Improving the relationship between editors and freelance writers
As I write this, I am waiting for a story to come in that should have been in my hand three days ago. The freelancer to whom I gave the assignment swore up and down that I’d have it by Monday, but here it is Thursday afternoon and I am late putting together my Friday email newsletter that goes out to 70,000 subscribers because I am missing that one story.
I’ve heard, “I’ll have it to you tomorrow,” for three days running, but still no story. I am not going to use this freelancer again.
To an editor, deadlines are not “objectives” or “goals.” They are the times after which a story is no longer useful. A writer who cannot meet deadlines is a writer who does me no good. Conversely, one who consistently gets work to me by or before deadline is pure gold, and I will turn to that writer again and again.
I want copy that meets basic AP style guideline most of the time. I want all proper names spelled right, and (since I edit online publications) all HTML tags and hyperlinks to work correctly. I need an extra-strong, extra-terse lead paragraph on every story because my websites, like most news websites, use a “weblog” format with a main page that shows readers a list of story titles and lead paragraphs or summaries and invites them to “click for more” on each story. If a story’s headline and lead paragraph don’t entice readers into making that click, I might as well not have run the story in the first place, because hardly anyone is going to read it. And, like it or not, online publishing is a business, and pageviews are our life and breath.
The business end works like this: our company sells between one and five ads on each page, and advertisers pay us a negotiated rate per thousand pageviews. I am not always sure which stories are going to capture our readers’ imaginations, and there are many times I will buy a story because I think it is important rather than because I think it will be overwhelmingly popular, but in the long run, from my employers’ perspective, my job is to make our pageview count increase every week and every month, year after year, while keeping costs (including freelance fees) per pageview low enough that our websites produce higher operating profits every quarter.
Another pressure I deal with is time. I don’t have enough of it. I work six or seven days a week, often more than 12 hours a day, and so do my site editors. A writer whose work need a lot of revision takes up a lot of our time, so we are always going to favor writers who turn in “clean copy” that needs little or no proofreading or rewriting.
A professional freelance writer recognizes the business and time pressures faced by editors and realizes that, no matter what other relationship we might have, he or she is a vendor and I am a client. I am not the right person to call at midnight, dead drunk, to complain about your latest fiction rejection or a problem with your love life, no matter how friendly I am toward you during our professional contacts. If you persist in using me as a free psychologist, sooner or later I am going to turn to other writers who are more businesslike in their approach. It is not that I lack compassion; I simply don’t have time to listen to very many hour-long tales of writers’ woe every week.
By contrast, I have one freelancer to whom I have happily paid an average of $3,000 per month for over two years in return for ten 250-word pieces per week that take him less than an hour each to write. This person always turns in copy well ahead of time, rarely makes a spelling or grammatical mistake, and makes sure all of his hyperlinks work before he sends a story to me.
When other tech-oriented editors ask me if I can recommend a writer, this person’s name is often the first one I mention. He is not aggressive about selling his work so he is usually grateful for these leads, and every one I give him increases his loyalty toward me. Conversely, the day this man slipped on ice outside of his home (in a small town in the northern Midwest), I filled in for him personally and paid him his running rate for the days he was unable to work even though I was under no legal obligation to do so.
Please note that I have not yet mentioned creativity or writing quality, but have emphasized the business side of the relationship between a freelancer and an editor. This is because I edit news websites, not a poetry quarterly. I need accurate reporting and reliability more than I need copy that will make readers mutter, “This is truly elegant writing. Wow!”
I have nothing against creativity, mind you. I’ll take it when I can get it, and I will pay extra to any writer who consistently produces work that turns my head (and readers’ heads) with its beauty.
But in the cold business of online news, a merely competent writer who turns in accurate copy on time and behaves in a professional manner almost always wins out over an artful writer who needs lots of handholding, turns in stories late, or doesn’t bother to proofread his or her work before sending it to me.
