Issue 54 - The Gatekeepers: Agents and Editors - Jessica Sinsheimer, Lucia Macro, Stephany Evans

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ometimes, my mouth gets away from me. If I have an opinion on the tip of my tongue, chances are that it will come out somewhere, likely via a blog post or op-ed piece. When being published is as easy as pushing a button, life is good for us writers, right?

But it’s not always so easy. Whether we desire a larger audience, ongoing (paid) writing work, or a platform that’s not digital, there will always be outlets for our writing that have gatekeepers: the folks who decide what gets published and/or who gets hired. Let’s take a look at some of the most common gatekeepers you’ll meet on your writing journey. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll break these down into different sections for freelance writers and authors.

Freelance Writers


Editors are the first person that freelancers usually encounter as you make your way into paying markets. As you work with them more, editors are known to you in a sort of dual role, aren’t they? First, they’re guarding the gate to their magazine, newspaper, or website; but once they swing it open and let you in, they often serve as a resource and colleague with valuable insight to your writing. What an odd dichotomy!

In their role as gatekeepers, editors must make a quick decision on your story pitch. They’ll decide this based on originality and apparent development of your story idea, fit within their publication, your industry qualifications, and the likelihood that you will produce a solid text that’s going to cause little or no headaches on their side.

Key to this gate: The editor needs a steady stream of well-developed, well-researched, and unique ideas. They may even look past small grammatical errors or lack of published clips if you can wow them with a pitch that’s timely and fresh.

Hiring Managers/Human Resources

For freelance writers looking for steady work-for-hire arrangements, the hiring manager is their first barrier. Often, this gatekeeper doesn’t know a whole lot about career writers or the industry itself, but she does know the company’s needs on her end.

This gatekeeper will be looking for a writer who has specific qualifications or publications in the field and can produce the content needed on a regular basis. She wants to place a writer who is a great match for the company and likely to stick around and/or finish the project. Choosing the wrong writer is a waste of her time, so she’ll likely be meticulous in the hiring process.

Key to this gate: Your resume opens this door. Be careful to exactly and clearly match your qualifications with the needs of the company.

Direct Clients

Sometimes the clients looking to hire freelance writers are their own barrier. They know they need a writer to produce their content or finish their project, but they just don’t know how to make that connection. Common mistakes for first-time hirers include low-balling cost, hiring the first person with slick words that they come across, or underdevelopment of the project at hand.

This gate often needs just a little oil. As a freelance writer, you know the trajectory of most projects, so don’t be afraid to do a little handholding for your client. If you walk them through the process, with special attention to their needs along the way, you’ll likely garner yourself a client for life.

Key to this gate: Convince clients that your abilities match their needs, and then follow through.

“Work your contacts, ask questions, and use social media platforms to find out how to go beyond the screen and find the beating heart on the other side.”

Digital Gates

Sometimes the fence is electrified—er well, digital. In this case, both freelancers and authors face the task of getting beyond the cyberspace and into contact with the actual human who makes decisions.

For example, the freelancer may find digital fences when submitting resumes that are scanned for keywords before being passed to a hiring manager. Or they may waste precious time and run into some dead ends when trying to locate the direct e-mail of the editor in charge of assigning stories for a target magazine.

Authors have their fair share of digital hoops to jump through, too. They need to dig into the static of the web to find the agents or publishing houses that are best matched to their work in progress. Or they may try to get their manuscript into an inbox that’s a little higher up the chain of command, via some clever LinkedIn research.

These barriers and efforts take time and research to overcome, but the Internet is at your fingertips. Work your contacts, ask questions, and use social media platforms to find out how to go beyond the screen and find the beating heart on the other side.

Key to this gate: Be persistent, but respectful. Good research may lead you to a personal Facebook page or Twitter account, but good manners should dictate your use of it.


Authors, your journey, and the gates you’ll encounter along the way, are a little different than the freelancer’s path, although some of the same concepts apply. Here are the typical people your work will meet before it gets into the hands of your adoring fans.

Beta Readers

Beta readers are the friends, colleagues, or writing groups that give you direct, honest feedback on your work in progress. Bet you didn’t think of your coffee klatch as gatekeepers, did you? Yet, if they’re honest and have a basic understanding of writing and rhetoric, their input is of value to your manuscript. They are, in essence, your first audience. Lend them your ear.

Key to this gate: Many beta readers are Internet friends or local reading groups made of fellow writers. You get what you give, so be ready to actively participate and provide feedback yourself.

“Those that reflect adequate editorial care are still judged quickly, though, making your opening salvo that much more important.”

First Readers

This gatekeeper can sometimes be found ensconced in some hovel of an office, reading through “slush” (that is, unsolicited submissions) for a publisher or literary agent. The reader is often an intern, unpaid volunteer, or editor of some sort, although we have seen the occasional freelance reader. Since this is the first pair of eyes that rakes across manuscripts, the main role here is as a sorter—choosing what to pass up the chain of command and what to reject. Anecdotal evidence from within the industry says that a high percentage of manuscripts are rejected in this first step, often due to very basic grammar, syntax, or quality issues. Those that reflect adequate editorial care are still judged quickly, though, making your opening salvo that much more important.

Key to this gate: The first reader must be grabbed by the throat within a couple pages. Wake them up!


Literary agents work the entrance when it comes to publishing books, both fiction and nonfiction. Once your novel (fiction) or proposal (nonfiction) is complete, agents will evaluate its strength and marketability. They will then (hopefully) contract with you, agreeing to represent your work to publishers and take care of the nitty-gritty details of the publishing game in exchange for a percentage of your sales. Getting through this gate requires commitment and dedication, along with the talent that you’ve bled into your manuscript! Other, more expert writers will describe the literary agent process in this issue.

One important note here: the publishing world we find ourselves in is dynamic. Everything is in a state of flux. Authors can sometimes skip this barrier entirely and knock on the door of publishers directly. This is especially true for nonfiction works, some children’s books, and for authors approaching small and university presses.

Key to this gate: Whether or not you get “in” will depend heavily on your pitch, so research the heck out of it and make it great. Another key here is accurate match to the agent; not every agent is interested in every topic.


Those able to approach a publisher directly will do so with either a detailed book proposal or a completed manuscript. This gatekeeper actually consists of several smaller players in the role, such as interns, acquisition editors, or a first reader. The work is evaluated on many of the same merits as agents look at, specifically marketability, fit with the publisher’s list, and quality of the work.

Key to this gate: Publishers want to make money. There are several ways to convince them that your book is saleable: nonfiction writers should create an exhaustive, well-researched nonfiction proposal. If you’re approaching with manuscript in hand, be sure it’s in its most polished, ready to publish (saleable) state possible.


We writers like instant gratification as much as the next person; but in an era when being published is as easy as “right click,” it’s sometimes hard to come up against a closed door. Whether the gate is opened or not will depend on your knowledge and actions. If you are responsive to what the gatekeepers want and need, you’ll soon start encountering fewer closed gates and more welcome mats, as you grow in your writing career.

Allena Tapia specializes in writing for the education market and Latino topics. She also provides editing and translation services. Find her at GardenWall Publications ( and Freelance Writing (


Previous columns:

Sowing and Reaping: Are You Getting These Benefits of Blogging?

Choose Your Own Adventure: The Many Paths of Freelance Writing

Own It or Outsource It: The Writer's Guide to DIY Decisions

Smart, Not Saturated: Social Media Solutions for Writers


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