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    Follow Instructions and Stop Wasting Time

    I know I promised a more positive column this time, but I can't smile until I provide one more example of how a writer destroyed a relationship with an editor. She wrote to the wrong audience, ignored direction and forced me to waste precious time and money rewriting her stories. Then, she contradicted my judgment.

    She was asked to write a project profile about a company working on a lighting system. Her instructions were to focus on the project and illustrate how the company overcame obstacles to finish the job on time, despite a tight schedule.

    Instead of a project profile, I received a dissertation about downtown revitalization and how new buildings can be integrated with historic buildings for a spectacular downtown landscape. The writer left out pertinent project information, while spending time and space on the architectural history of buildings. The story was well written but better suited for a city magazine or even a local business journal. But for me, it was almost worthless.

    Then, when I asked her why she had included so much unnecessary information, she proclaimed that it was an integral part of the story. In her mind every word in this dissertation was made of gold and must be spared. OK, so now she was telling me how to do my job. So, I hacked the story up. No, I actually rewrote it. I even had to pick up the phone and get the necessary information to make the story valuable to my readers. I found myself writing and reporting again, which was what I hired her to do. I flirted with dropping her name from the byline, but I decided to leave her name on what should have been her last story in my magazine.

    But, I still had another problem. She had written a story earlier in the year that was bumped out of a previous issue due to space limitations. We had already paid for it, so I couldn't justify throwing it in the trash (as much as I wanted to). Seeking value, I reviewed it. This one was another project profile. I was aghast that it took her 350 words before she even mentioned the electrical contracting company she was profiling. I still can't figure that one out.

    So, I broke out my trusty red pen (now running out of ink) and I hacked off the first 350 words. What took her 350 words to explain, I condensed into a parenthetical phrase within the first paragraph. My readers don't care about the history of a contractor's customer; they want to know how that contractor tackled this specific job. It's that simple. But, the writer never got it.

    This writer was promptly deleted from the database and won't get another assignment on my watch. It's not that she wasn't a pleasant person or that she didn't write well. She was and she did. But, she failed miserably at the fundamentals of freelancing. She missed the audience and didn't follow instructions. The proverbial icing on the cake came when she told me what my readers needed to read.

    On top of all that, I spent the better part of a week rewriting those stories. When I spend more than one hour fixing a story, I would have saved time, money and energy by writing it myself. That makes the writer replaceable. And she was quickly replaced.

    The bottom line in freelance writing is that editors provide instructions to writers for three primary reasons: (1) We know our readers better than you, (2) We know the market better than you, and (3) We hate flushing precious time and money down the journalistic toilet of rewrites. So, to avoid finding yourself flushed from an editor's contributor roster, follow instructions exactly, know the audience, don't waste time on information that will ultimately be cut, and never contradict an editor's content judgment.

    I know these words may seem harsh and even arrogant, but that's not what I am trying to relay. It's frustrating to editors when they spend years learning their market and understanding their readers to be contradicted. It is further frustrating to spend time providing direction on a story and have that direction ignored. The frustration climaxes when we have to do the reporting and rewriting on a story we paid someone else to do. If you waste my time, there won't be a next time.

    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, Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel, and several other publications.

    The Authentic Self: Journaling Your Joys, Griefs and Everything in Between by Shery Russ



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