—Robin ‘roblimo’ Miller
editor in chief, http://osdn.com;
The Open Source Development Network
There are a bunch of things that you didn’t address — topics that, as a new-to-serious-editing editor, I’m wishing that more freelancers understood.
- When I invite a freelancer to pitch articles to me, I expect that you’ll spend a bit of time researching the publication (or at least its online site). I have the expectation that a freelancer will want to create an ongoing relationship with me, as an editor who can be a regular supplier of those fancy pieces of paper called “checks,” so it behooves you to learn the publication’s “voice” as soon as possible. I don’t mean just in the way of style, but recognize (or ask) who is the reader? I just had a freelancer pitch me a well thought out article that could be great to read… but is utterly useless to the readers of my publication. (If you can’t tell from the publication, or honestly can’t get your hands on it, it’s fine for you to ask who the reader is and what he cares about. This is one way to get into my good graces, as it shows me that you’re thinking about the correct issues.)
- If I ask you to provide me with a few article pitches, they should be specific and at least a bit thought out. You don’t have to know exactly which products you’ll include in your review, for example, but you should at least be able to say, “Several vendors are promising solutions to the old problem of [whatever], and at least a few are offering products under $100. I’d like to take a look at them and see whether they deliver what they promise.” If you can name names, great — but it’s always a good idea to err on the side of specificity. What I don’t want to see are vague ideas like, “I could write something about storage.” Once we have a working relationship, that might be feasible; at that point we’ll brainstorm based on your interests and my needs. But to begin with, I want to hear about things you know, and I want details.
- Apply the Rule of Three to your article pitches. Give me three ideas, each one in a single paragraph. Tell me what the idea is, why my readers will care about it, and why you’re the right person to write this story. In all likelihood, I’ll pick only one of the ideas (though I’ll feel stupid about doing so… however, I rarely want to give anybody multiple concurrent assignments, and surely not when we’re new to one another). Recycle those ideas with another editor… but once you’ve finished the assignment I give you, it’s okay to remind me about one of the “failed” ideas one more time. (“I’m still interested in doing the comparative review of dark chocolate desserts, which I’d mentioned to you last month. Here’s why I think it’s still a timely story….”)
- I’ve been surprised at how many freelancers expect me to contact them with ideas for them to write about. When I know you, I’ll tend to do so, especially once I’ve discovered that you’re really good at covering marketing issues or that you grok the matters important to Notes users. At that point, I’ll pick up the phone to say, “Hey, I had an idea for an article we could do about marketing chocolate-covered mouse pads, and I think you’re the right person for it.” But if you want assignments, buck-o, you’re best off to suggest them to me. Otherwise… well hey, how else will you get to write about the things that really interest you?
- Re: introducing yourself. I’ve found that it’s hard to “get to know” a new-to-me freelancer. Give me some idea of the beats you cover, and the way you cover them (product reviews, news, trend features). Tell me what topics enthuse you; I’d rather assign articles that you’re passionate about. Not only are you more likely to spend a lot of time on subjects you care for, but your enjoyment is likely to show through in the text.
- Ideally, I’ll send you an email that confirms what we agreed to: “You’ll write 750 words for me on the history of chocolate, and how it relates to recent events in the computer industry. I’ll pay you $1/word, and you’ll get me the text — with at least one screen shot — by November 1.” If I don’t send you this, it’s okay for you to send me a written understanding of what you’ll be doing; at least this way we both have a record. (It isn’t for CYA reasons, at least not usually… but I know how often, as a freelancer, I’d forget the details and wonder, “Did I say I’d have that done by the 1st? or 2nd?” As an editor, my memory is even worse, as I have a lot more article balls in the air.) You and I are best off if this email assignment letter is very descriptive: this is the angle you’re going to take, these are the vendors you’ll probably include, etc.
