Some editors, for inexplicable reasons, have a policy of treating freelance writers poorly. Low pay, lousy communications, a general lack of consideration for the writer as a fellow professional—the slights and horror stories go on and on. This is not only rude, this is also shooting yourself in the foot. Freelance writers, after all, are a crucial source of what publications need.
Below we recommend five guidelines for building constructive working relationships with freelance writers and getting them to do their best work. Follow them, and your job as an editor will be more pleasant and productive.
- Make specific assignments rather than sending writers on “fishing expeditions.”
- Give the writer an assignment memo that summarizes what the story will cover and what you expect. Include “boilerplate” sections to explain your magazine’s voice, editing process, and fact-checking needs. Send along models of the kind of story you envision. (See our detailed suggestions for assignment letters.)
- Get buy-in from your higher-ups. Make sure your top editor understands and agrees about the story assignment (and, later, your rewrite instructions).
- Check in with the writer during the research phase, and update your top editor about any changes in the story direction.
- Call the writer if the two of you seem to be having trouble communicating by e-mail. Remember that e-mail can often be frustrating, confusing, and alienating.
- On the rewrite, be specific about your reactions and requests. Write “micro” comments on the manuscript and send a memo about the “macro” concerns. Point out what is working as well as what isn’t so the writer understands what you want. (See our detailed recommendations for rewrite letters.
- When passing along comments from other editors, copy editors, and fact-checkers, make sure you understand and agree with the changes so that you can communicate them clearly.
DON’T OVER EDIT
- Match the writer to the story. A bad match or unclear assignment can lead to “heroic editing.” The story’s going down in flames; the editor must save the story!
- Take a story on its own terms. Recognize there’s not a single way to do a story; value the writer’s individuality and way of approaching a topic and edit within the framework the writer has created.
- When you make a change, ask yourself if you’re making the story better—i.e., editing for clarity, brevity, and sense—or simply reworking it the way you would have written it.
- Let go, and let writer do the work. A good editor is like a coach and a “spotter”—you’re there only to inspire good work and to prevent a fall.
RESPOND, AND RESPOND QUICKLY
- Send short e-mails or make quick phone calls to keep the writer informed throughout the process: let the writer know you got the story, that you can’t talk but you received their revisions, that you’re behind on your edit, that the story is on the top editor’s desk. Don’t let writers think you’ve forgotten about them.
- Try to do your first edit within a couple of weeks of receiving a manuscript.
Keep tabs on the writer’s availability so you’ll know if she can accommodate the magazine’s schedule. As soon as you know or suspect the story is scheduled for an issue, alert the writer.
- Try not to keep so much inventory that it’s months or a year before a story can run. Try to plan most of your line-up for several issues ahead so that you’re commissioning and editing what you need in a timely fashion.
- For queries, answer the definite “yeses” and “nos” right away. Set aside part of your cycle to deal with the “maybes,” and let writers know when that is. Tell the “maybes” you’re interested but need more time; if it’s going to take you more than a few weeks to make a decision, let them know they can query someone else while you’re deciding.
RESPECT THE WRITER
- Remember how difficult it is to be a writer. Be a therapist—lead the writer where you know he/she needs to go. Be positive—even if you’re not happy with a story, don’t say you’re not happy. Be big—take the blame sometimes. Be empathic.
- Be the writer’s advocate. Defend your writer, when necessary, against bossy fact-checkers, tactless top editors, overly aggressive copy editors, and stubborn art directors.
- Send proofs. E-mail, fax, or FedEx the final copy, and let the writers know how long they have to respond or make changes.
- Make writers feel like part of the team: Take a writer to lunch. Invite a writer to the office. Have an annual event for contributors.
PAY FAIRLY AND QUICKLY
- Pay the equivalent of the kill fee immediately, especially if you anticipate a delay in accepting the story.
- Pay expenses immediately.
- Define when you pay, and put that in your contract—e.g., if you pay on acceptance, define “acceptance” in the contract.
- Find out how long it takes to process a check. If checks are “aged” more than a week, ask for immediate payment for writers. Find out who you have to talk to and what you have to say or do to get payment expedited.
- Assign someone on the staff to check invoices before an issue ships to make sure all contributors to that issue have been paid.
- Tell the writer when you’ve requested payment.
- Pay as well for short pieces as you do for long ones.
- Pay more for rush jobs. Pay more if you decide a story has to go in a totally different direction.
- Pay more: writers have been getting a dollar a word since the 1960s.