I submit this with a brief foreword: The situations described herein are common, and deeply frustrating to the workers faced with them. The individuals doing the hiring (and antagonizing, however unintentionally) are, however, generally fantastic people to work with, helpful, kind and supportive. And that's part of the point: In this case, it's not personal, it's business. So act like it, and we'll actually be better friends for the effort.
While last year was the first one where I worked solely as a freelance writer, I've been at this for roughly half my life now (and sadly I'm not two years old, because that would make a very pitchable story). From business coverage to breaking news, ad copy to forty squidillion book, CD and DVD reviews, the more things change for the better, the more the same old annoyances rankle those of us hustling just to have a little green with which to pay the rent. Editors who work with freelancers are awesome people, big-picture thinkers with an eye for small details as well; no wonder sometimes the flow of communication with them suffers, getting lost between those extremes. And writers who hire freelance editors can appear to think of us as pleasant people who don't really do anything, but if you really feel like it you could pay them, I guess. (Even if you really feel this way, don't tell anyone. It doesn't speak well of you.)
Consider these simple and actionable points of contention. Act on them. Your client relationships and the quality of the work you get in return will more than justify the minor effort required.
- Know what you want. If you are hiring a writer, create a set of Writer's Guidelines for them to follow. Then, if they turn in something you're unhappy with, you can point to the guidelines and say, “See? The contract we have is for a children's book and you gave me a crossword puzzle. I'm not going to pay you,” and seem entirely rational. Conversely, if the writer asks you for specs and you wave your hand around in the air and say, oh, I don't have guidelines per se, just, you know, no fats, no femmes and no sans serif fonts, guess what's most likely to happen. I'll turn in something, and it will be light years off what you wanted, and you'll be mystified as to how I could shoot so wide of the mark. OR, it will be pretty close to what you wanted, but a huge time-suck for me, since I had to vet every single sentence against examples gleaned from your website or magazine, and you'll still have edits for me. This can't end well.
The problem here is simple: You (any of you who are hiring freelancers) are not paying enough for me to live on. That's why I have several jobs at any given time. Your time is valuable; that's why you contract work out to freelancers. SO IS MINE! Providing guidelines means we both get what we need AND what we want. It ensures you've actually given me information you only think you've shared, because it's standardized and everyone gets the same sheet to work from.
This has happened to me more than once and I've yet to blow my top with an editor, but it particularly rankles to ask for the information I need to do the job, be refused, then have criticisms leveled at me based on information someone claims to have “told” me. I've been chastised for failing to ask for an extension on a piece I turned in two weeks prior also. Hey, I'm a Virgo, so organization is hardwired into me by the cosmos. When you work with me I'll give you exactly what you ask for, but—wait for it—if you aren't specific and end up unhappy with the results, the petard you hoist may be your own.
Practical Postscript: Are you guidelines impaired? Here, you sweet foolish pain in the ass, is the bare minimum you can provide and still be golden in my eyes. Approximate word count. The information you need included with the piece (such as annotations), and whether or not you'd like it formatted a certain way (e.g. I need name and phone or email for all sources at the end of the piece; I need title, author, pub date, page count and metafilter tags for this book but I'll format them). If you don't have a font preference just say 12 point Times New Roman. Line spacing and paragraph preferences, or a note specifying that you'll deal with them in-house. Submissions: In body of email, a Word doc, or both? It sounds like a lot but it takes less than half a page to jot down this stuff and avoid having to send a mass email that makes your writers feel like crap for not anticipating your unarticulated needs. Save that behavior for your marriage.
2. There's really no hurry. In over twenty years of professional freelancing I have never missed a deadline. I have turned around a book review in 24 hours to placate an editor who demanded it; I've also been assigned a review several months out only to receive an email asking for a draft within three hours because someone dropped out. I delivered the work on time PLUS a complete rewrite because who uses writer's guidelines amirite? It's not like we're going to tell you up front the whole thing needed to be annotated! Ha ha! Ho ho! If there's a moth in the room with me I'll be unable to sleep, but when it comes to work you can't rattle me. I get stuff done on time.
Having said that, please be clear on your end about how genuinely urgent this work is before you make your crisis my problem. In neither of the above cases did the work actually need to be turned in that quickly. I received no extra pay or consideration for future work, and while I felt like a rock star for delivering, I also ultimately realized I was being toyed with needlessly.