- If you run into trouble with an article, tell me as soon as possible. I’d prefer you err on the side of worrying aloud in my direction, to tell me that “I’m having a hard time getting through to the PR people… if I don’t hear from them by Monday, I may ask you to step in.” If I know, early enough, that a product won’t arrive or that your Mom went into the hospital, I have a chance of assigning something else. (Maybe even to you. If it’s a product-not-arriving problem, you might end up with twoassignments: the substitution and the original review, when the item does eventually get there.) If I don’t know about the problem until two days before the piece is due, I’ll be in a world of hurt and you’ll never get another assignment from me.
- I’ll try to send you comments on the text you send in, within a couple of days of receipt. Unfortunately if I need major work done on it, I’ll need an unreasonable turnaround period; this is karmic payback for the times you called a PR person and needed questions answered in three hours. I still need you to drop everything and respond to my queries.
- Not every editor sends back your text with queries, though, and (unfortunately) few give you an opportunity to correct errors introduced during the edit process. Don’t expect it.
- It really helps me if you write a spiffy headline and appropriate subheads. I might not use them, but at a minimum I appreciate that you spent time figuring out the break points in the article. If we use them, include a deck too. (From a creative standpoint, try writing the deck FIRST: a wise editor once told me that if you can write the deck, the rest of the article is easy. I’ve found it to be true.)
- And please, please learn to write a useful lead, that draws the reader into the article. In the assumption that most editors will change your lead no matter how good, I’ve found that several freelancers do a shoddy job at this figuring that “the editor has to earn her pay too.” In reality, I’ve found that most people who don’t write a good lead don’t have a good article that follows. Make every word your very best. Even if I change your text, I’ll appreciate your good writing — and I’m apt to talk with you, the next time, about how you can structure your piece so it fits into what I’m looking for. (If you hope to write for me often, it’s a good idea to do a before-and-after, comparing what you sent in to what I published. The more you can approximate our published style, the less work I’ll have to do and the more I’ll cherish you.)
- This point really varies by publication, but I feel strongly about it myself: for god’s sake, let yourself show through. Let your article reflect your personality, your sense of humor, your delight with a cool product, your disgust with a bad situation. That doesn’t mean that you should make every article an opinion piece, but pick expressions that reflect who you are. You can still stand on the sidelines as a dispassionate observer, but let it be you standing on the sidelines, not some other bozo. Note, for example, that I always choose chocolate examples; that’s part of my online and writer’s persona, and reflects a real person who, of course, has the good taste to know that chocolate is an important part of life. I could pick much more mundane and boring examples but this lets me show through even when I’m being very serious. Readers respond to this sense of a “real person,” too; I’ve had readers give me pounds of chocolate when they’ve met me at conventions.
- Once we’ve been working together for a while: If you’re going to be at a trade show, let me know about it. I may want to guide you for possible assignments (“If you’re going to be there, please make a point of looking at the biometrics devices, and tell me if you think there’s something worthwhile for us to cover”). If you’re lucky, I’ll be there too and we’ll have lunch on my publication’s expense account.
And, written a few years later… This duplicates some of what is written above, but we’re sure you can handle it.
My writing experience maps very closely to my experiences as a computer consultant. To some degree, you work with the client you’ve got. If you really can’t stand them, you fire them. There are a few editors about whom I’ve said, “I’ll never write for himagain! No matter what the pay!” Fortunately, that’s rare. (Though you could get me going about the comparative review that I wrote, for peanuts, in the Dark Days when I thought that it’d be more useful to stand on a street corner holding a sign, “Will write for food.” That editor changed my choice of the best product. Somewhere around here I have a little doll with his face painted on it, and a lot of pinholes.)
In other words, on occasion you get a bad apple.
Overall, however, these are Esther’s Rules for Editor-Writer Happiness:
- Make sure that everyone knows exactly what is expected, by what day and in what form. The more precise, the better.
- Assume that both of you will forget those details. If you had a phone conversation about the article, be sure to write a follow-up email message that says, “It was great talking to you about Sex and the Single Linux Programmer. Thanks for giving me the assignment! Here’s the summary of what we decided the article would cover; the components expected (article of 1500 words, 500-word sidebar about How To Get a Date, a feature chart); the due date. It’ll pay $x.” This can be short, but it should have all the information that you should have scribbled on the paper in the first place. This can, of course, also take the form of a formal contract, but that rarely includes notes like, “These three vendors are worth talking to.”
