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    The Editor's Nightmare Freelance Project

    As editor of a national trade magazine, I use 50 freelancers a year. Most writers are considerate and do a good job. Some don't One writer in particular drove me almost to violence. I don't tell this story to scare off would-be scribes or to paint editors as angry tyrants, but rather to inform writers about what editors despise.

    After reviewing the clips and credentials of a so-called expert writer on a specific topic, I dished out the assignment in September 2000. The story wasn't due until April 2001. I gave specific instructions on direction, word length (1,200 words), and made suggestions about contacts. I also requested art or art suggestions.

    With new writers, assignments come with a great deal of instruction and specifics. I also request weekly updates on progress so I can thwart wasted time on non-pertinent material. In this case, the rules went out the window early.

    The "writer" (I use that term very loosely) failed to return repeated e-mail messages and phone calls over several months. His e-mail address generated bounce-backs and his phone number was no longer in service. It was like he disappeared. Finally, he reached me via e-mail not long before the deadline to tell me the story would be late. The feature was slated to anchor a major section in the magazine, so my level of concern climaxed.

    Then, he had the audacity to send me a message after the story had been two months late to inform me that he was "swamped." That's when I lost it. This so-called writer, who had been sitting on this assignment for longer than six months, was telling me at the last possible moment that he was swamped. I felt like hunting him down with my letter opener.

    Deadlines for writers are set three months prior to publication, building in a buffer period for changes and rewrites if deemed necessary. That buffer meant nothing in this case. The story was ultimately three months late, stretched to 6,100 words, read like a disorganized compilation of notes--some of which were snaked from my publication's Web site--and no art was included.

    Needing the story, my staff and I spent three days rewriting the story, chopping redundancies and tightening. We inserted transitions and converted his notes into a 2,000-plus-word feature. Our creative teams generated art concepts. I felt like eliminating his byline from the story.

    This editor's nightmare broke every rule and delivered nothing acceptable. I hesitated about paying him at all. In the end I paid him for the amount of words publisheds. I felt like I should rise above this person's level and just suck it up. I now regret being such a nice guy.

    I sent a nasty (but professional) e-mail to let him know it goes against my better judgment to pay him and that he'd never work for me again. He enraged me once again when he sent a letter with his invoice, begging for another chance. He said he had no intention of disapppointing me and said he'd do another assignment for free. Well, sir, I though, if you didn't want to disapppoint me, you would have followed instructions, turned in a feature of the right length and content, and it would have been in my in-box early with art.

    I really lost big on that story. I paid a man for typing up some notes, my staff was consumed by fixing a disorganized piece of swill, my blood pressure went up, and a few more gray hairs popped out on my head. Here's how to avoid all that. If you want to cultivate a solid relationship with any editor, follow these simple rules of engagement:

    • Be appreciative of the assignment
    • Keep in constant contact with the editor about progress
    • Ask questions and get clarification if you don't know
    • Always suggest art elements
    • Meet length requirements
    • Cover the content thoroughly
    • Write it tight and right
    • Turn in your story early (editors love that)
    • Follow up with the editor to make sure he/she is pleased
    • Pitch another story

    Editors have too many options when it comes to writers. I have too many writers on my list now with few or no assignments. Therefore, don't give an editor a reason to delete your name from the list. It's too easy to call someone else. My next column will be much more positive.

    Copyright © 2001 Joseph M. Kelly

    Joseph M. Kelly, who is editor of Electrical Contractor magazine in Bethesda, Md., and a Baltimore, Md.-based freelance writer, has been published in daily and weekly newspapers, national trade magazines, newsletters and online. His work has appeared in The Maryland Coast Dispatch, Hardware Age, Home Improvement Market, LBM Retailer, Garden Supply Retailer, Decorative Products Retailer, Outdoor Power Equipment, Association Publishing, Writing For Money, The Baltimore Press, The Enterprise, Electrical Contractor, AWritersLife.net, and several other publications.

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