Freelance writers need to learn many things, from pitching effective queries to mastering diverse editorial voices. But if you want to be a freelancer, the most difficult skill you’ll need to acquire is dealing effectively with editors. Of course, every writer has editors, but since freelancers work with so many publications and so many editors, it’s particularly important to you.
In more than a decade as a freelancer, I’ve worked with hundreds of editors. Overall, those experiences have been professional, cordial and even educational. But it goes without saying that certain relationships are less pleasant.
Here are five common kinds of “problem editors” who can make your job more difficult—and some solutions that can make your job easier.
Some editors can sweet talk you into doing just about anything. And sometimes, you’re so happy to receive enthusiastic feedback, you’ll do just about anything for just about nothing in return.
Smooth Talkers tell you they love your ideas, but want you to do more research, conduct more interviews or write more material. They can’t make commitments to publish or pay, but you do more work happily, only to learn too late they “won’t be needing that article after all.”
Next time a Smooth Talker suggests that you spend more time revising an article you’ve submitted, give that editor a list of the additional research, interviews and writing you’d be happy to do—as soon as you have a commitment in writing to publish the article for a set fee. Flat-out refusing to do extra work won’t win you brownie points, but refusing to do that work without a commitment will show that you’re a hard worker, but not a sucker. And make sure a kill fee is included in the deal, so you won’t go away empty-handed even if your editor opts to eighty-six the piece in the end.
Penny Pinchers can be delightful editors until the last step: payment. There are always excuses about why your payment is late. Sometimes it’s a bank error, other times a check-writing cycle that you narrowly missed. The more you hear these excuses, the less likely you are to believe them.
Contact other freelancers who have written for the outlet to see if they’ve had similar experiences—perhaps this is a trend. You can also write to the publisher explaining what you submitted and what fee was agreed upon, and ask nicely when payment can be expected. If the publisher offers similar excuses, the publication is probably having trouble paying its bills. If a publication is in hot water or regularly stiffs contributors, don’t submit more work. Freelancing is a job, not a volunteer position.
If the money eventually comes, perhaps the editor’s story was true, or maybe your letter to the publisher helped grease the bookkeeping department’s wheels. In this case, you can give this editor a second chance, but make sure you receive a written contract before doing any work. And never turn in an article until your previous jobs have been paid.
Every good editor rewrites copy at some point to punch up a lead, clarify a point or tweak syntax. But Backseat Writers overhaul your article from beginning to end—changing not just a word or a sentence but entire swaths of prose—until it’s unrecognizable as your own. When you see the finished article, all that remains of what you submitted is your byline, which now hardly seems accurate.
If you’ve been radically revised by a Backseat Writer, first check what’s been changed. Has your editor added or removed humor? “Dumbed down” your wording, or made it more “inside” for a readership knowledgeable in a certain area? Make a list of the changes that seem arbitrary or gratuitous. Then make another list—this one is difficult—of the editor’s changes that improved what you wrote.
Next, discuss what you’ve found with your editor—not to attack the decisions, but to learn what is expected of you, so your next assignment can be more in line with what the editor wants. Explain the trends you noticed in revisions—this will show you’re paying attention. Note the changes that improved your work—this will show you appreciate rewriting as a rule. Then ask gently about the changes you don’t understand—and listen, don’t argue.
Next time you turn in an assignment, ask to see a copy before it goes to press. Using the same process you used before, walk through the article with your editor. If you disagree with any changes, make it known now, before it’s too late. An editor who knows that you care about style, accept reasonable rewriting and appreciate the occasional editorial improvement will be more likely to concede to your objections and retain your individual voice.
These editors give vague assignments and leave you to figure out the specifics. You might relish this freedom and flexibility when you get the assignment, but you won’t be so pleased when you turn in your piece and hear, “This isn’t exactly what I had in mind.”
When you accept an assignment from a Mysterious Character, send your editor a note outlining what you understand the assignment to be, using as many specifics as possible: deadline, length, fee, tone, sources and content. Wait to hear back before you start work.
Then, as you work on your article, submit periodic updates explaining what sources you’ve already used, what material you’re planning to include, and any changes you think are necessary to the original plan. You might also include a basic overview of your article’s structure, including your lead and main points. Again, wait to hear back before proceeding. This way, you can change direction midstream if need be, and your editor won’t be surprised when you turn in the finished product.
More frustrating than editors who shoot down every idea or blow you off with a perfunctory form letter are Silent Types, who won’t communicate at all. They’re never available when you call, and they don’t return messages, even with a simple yes or no.
Dropping by the publication’s office might be your first instinct, but it’s often seen as pushy, and your editors will likely be in different cities anyway. A better idea is to make sure all your communications include a response deadline or gentle ultimatum: “If I haven’t heard back by June 1, I’ll assume you’re not interested in this query,” or “Since my article hasn’t been published in the six months since I submitted it, I’ll assume you don’t plan to publish it, so I’m wondering when I should expect my kill fee.”
This gives your editor a reason to call you promptly. But it also gives you a deadline for moving on if your editor doesn’t call—so you can submit your query elsewhere, or start pestering that Silent Type about receiving your kill fee.
Failing everything else, you can simply stop working with an editor; as a freelancer, you’ve got thousands of other editors to court. But before you throw in the towel, give your editor one more chance and see if you can’t work it out. If you can find the solution, your “problem editor” might be no problem at all.