Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

Dear Editor: Seven Things Freelancers Want to Get Off Their Chests

Sometimes I feel like a three dollar hooker.

By which I mean the lowly freelancer still doesn’t get a whole lotta respect in this mean ol’ world.  And it’s not just a matter of having no dental plan.  (Mercifully, I am Canadian, so at least I have basic health coverage … I really feel for my American counterparts who are forking over 3/4 of their income every month for health insurance!)

There’s this vast, yawning gulf in perspective on the publishing industry, depending on which side of the editor’s desk you’re observing it from.  Funnily enough, most freelancers, including myself, have spent some time as editors, so I like to think we’ve got a fairly balanced viewpoint of the priorities of each job.  The converse, however, is not always true —  not all editors have spent time as freelancers.

Many years ago, I started a little e-mail chatlist for freelance writers and photographers who work in my little niche, the ‘nag mags’.  I was just trying to develop a community of similarly occupied people who could compare notes on the markets for whom they were writing, share story ideas and sources, maybe kvetch a little.  Freelancing of any sort can be a very isolating thing, toiling away in obscurity as all are in our various versions of home office.  The chatlist, as Mesozoic as it was, took off, and it’s still alive and just as Mesozoic (technologically speaking) today.  I like to think it serves a purpose, beyond giving me egoboo as its ‘listgoddess’.

But oh my, you should have seen the knickers twisting and the hands wringing, when some of the horse mag editors got wind of the fact that the freelancers were talking amongst themselves!

The horror.  The horror.

Somehow, I was instantly cast as Norma Rae, rabble-rousing in a factory.  Good lord (thought the terrified editors), if we let them compare notes, we can’t divide and conquer anymore!  It’ll get out when we take months to pay someone.  When we steal a story idea and assign it to someone in-house.  When we forget to assign something and then expect one of our little factory minions to churn out a brilliant 2000 word feature on a 48-hour turnaround with no additional compensation.    When we send out a completely draconian contract that requires writers to sign away rights they hadn’t even conceived of yet.

Well, yes, that was sort of the point.

Needless to say, assignments for me were rather thin there for a while.

But eventually the editors got used to the idea.  And got over themselves.  Everyone had to come to grips with the fact that this whole Interwebz thing was making it much easier for people to converse.  I don’t really get frozen out anymore over it … most of these same editors probably assume the chatlist is long dead by now.  (It isn’t, but it’s invitation only, so if you’re a freelancer who’s genuinely interested, leave me a comment and I’ll e-mail you details.)

Oh, and btw, the idea of freelancers unionizing does come up regularly, and there are organizations out there, but unfortunately none of them really has the clout they would like to have, so they haven’t really made much headway on behalf of the really struggling demographic like myself, which can’t afford the annual dues.

Yup, pay them pathetically enough and you can keep ‘em under your boot-heels indefinitely.

Now, to be fair, it’s often not the editors who are really to blame when freelancers get a raw deal.  The edict usually comes from further up the food chain, and the editor just gets to be the bearer of bad tidings.

Still, when it comes to freelancing in the 21st century, there are a bunch of things we freelancers would like editors and/or publishers to know.

(Here comes the crowdsourcing part. I asked for contributions from my fellow freelancers for this, so editors, please don’t take these as personal attacks on my part, but as constructive and deferential commentary from freelancers at large!)

1. If you can’t pay well, then at least pay quickly.  Believe it or not, I’ve got biiiiig vet bills, just like you.  POA, or payment on acceptance — meaning that once the writer submits the article, and a cursory glance has determined that it isn’t irretrievable rubbish and has the potential to be published, the writer is sent a cheque for a previously-agreed-upon amount — used to be the industry norm.  But increasingly — and especially, for some unfathomable reason, within the horse magazine niche — it’s now POP, or payment on publication.  Which can be months and months and bloody months after you’ve done the research, interviewed the sources, transcribed the tapes, written and edited the piece, chopped 650 words off it because it was too long (um, maybe that’s just me), and sent it out.

Which essentially means that the magazine has your work in its hot little hands, interest-free, for yonks.  Which, frankly, Ontario Hydro doesn’t understand, even when I try to explain it to them in words of one syllable or less.

When the pay rates keep plunging, POP is really adding insult to injury, folks.  I understand that budgets get slashed and that sometimes your hands are tied and you’re only hanging onto your own job by the slimmest of threads.  But listen, if you’re only able to offer some paltry amount for my blood, sweat, and tears, you’ll soften the blow considerably if you can hustle that cheque into the mail (or my PayPal account) just as quickly as the accounting department’s little legs can manage it.  My cel phone and internet providers and all my other utilities, thank you.

2. It is not easier to “write short”.  Several times in the past few years, I’ve received breezy e-mails from editors, announcing that their publication is reducing the wordcount for their feature articles to approximately half what it used to be … and yet they’re still willing to pay me 2/3 of what I used to get.  Like this is doing me some big fat favour or something.  Like it’s going to save me so much time and work.