- Sometimes, the editorial policies are obvious. (For example, if you’re doing a product review, you sure won’t give the vendor a peek at the article.) Other times, they are less so. Who’s responsible for fact checking, and what parts of the article are okay to show to whom? If you don’t know, ask. You don’t look stupid by asking; in fact, editors consider the process-queries a sign of professionalism. You do get in trouble if you make a wrong guess. CIO.com has had to add a paragraph to its contract to say, “You’re responsible for fact checking, and don’t you dare show the article to anybody before it’s published!”
- Find out when the invoice should be sent. Find out how long to wait before you can reasonably send the “Where’s my check?” message. At each publication, I have a pretty good idea of how long it’ll be before the check should have arrived; it isn’t tacky to ask me for that info. There’s no reason to wait until Day 45 to whine when the check should have arrived by Day 30. And it’s nice to be able to predict when the money will come in (“Let’s see, the check for that article should cover my car insurance payment…”). [One reason that I apparently earn freelancer loyalty is that I’ve been known to write to the author to say, “Did you get a check yet? I want to be sure that Accounting is on the ball.”]
- Don’t be shy about asking about the check. Some authors behave as though it’s rude to ask for their money. (Actually, a surprising percentage have to be forced to write an invoice.)
- Ask — at the beginning of the project — what the process will be. Will the editor send you a marked-up copy of the text before it’s published? or will it appear online without you ever seeing what was done to your words? How long should you expect it to take before your article is published? (Kind editors make a point of telling the author “Your article is up!” with the link.)
- When you send the article and/or the invoice, always include something like “Please acknowledge receipt of the file, even if you don’t actually look at the content immediately. I want to be sure that it got there.” Don’t assume receipt! [This happens to the best of us. I sent my own boss an article 3 weeks ago, and wondered why he never even grunted acknowledgment. I just found out on Friday that he hadn’t ever seen it… “Oh there it is, you sent it on Feb 22!”]
- Ask the editor what format is best. At DevSource.com, I loved for my authors to send me the file in clean HTML, especially if they had a lot of links and code.
- Assuming that the article appears online, if you have a venue to promote the article (or even just to digg it), use it. We want articles to become insanely popular. You’re probably active in a community of people who want the knowledge you just imparted, and who respect you well enough to believe that your “Hey, my article is up!” message isn’t gratuitous info (much less spam). It’s even nicer if you tell the editor you’ll do that promotion; such things are endearing. (That is, you care about the article’s success, not just the check.)
- If there is a problem with the article or your ability to deliver on the original date, let the editor know at the earliest possible moment. Don’t wait until the day it’s due to say, “Sorry, I need two more weeks” (or worse — and all too common — fail to communicate at all). The sooner I know there’s a problem, the sooner I can deal with the situation (such as “Damn, what rabbit can I pull out of the hat?”) Tell the editor, “I’m having a hard time finding people who are actually installing Vista” or “The code for this was worse than I imagined” or “My day job had a big project that consumed all my time.” Sometimes the editor can help; for instance, I just posted a message on a few mailing lists for a freelancer who is having a hard time locating people who fit the qualifications for the article (Left- handed blonde Vista users or whatever) and I have often helped to get a vendor to send the author software. (A few of my Loyal Freelancers love me simply because I got them free MSDN subscriptions.)
- If you’re late, don’t just say “I can’t make it by Wednesday.” Tell me when you can deliver instead. (“…I’m really sorry that I can’t deliver in 10 days as I intended to, but I believe I can get it done by the end of the month.” If you’re really truly trying to get it done on time but you think there might be a problem, still tell the editor about it. Then you can surprise her and get it in on time after all.
- Deliver the article 3 days early. That makes editors love you.
If the editor doesn’t have a clear process, then sometimes you can create one simply by asking these sorts of questions.