Monday, April 02, 2007

8 Simple Rules for Being a Good Freelancer

Here's a topic you don't see discussed to death by editors, but we should: clueless freelancers. The Editrix believes editors, rather than freelancers, should discuss this topic to death because we might just get ourselves a better pool of freelancers.

Many a freelancer likes to hang out on blogs and on lists and question why, oh why, doesn't she get any work? Is the world against her? Is it her lack of publishing credits in major media outlets? a lack of connections? a lack of "platform"? Possibly. But more likely, it's cluelessness about the job that editors do, and how to make your own freelancing services invaluable to an editor. Plus, there's also quite a bit of idiocy on the part of relatively inexperienced freelancers about how the publishing business works. In fact, these comments are really aimed at those new to the freelance writing world. If you've made a living for three or five years as a freelance writer in years that did not include 1998 - 2000, you obviously know what you're doing and can stop reading, or better yet just skip to commenting.

1. Editors are overwhelmed. Don't waste their time. This is not a scientific statistic, but 100% of the b2b editors the Editrix has known have way the hell too much to do and not enough hours in the day to do it (hence the Editrix's spotty posting record). Editors, like most of the rest of today's workforce, must contend with not enough staff and trying to grow products despite that. And, deal with deluges of email and too many pointless meetings they cannot avoid, plus their own personal boredoms and frustrations that come with most jobs. For freelancers, understanding this simple concept will make you invaluable, if you act upon it accordingly.

2. Deliver what you were asked to. When the Editrix says she want a 1,200-word piece on something, that is what she wants. She doesn't want a 1,500-word piece that she then has to take time to send back to you, or spend her time cutting, or ask the one other person on her staff to fix up. Cutting something means that she must use some valuable thinking time on what needs to go. Publications have space limitations, and any editor worth her or his salt knows how much copy, almost down to the precise number of words, they need to fill that space. Of course, some pubs have more wiggle room than others. If in doubt, ask the editor up front. You can make yourself invaluable if you give an editor clear options about where to cut, if she's not sure how much space she may have (with advertising, it can be a guessing game right down to the wire).

3. Write well, and don't expect anyone to spend time correcting your work. The Editrix may have "editor" in her job title, but that does not mean she loves copyediting. She doesn't. It's up to you to make sure your piece does not have passive voice stinking up the place, that your list of five points contains five points and not four or six, that your tone and sentence length is appropriate for the type and style of the publication, that your grammar is up to snuff, and that you have used something in addition to Microsoft Word's spell check and grammar tools to check your piece. Spell check will never, ever flag "untied" when you meant "united," nor will it question "pubic" when you meant "public."
As for fixing your work, let the Editrix just say that if you have given her three assignments that were stellar and the fourth is kind of a dud, she'll probably assume that either her assignment wasn't clear or that you were having a bad week. If it's your second assignment from her, she'll assume you're not really great. She might give you one more assignment just to see if her assumption is correct, if she is pressed for time and doesn't have a big pool of other known freelancers to choose from. If she does have a big pool of freelancers, though, your boat is sunk. And do not EVER expect to be given a chance to fix something that is fundamentally flawed. The Editrix does not have the time or the inclination to teach you your craft.

4. Please don't share the sordid details of your life to explain why your story is late. Unless you knew the Editrix and socialized with her before she gave you an assignment, the Editrix is not your friend. She does not want to hear that you have been babysitting two friends' dogs and all the extra work is going to make you late on your deadline (true story, the Editrix does not make this stuff up). The Editrix likes chatting with her freelancers, and getting to know something about them, but still--no hotflash stories, no drinking exploits, no detailed medical stories, no lavish foreign vacation stories (obviously, we're paying you too much!), no marital problems, no drug rehab. Unless you're Augusten Burroughs, in which case you can tell me pretty much anything you want. Including your stint as a Barbazon model.

5. Don't plagiarize. Seriously, I can't believe I have to say this, but I found out recently that a freelancer who does a lot of work for our company, and used to work here, turned in a piece to me in which she had copied sentences verbatim from various paragraphs in a government report and plunked those disparate sentences into one paragraph. Then she thought that we wouldn't catch it if she cited the wrong report as her source. Ye gods.

6. Do not expect to be paid for at least 30 days from the time you submit your invoice. Yeah, you may "know" that the Editrix's organization cuts checks weekly for vendors. Do not mistake that "fact" for one which requires her to physically take something down the hall, out of her way, when she's in the middle of a Framemaker crisis, deadline for getting conference materials together, getting an issue to press, or one of 13 other crises that haunt her days. She will make sure that your invoice gets to accounting fairly promptly, ie, in time to get you a check in about 30 days, because she has been on the other side of this equation and knows how much difference one check can make. But for the love of all things holy, DO NOT EMAIL the Editrix and lecture her about how your invoice should already have been paid when it has been sitting in her hands for 10 days. One fabulous freelancer the Editrix used to work with had a great system, in which on day 31 or 32, if he hadn't received a check, would send the Editrix a gentle email that he hadn't received payment for invoice #blah, dated and sent on blah, and to please let him know if she needed more info or another copy. Totally professional. And quite frankly, sometimes the Editrix had completely misplaced it, shame on her. But this polite yet effective nudge is one reason why this guy is on the top of the Edirix's list of freelancers, if she can every pay his rates again.

7. Undercommit on deadlines and overdeliver. OK, OK, it's complete corporate-speak, but there is an actual kernel of wisdom there, so bear with the Editrix. If you want to wow an editor, negotiate a reasonable deadline, and then beat it. Editors are always pressuring freelancers for stuff ASAP, if not a week ago. Be strong, and resist that pressure if you know you can't deliver something good in the timeframe the editor wants. The Editrix's fave freelancer used to negotiate with her for a week to do an assignment, then send it in on day 6. Every so often he sent stuff in on the day it was due, which was peachy as well. Once in a blue moon he would email, at least two or three days before something was due, to let the Editrix know he was having problems and might need an extra day. Which she always gave him, because he was damn good.

8. Pay attention to editorial calendars. This is a bona fide tip, not a rant cleverly disguised! If you want to write for publications that use editorial calendars (usually magazines or newspaper supplements), here's a tip: Check out the calendars, which are usually hidden under the advertising info section of a website. For example, here's the schedule for USA Travel Magazine. These are amazingly late deadlines to the Editrix. Here's another, more typical editorial calendar, from Texas Hospitals magazine. Magazines are planning which articles to print anywhere from 2 months to even 6 months in advance. Particulary for the non-cover story articles, plans can fall through -- a commissioned article can suck irredeemably, or the ad guys actually got off their duffs and sold a boatload of ads, meaning more edit pages needed -- and the editor is scrambling. If you have a finished article you wrote on spec, find publications that are interested in that subject and query the editor about 3 months before press time. You may just luck out and be the miracle article that fell from the sky. And in the process become the editor's new best freelancer. The same kind of logic applies when big events happen. For example, if you had already written an article on mental illness among Korean immigrants before April 16, your first move on April 18, say, would be to query some editors. In other words, be the editor's lifeline, and you will always have work.

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