The best thing about writing this column is also the worst thing about it. In the best of times, it brings me better pitches from the freelance writers I work with regularly. In the worst of times, it puts me in a budget crunch because those same freelancers have learned to negotiate for higher rates.
And so, in only the third instance, Secrets of an Editor has become self-aware. Instead of the help-me-help-you dynamic, we are adding a meta layer here: Help me help you help me.
You’re going to want to read this: in no particular order, my eight biggest pet peeves that freelance writers commit. These are the habits and practices that not only annoy me and make my job more difficult, but decrease the odds I’ll want to work with you in the future. I can’t imagine many other editors look kindly on these blunders, either.
I’m not going to name names here. If you’ve written for me at SUCCESS magazine in the past, and one of these sins sounds like something you might have committed, don’t assume that I’m holding it against you months or years later. But… please don’t do it again, for my sake and yours.
Neglecting the assignment
This is maybe the most common problem I run into with freelancers, and it’s terribly frustrating for an editor. If I ask you for 1,200 words, please don’t turn in 2,000. If I ask you for 2,000 words, please don’t turn in 1,200. If I ask you to take a particular angle on the story, please don’t choose your own adventure.
In most cases these basic guidelines are in writing, either in your contract or our email thread discussing the project. There’s no need to make the assignment any more difficult than it need be. Don’t deviate from the directions you’re given without at least conferring with me first.
If I ask you for 1,200 words, please don’t turn in 2,000. If I ask you for 2,000 words, please don’t turn in 1,200.
I understand that you may think of yourself as an artiste, but there is generally a reason why I make the edits I do. Don’t get bent out of shape if I don’t use your suggested headline or I cut off a bit of prose you thought was clever. It’s fine to appeal if you disagree with a change, but don’t belabor the point.
For clarification’s sake: I DO want to hear from you if you are having problems executing the assignment, or with the logistics of working with us—for example if there was a sticking point in your contract or accounting is taking too long to get your check in the mail. Let me help you take care of those things.
Turning in sloppy work
Before going to press, any given story in the magazine will be read by half-a-dozen sets of editing eyes—mine included—as we try to avoid typos and other common mistakes making it onto the page. Copy editing is the most tedious part of my job, so it truly frustrates me when supposedly professional writers turn in work that is filled with errors.
Always read through your work at least once or twice before turning it in, so that you catch your own spelling, punctuation and AP style faux pas. Please avoid cliches, incomplete or run-on sentences and all the other bugaboos we learned about in middle school English class.
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Part of being a freelance writer is juggling a number of projects. Some are more time-consuming, more prestigious, or more lucrative than others. I get that, so I generally try to stay out of my writers’ hair once I’m confident they understand the assignment, up until their deadline is approaching. But once I reach out to see how it’s going or ask when I can expect to review your story that was due last week, I’m going to need you to respond to me in a respectful time frame.
In the context of this assignment, I’m your boss, not your Bumble match. You owe me a little communication. I can live with a blown deadline if you tell me when to expect the work will actually be turned in. I cannot live with uncertainty over whether it will ever be turned in.
The freelancers who have made the most money from me over the years are not necessarily among the greatest wordsmiths, nor do they always have access to big-name sources. They are simply the ones I trust. Give me the same high level of effort and attention to detail on all of your assignments and I will try to keep you busy, because I know what to expect from you.
Inserting yourself into the story unnecessarily
More often than not, there is little payoff to writing in the first person. Unless you are an expert in the subject matter you’re writing about or we’ve positioned the piece as a first-person essay from the get-go, there’s little need to make yourself part of the narrative. Avoid that if you can help it.
Waiting for an assignment
This is the mistake I’ve made over the years when trying to do a little freelancing on the side—I’ll introduce myself to a colleague and ask them to “keep me in mind,” for any stories. I have never, ever gotten an assignment that way.
As an editor, there are just a handful of writers to whom I’ll offer unsolicited stories that I thought of myself—for our “geriatric millennials” reading this, think of that group like my MySpace Top 8. If you want to crack into that group, you’ll need to offer up some pitches the first few times until we really establish a rapport.
Failing to share
Ever been on the Internet? It’s a zoo out there. The sheer volume of content competing for the attention of any audience, no matter how niche, makes for a challenging environment for a magazine, blog or other type of media outlet. So every little bit of promotion helps.
Sometimes, though, I come across freelancers who are either too bashful or too proud to share a story they’ve written for me on social media. Is one Twitter or Instagram post going to make a huge difference in how many clicks our site gets, and thus how much money we make from advertising, and thus how much I can pay freelancers or the likelihood of keeping my own job? No, a single post isn’t going to matter much.
But it also won’t hurt, and I want to know you’re on the team.
Let me point out something about the hateful eight listed above: The sure way to avoid any of these is through communication. I believe there are exceptions to every rule, but it’s helpful to know beforehand, for example, if you’re going to be uncommunicative because of a family emergency, or you have a legitimate personal reason for not wanting to share a story. Let me know before you start writing if you want your piece to be in the first person or you’re having trouble piecing together the narrative.
As your editor, it’s my job to help you help me.
The sure way to avoid any of these is through communication.