the idea’s almost there but not quite). I like to do an assignment letter or outline of sorts — start here, make sure you include a, b, c, and d, and do a sidebar or two on this or that. I’ll send along suggestions for sources, or links to related stories for background. Nothing crazy, but a general roadmap to follow.
Once a story is in, I do my best to at least read through it as soon as I get it, so I can get back to the writer and say that I got it, and will get back to him/her as soon as I’m able with questions. At most places there are other people who must weigh in, so I try to save up their questions and edits and give the writer everyone’s feedback at once. That saves everyone’s time.
Later in the process, hopefully, fact checking will happen, which is when a fact checker or researcher is given the story and the writer’s notes or contact information and links to studies or background info. It’s important that the writer participate in this process by providing that info promptly, and answering questions the fact checker might have.
After that, the story heads toward publication and while some pubs allow writers to see the final proof and others don’t have a policy as such, bear in mind that even if you see a “final” copy, things can still change after that. For example, especially in a print publication, changes in layout may mean cuts have to be made.
RN2W: What does it mean when a story gets returned to the writer with a request for edits? Is the editor saying you did a terrible job?
DS: Not usually, no (though I’d be lying if I didn’t say sometimes writers do a bad job!). But the vast majority of the time, a revision request is part of the collaborative process.
While the editor can (and should) do her own edits without having to go back to a writer to change things stylistically or organizationally, sometimes the writer has to re-report some areas, move things around, or re-write a lede (the opening of a story) because what he or she has turned in isn’t working. That’s part of the normal parameters of the job.
Sometimes you get by with a few questions that can be answered from your notes, sometimes you have to go back to a source and ask a few more questions and rewrite some sections, and sometimes the revisions are more substantive. But there’s almost always something.
RN2W: When it comes to health journalism, specifically, what do editors look for in freelance queries?
DS: Sorry — depends on the publication! Some places are looking for short-take stuff, a cool or unusual take on a newsy item or a bit of research that’s just come out. Some places want solid factual reporting on an evergreen health topic. So while that varies, it’s safe to say that every editor is looking at one big, important thing: has this potential freelancer read the publication or the website? Does she understand what we do — and more important, what we don’t do?
Queries that have certain elements will get looked at: a strong sense that the writer has matched a story idea to the type of story the pub does; and a distinct sense that the writer is uniquely qualified to tackle that topic.
RN2W: If a novice freelancer is interested in contributing to a print magazine, whom should they contact?
DS: There’s no magic person. If the masthead looks huge and confusing, pick a lower-level person. (Say, the editorial assistant in a features department or health department). Pick “editor” over “director” (so, health editor rather than health director), because editors are more hands on, directors more big-picture. But your mileage may vary!
RN2W: For health reporting, specifically, does the RN credential hold any value to an editor, or are you more interested in writing chops?
DS: That’s an excellent question. I’m going to be totally honest and say that unless I knew that an RN (or someone with another health or fitness credential) was a good reporter and writer, it would give me pause, and here’s why. I’d be concerned that this person would be relying only on his/her experience as, in this case, a nurse, and not as much (as a good reporter should) on research and interviewing experts. I’d be concerned that their perspective would be too narrow.
I’m not saying it would stop me, but it would give me pause. But if I saw clips and, even more important, evidence in a letter of intro or a query that this person knew how to report (they could tell me what research articles or whatever they’d relied on to write the query, say), then a person being a health professional would be helpful. And, of course, that credential would be helpful if I were specifically looking for an RN to write a particular type of story.
RN2W: Please tell us what you’re working on today.
DS: As I mentioned above, I’m the features editor for MedShadow.org, and I’m a freelance project manager and editor for one or two custom clients. I’ve also been writing essays about kids, parents and reading for a new site called Brightly. And then there’s my often-quiet but still active blog, Mean Moms Rule.
Bio: Denise Schipani is an editor, writer, project manager, author and blogger. She’s features editor at MedShadow.com, and has written for Parents, Parenting, American Baby, Better Homes & Gardens, Runners World, Woman’s Day, and many others. Her book, Mean Moms Rule: Why Doing the Hard Stuff Now Creates Good Kids Later (Sourcebooks, 2012) is based on her blog Mean Moms Rule. She lives on Long Island with her husband and two tween sons.
Many thanks to Denise for taking time to share her insight with us. If you had the ear of a health editor, what question would you ask? Tell us in the comments section!