This just came up again within the past week. I wrote a story and had a projected run date, then was asked twice to find more sources and add more interviews. THEN I was told it was going to run in two days instead of three weeks, and I needed to add this, flip that, and turn it in immediately. I did all this at the cost of a day spent hustling like the chump I turned out to be. The piece didn't run, the final edits I was promised have yet to appear, and it's now unclear if my original run date is even going to stand. Payday for this if it happens? $70. You don't have to tell me; I know it's not worth it, but the story was important to me. Considering the pressure I was under to write, rewrite and turn it in stat, I thought it was important to the publication, too.
I think editors just like to have their bases covered. I am a person who can always help you out in that regard. It's not braggadocio, just the truth. But if you don't respect the effort I put forth and honor your end of the bargain, it's unlikely I'll stick my neck out for you ever again.
3. If you're hiring an editor, of course you need to know what you want and make that clear to them before commencing. A contract in the form of a letter works nicely. But you also need to understand that editing is itself the job. When you contract with someone to do the work, you are obligated to pay them whether or not you use it or take any of their suggestions. You can revert the whole thing back to Spell-Check's worst nightmare, not publish it, or throw it in the trash. You have still hired someone to do a job which they completed, and therefore you must pay.
I rarely edit, but did once have the experience of someone hiring me for a job then saying, well, I'm not going to use this piece of copy after all but I'd still like to give you something for your effort. I can recall this and laugh in part because some people are just so darling in their utter obliviousness to the labor of others you have to love them. But with editing and housework it's easy to see how the disconnect happens. Oh, you cleaned my house beautifully, but now that I'm home it's already getting dirty again so I kind of don't want to pay you. Would you accept a cookie and eat it outside, please? With editing, a piece that needs a lot of reworking (and gets it per our agreement) may point up the fact that it's not particularly well thought out or organized. This is never what we want to hear, but it tends to result in much better, meaning clearer and more understandable, work.
The edits may even lead you to a totally new story. This happened to me: I wrote something I was wildly proud of, contracted with an editor to rework it (and paid in full beforehand because I value her time and attention), and was shocked to read suggestions that indicated half the piece really, REALLY had to go. I was upset and sad, but she was completely right. And the finished draft sold and was published to a response that still humbles me. The piece is part of a manuscript under consideration by a publisher now; I can promise you the original piece could not have dreamed of such an outcome. Editors earn it. If you ask for their help, thank them and pay them. They deserve it.
4. Pay on time. Pay on time. Pay on time. If you can't, take the initiative and tell the writer or editor what's going on well before they have to come after you for it. I have an outstanding invoice from over a year ago that is gathering moss; the editor was kind enough to put me on the magazine's masthead as a contributing writer, but he sends emails saying, “Off to write checks now!” and they never appear. Take me off the masthead and let me pay rent on time. Another editor bought a piece from me then seemingly vaporized; I have actually given up hope that the story or my check will ever appear and reworked it into a new piece to pitch to a better market, but yikes. If I see this woman's name at any point in my future I will run screaming in the opposite direction. The magazine may well be responsible for the decision, but as my editor and point of contact with them her job is to communicate with me about these things. Silent treatment = unacceptable. P.S. Pay on time. And if you pay horribly, be as kind as you can to your writers. I'm generally blessed and cursed in this regard, making next to nothing but getting to work with the kindest, smartest, most inspiring and wise people around. 2015 will be the year I make it all pay well, but for now I'm honored by the company I keep at work, these egregious breaches of etiquette notwithstanding.
5. This is essentially a summarization of the above points, but lead with kindness. The blurred perception that flows between editors (the ones who employ freelancers) and writers makes it hard for us to empathize with one another. An editor has a stable job, yes, but it involves cat-herding most people can't even imagine. If you have questions or concerns, certainly ask them, but don't put the pest in persistence when it comes to getting a reply. Be consistent and keep it light. Editors, know that the freelancers you're working with are a mixed bag. Some are highly selective about the prices they'll accept and company they'll keep. The rest of us would probably work for food, such is our anxiety about money. We need reassurance and to be placated, to know that wheels are in motion and they will eventually print, sign and mail a check to us. If you can't check in about that personally, I've received mass e-mails roughing out publication and payment dates that were informative and helpful, and I sure didn't hold it against the magazine that they took the initiative to head off a bunch of questions before they could be asked. Take care of yourself, of course, but take care of us, too. We're all part of the same mission, right? To produce the best damn issue of Maxim ever!
(Your mission may vary)
Heather Seggel is trying to be a good sport about the fact that she is without a home at present but her sense of humor is failing, failing utterly. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Follow her on Twitter @HeatherSeggel and be amazed by the depth of her silence.