I grew up with my nose in a book, rereading my favorites over and over again. As a kid, I practically lived in the public library, methodically working my way through the Dewey Decimal System and summer reading lists. My allowance was spent in the mall, not at boutiques but at B. Dalton Bookseller. A black and white composition book was my diary; I filled it with poems — many written by others, painstakingly copied, and original pieces I’d composed. I typed long stories on my dad’s ancient Royal “portable” return-carriage typewriter (shown above). One of my cherished college graduation gifts is a gigantic Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary that sits on a book stand in my living room.
I can’t imagine a more exalted accomplishment than writing and publishing a book that speaks to people throughout time (excluding negotiating peace in the Middle East).
Magazine writing strikes me as Book Writing Lite. More so than basic newspaper writing, there’s a story to create, but less like blogging or fiction, factual information must be relayed. It exists somewhere between strict reporting and short story writing. I had the opportunity to practice this craft for almost four years, as a writer and as editor in chief (simultaneously for two of those years) at a local magazine.
Those who know me have seen Facebook posts along the creative arc. There have been frustrated comments, writer’s block-induced head banging. I’ve often announced the completion of a cover or feature story as one might a baby’s birth or the finish of a goal race. I feel an exultation when I’ve gone over my work one last time, added “final” to the file name, and hit “save.” There’s a physical sensation, almost like coming up from extended time underwater and taking a gulping breath of air. Release.
With the lag between completion and print (if an editor is doing her job right, that can be several months — and I did my job right), I’ve often forgotten much of my piece by the time it’s published. There’s another out-of-body experience: revisiting this former intimate after a cooling-off period. A good story, one I’m proud of, will deliver goosebumps. It’s what I imagine an architect feels when running a hand over the wall of a completed building, thinking, “I made this.”
The Big Problem: Paying Freelancers
Unfortunately, there’s not much recognition these days of magazine writing as craft. Words have gotten so cheap. One of my biggest stresses and disappointments as EIC was that I couldn’t pay writers what they deserved. I KNEW the hours involved, the amount of education and practice required to be professional because I, too, had made those investments and was crafting. It was a constant struggle to find methods for providing value beyond the money I couldn’t give. Ultimately, it became one of the primary reasons why the job wore me out.
It’s not just a problem at small, local publications. Renowned magazines such as The Atlantic ask freelancers to work for little or no money; increasingly popular Huffington Post has drawn away from paying freelancers. Now, some may argue that bloggers get exposure with this platform (see “Writing for Free Can Pay Off. But Only for a Select Few”), but exposure doesn’t necessarily pay the bills [insert wry jokes about celebrity home sex videos here].
My past experience now creates a unique juxtaposition. As I work freelance with online and print editors, I know their pain. They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: publishers who demand product without providing a budget and writers who deserve fair compensation and respect for the quality content they’re creating, content that creates a product that publishing businesses then sell.
As a writer, I have a proven track record; editors know what they’re getting. Yet negotiating (and actually receiving) appropriate compensation is an exercise in pulling nonexistent teeth.
While I can’t fix the problem, nor do I have any revolutionary ideas on how to remedy it, I do have several tips to help editors and writers navigate these tricky waters.
4 Important Tips for Freelance Success
1. Document, