After several years of freelancing daily news stories for an online medical news site, Bianca Nogrady felt she had a handle on what the publication wanted. She would cover a single new study in each news story, economically summarizing the results in a few hundred words and then submitting her drafts. But one day Nogrady’s editor emailed her out of the blue and said her articles needed to include much more detail about the studies, such as more information about the methods the scientists used and the limitations of the experiments. The feedback served as a wake-up call for Nogrady to pull back and see writing patterns she had fallen into, she recalls.
Now Nogrady makes it a point to proactively ask for constructive criticism from editors. “There’s really nothing to lose by asking editors for feedback,” she says. It may be intimidating to seek out honest feedback at first, but talking through performance can help both staff and freelance journalists figure out what editors think of their work and accomplishments.
Getting feedback that goes beyond line edits can also serve as a tool for continued learning, says Swapna Krishna, a tech writer and former contributing reporter at Engadget. For example, it can help journalists fix big-picture issues that keep popping up in their writing, such as whether they need to flesh out characters more often, establish the background for new research findings higher up in their stories, or write more compelling headlines. Broad-ranging feedback can also motivate staff reporters to set more ambitious goals and meet a publication’s corporate metrics, such as writing enterprise stories along with daily news, finding ways to expand the breadth of topics they cover, or engaging more readers with each piece.
“Clear, precise, and actionable” feedback is a win-win for both reporters and editors, says Laura Helmuth, the health, science, and environment editor at The Washington Post.* When writers seek and implement feedback, they deliver manuscripts that are closer to what editors are looking for, says John Platt, an editor at The Revelator. Ultimately, that saves time for both writers and editors, he notes, adding that “editors like to work with writers who make their lives easier.”
When to Initiate the Discussion
Writers may struggle with figuring out how and when to ask busy editors to critique their work, Platt says. They might wonder if the request for feedback will be bothersome or come off as too needy. But reporters shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to editors. “It’s a journalist’s job to ask questions,” he says. “You do it all the time when reporting on scientific papers, asking what researchers did. Feedback is just asking questions about yourself.”
One of the best times to ask editors questions about your performance is shortly after a story has been edited or published, says Sonya Collins, an Atlanta-based freelance journalist who has written for publications such as WebMD, Scientific American, and Family Circle. Soliciting feedback at this point ensures that it comes at a time when the original story draft and the editor’s line-by-line suggestions are still fresh in the reporter’s mind. Ideally, the editor would not have mentally moved on to other stories yet, so they are most likely to have examples of the writer’s work that need improvement that they can point to. Discussing these examples can help reporters figure out how to further tailor their work to the editor’s and the publication’s style, Collins says. This helps foster budding writer-editor relationships by demonstrating that the freelancer is keen on working together and securing more assignments. “I want to make it clear to editors that whatever I gave them in the first story, that one article is never all that I’m capable of,” she says. “I thrive on feedback.”
Once reporters have been working with an editor for a while, however, they may not need broad feedback after every single story. Instead, Collins suggests checking in every couple of months to talk about a larger collection of stories with editors. Freelance reporters may use these discussions to ask for feedback on whether they are consistently getting the right angle for that publication, explaining the science at a level that the readership understands, and meeting other expectations. “Some stories can be a breeze, and others can be more difficult,” says Sara Chodosh, an assistant editor at Popular Science. “Having a little bit more experience working together on different types of stories gives editors a better sense of what you’re like as a writer and where you may need help.”
Even staff reporters, who might have formal performance reviews, can benefit from asking their editors for particular feedback on their work. Performance reviews don’t get at the nitty gritty of writing and reporting, and may be too infrequent to catch bad habits before they form. To get more continuous input, Ryan Mandelbaum, a science writer at Gizmodo, says he tries to meet with his editor every week for constructive criticism. This helps Mandelbaum set new goals for the next couple days and ensures that he isn’t blindsided by anything in his formal performance review. It’s a habit he adopted from working in a corporate, nonjournalism job. “I was actually surprised that there wasn’t as much of a culture of giving feedback in journalism, because I was just so used to sitting down with my boss every Friday,” he says. The feedback sessions became so ingrained, Mandelbaum automatically implemented them in his job at Gizmodo, too.
For a few months, when Gizmodo did not have a permanent science editor, Mandelbaum came up with a different alternative for feedback. He reached out to editors he knew at other publications for feedback and mentorship instead. Although a reporter’s own editor or direct manager should always be the first choice when seeking out feedback, occasionally meeting with other editors higher up in the organization chart—or even at other outlets—is not a bad idea. They probably won’t have as much detailed feedback, but at least in the case of editors at a reporter’s own publication, they can speak more generally about the goals of the organization and how reporters can help advance them.
How to Reach Out
Most editors say that the best way to ask for their input is by email. This gives editors time to think about the feedback they’d like to give, without feeling like they’re being forced into a confrontation, Chodosh says. Don’t impulsively query your boss in person or call an editor in the middle of the day. When you do send the email, explain that you are looking for ways to improve and would like their suggestions, she says. Then editors can decide whether they prefer to send back written suggestions as an email response, or schedule a time to talk in person or over the phone. “I appreciate the opportunity to have the time to think about what I’m writing, how I’m giving the feedback, and have the chance to craft my response a little bit,” Chodosh says.
Some editors may prefer scheduling phone conversations or face-to-face meetings, because they allow for more nuanced discussions. It’s easier, for example, to understand contextual cues and field follow-up questions over the phone or in person than by email. “It sometimes takes more time to draft an email full of feedback and send it than to just to talk to someone,” says Corinna Wu, a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News.
In-person conversations are also great for helping staff reporters and editors discuss what the next ambitious goals should be and how to achieve them. “It’s hard to cram in discussions of longer-term concerns and issues into a daily news meeting,” Wu says. That’s why it’s important to set aside time for critiques that are not immediate but still something writers and editors need to discuss, she says.
When the time comes for the writer’s appointed feedback session, they should limit the discussion to three or four specific questions, Wu says. A writer might have concerns about core reporting skills, or about picking and interpreting the most interesting research papers to cover for a niche audience, or about how to write more engaging ledes or illustrative background in their pieces. Whittling the feedback discussion down to a few specific concerns like these gives editors an indication of the kind of input writers are looking for, Chodosh says. “In the end, you are asking for criticism, and not everyone takes criticism well or is looking for really intense criticism, so a little bit of guidance on what it is that you’d like feedback on is helpful so that I don’t feel like I’m accidentally going to step over the line,” she says.
Writers should also make sure to take notes and digest the new suggestions from editors, says Yasmin Tayag, the senior science editor at Inverse. Feedback should not be taken personally, but as commentary on the writer’s work, she says. After all, the process of asking for feedback and incorporating it is part of the lifelong practice of journalism, Tayag says. “Learning good writing takes time and repetition and constant reminding.”
* An earlier version of this story did not appropriately attribute a statement to Laura Helmuth. The story has been corrected to clarify that the sentence stating “Editors need to earn their writers’ trust, and an efficient way to do that is to explain what they expect of the writer, and to help the writer understand how what they’re doing is working or needs work” is Helmuth’s wording. It has also been amended to reflect that it was Helmuth who described good feedback as “clear, precise, [and] actionable.”
Knvul Sheikh is a freelance writer and a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Audubon, National Geographic, Popular Science, Scholastic, Scientific American, and more. Knvul has lived in the foothills of the Himalayas in Pakistan, swum in the tropical waters of Singapore, and backpacked across the South Island of New Zealand. She is currently based in New York City and can be found on Twitter @KnvulS.