Writing short is not easier, especially when (as is almost invariably the case) my gentle editor still expects me to include just as many quotes from just as many experts, and thoroughly cover just as many thorny aspects of whatever the topic du jour might be.  Writing short just means I have to do that much more machete-ing of copy once I have the framework down.  And when I do that, I risk having to eliminate something that’s crucial to the subject and also really interesting, and then, sometimes, being told to shoehorn it back in there somehow (without increasing the wordcount!).

I once had an editor ask me to cover a week-long international showjumping tournament at Spruce Meadows in 600 words.  Not one class — the entire tournament, which if I recall correctly included at least 14 big-news classes.  And then he complained that my copy didn’t “sing”.  Sing?  With that wordcount I could barely manage to list the names of the winners in point form.

Writing short, writing ‘tight’, is a skill that not all writers have.  It’s something I continuously strive towards, and I’m a lot better at it than I used to be (this blog notwithstanding).  But c’mon, peeps, don’t be trying to spin it like it’s some great big Sisyphean boulder off my back to have less space in which to express myself.

3.  When I bail you out of a tight spot by generating fabulous copy on a ridiculously short deadline, at least have the class to acknowledge that I saved your ass.

Or as one of my compatriots put it, “Your publishing / editorial mismanagement is not my problem!  WHY would you call me on Friday with an offer of a project, only to tell me it’s needed on Monday? Your editorial calendars are set months in advance. What happened? Someone let you down? You know I’m reliable and will get it done so you call me? What’s the incentive?  None.  Your rates are draconian and your attitude simultaneously arrogant and demeaning. I’m doing YOU a favour! At least offer me a slight ‘emergency’ bonus.”

4. Hellllooooo?  “Editors who don’t have the decent common courtesy to at least respond to the read request when you send in an article or photo — that’s a pet peeve.  They expect us to have stuff in on or before deadline, then can’t even have the decency to let us know they received it.  I only have two editors who faithfully respond back, and it is so nice not to have to wonder if the thing made it or not.  It’s just bad manners and makes the person sending the article feel unappreciated.  I meet their requirements; can’t they at least have the decency to acknowledge me?  All they have to do is push a button.” — a fellow freelancer (Oh, we are legion, people … and apparently, we’re pissed!)

5. Identity theft is a crime … or at the very least, bad form.   “When you copy-edit my work, I would appreciate it if you would not change my style of writing quite so radically.  You asked me to write it, but now it reads like you were the author.  I also don’t appreciate it when you make changes that make the copy grammatically incorrect.  I’m not complaining about issues that might be right on the line or could be interpreted in different ways … I’m talking about making changes I learned not to do in Journalism 101.”  – a victim of butchered copy (see machete, above).

It’s true that one has to have a thick skin when one is a writer.  Some editing is inevitable, and you can’t be joined at the hip with every precious bon mot you generate in a Word doc.  But there’s editing, and then there’s the Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.  When you don’t recognize a single sentence in the published copy as your own, you know you’re not dealing with an editor, but a control freak.

 6. Please stop trying to rob me blind with rights-grabbing contracts.  I know, I know, these don’t get generated at the editor’s desk.  They’re handed down from some weasely little lawyer at the behest of a bean counter in a corner office.  But it’s the editor who mails it out, accompanied by another breezy message which thanks me (I kid you not, I actually received this) for helping their company to “thrive”.

Funny how I end up feeling like you’re thriving at my expense when you send out a contract which requires me to sign away not only my right to get paid if you decide to use my material in six different magazines instead of the one we discussed, but also my right to make a little extra income from my work in alternate formats existing or not even imagined yet, forever and ever amen.  Oh, and then there’s that liability clause which asks me to assume all responsibility for your edited copy, and the little “moral rights” thing.

From the Writer’s Union of Canada: “Stay away from or amend contracts that ask you to waive (i.e., give up) your moral rights. Waiving moral rights permits a publisher to make substantial changes to your work, even to your viewpoint, or to alter the authorship credit by publishing it anonymously or under someone else’s name.”

“The biggest thing is to stop grabbing rights that a) they’ll never use, and b) prevent us from re-selling or making additional income from our work. It is a total piss off.” — another compatriot of mine.

Gawd, we’re a bunch of ungrateful wretches, aren’t we?

7.  Make up your mind.  “Be clear about what you want when you make the assignment, and ensure that you and the freelancer are on the same page. It is wildly frustrating to have an editor ask for rewrites not because the story is lacking per se, but because his/her vision of the story is “evolving” as you go along.” — yet another comrade, who when acting as an editor, strives for clarity.

Thanks to Simon Chadwick, whose cartoons can be found at http://www.ceratopia.co.uk

And at this point, I’m going to save further constructive criticism for a future post.  I’m sure I’ve already gotten myself blackballed by at least a dozen of my regular markets for this one.  Editors, after all, don’t have the thick skins freelancers do …

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31 thoughts on “Dear Editor: Seven Things Freelancers Want to Get Off Their Chests

  1. Well said, well written!

  2. camountain on said:

    Freelancing does not sound very fun at all. I was actually thinking of doing a little bit of it to help keep this poor writer fed. However, maybe I should find my scraps somewhere else.

    • It’s not all bad, Candace, but it does have its challenges! Like anything else, I guess, it’s about weeding out the bad clients and keeping the good ones … and about doing some creative accounting in the meantime …

  3. Grace Alexander on said:

    Brilliant. Point 2, in particular. Oh, and point 3. And 6.

    I’m a full-time copywriter, and I have learned to instantly demand amendments to contracts – it’s amazing how often even big clients will fold when I tell them flat out that 60 day net is not acceptable; that no, I will not sign that ridiculous non-compete that will basically prevent me from writing anything ever again; and that if they edit the work I want a look at it before publication and the right to demand my name be taken off of it if the buyer’s nephew “who is an English major!” butchers it beyond description.

    Reblogging!

    • Oh gawd, the non-compete clause … didn’t even mention that, did I! And some magazines have really weird ideas about who they consider their competition to be. I’ve been known to trot out a pseudonym on occasion to get around those restrictions … as long as they spell my name correctly on the cheque, it’s all good.

  4. Grace Alexander on said:

    Reblogged this on Brilliance On Demand.

  5. TaxCoach on said:

    Well, I want to get shorty or ‘write short’ if you will. Now, social network spring up every minute. Everyone is trying to deal with information explosion. No one have time to read long long articles. Often, the first thing I’m looking at is TLDR and will only read through if the summary is decent or interesting. Those editors may get something right on this regard.

  6. Michelle Gilstrap on said:

    Well I guess it needed to be said, you will either gain the respect of many editors or reduce the number who will use you. But you put it out there, and I hope you feel better

  7. In any power dynamic (employer/employee certainly being a common one), it can be costly for the under to point out issues in the over.

    Usually more unhappy unders will flock to you (anonymously) and more overs will quietly back away (nodding politely).

    Enjoyed your blog myself. Hard out there for a writer; glad I have other means of earning my actual living.

  8. You just made my very short list of heroes. Speaking up like this actually did cost me a gig once – even though I did totally rock it like a hurricane. My hat is off to you. These are all valid points that need to be said often and loudly.

  9. Very deep post, Karen.

  10. Freelancing is hard work, and only those who’ve freelanced understand that.

  11. Hey Karen, fair play to you for writing it. I’ve played in both camps so I can definitely understand where you’re coming from, it must be hard though for you as you’re in such a small niche… this is where the editors have the power , so not sure that you’re going to drive too much change. One can hope though…

    best wishes and have a great one, Mike

  12. Hi Karen,
    I’ve been free lancing since I was 18 years old and wrote monthly astrology columns for a now defunct teen magazine.

    From there I worked my way through New Age, health, women’s issues, telecom, software and landed in hair, beauty and alternative healing. I have experienced every issue you discuss above in spades.

    I was cheering you on with every word. You provide a fair report of what really goes on. To this day I have unpaid bills for work I submitted over 10 years ago.

    Like you, I was shunned in the past when I politely questioned delays in payment, requests for assignments which morphed multiple times before being finalized and MIA editors.

    Thank you for having the courage to publicize all of these issues which free lance writers understand only too clearly and have suffered through in the name of honoring their profession.

  13. I think this is a fantastic story! It was interesting seeing some of the issues faced by freelance writers. In terms of are you biting the hand that feeds you? Yeah, I’m sure somebody’s feathers will get ruffled. On the other hand it sounds like things that need to be said to put the publishers on notice the writers are tired of the BS.

  14. Not envious of your career choice. Seems like a tough one. Good luck.

  15. Gregory Jackson on said:

    Karen, much respect for sharing from your heart. I respect your position and your right to express your opinion. I understand and feel your frustration as similar challenges permeate business in general today.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Greg

    Gregory Jackson

  16. Thank you, a good read ( if soul- crushing, but never mind that). I’d love to hear from more freelancers re how they push back constructively — how to alter the contract without losing the assignment. If we say we’re keeping the rights, what happens then?

  17. This is awesome Karen. You’ve neatly summarized everything that bugs me about being a freelancer. I have at least one editor who is guilty of all seven of these offences.

  18. Good read! And serious stuff. Very courageous!

  19. Thanks I’m learning much here

  20. Pingback: Freelancing Woes « Call Me A Writer

  21. Pingback: Dear Editor: Seven Things Freelancers Want to Get Off Their Chests « Writing From the Right Side of the Stall | marcinkorecki

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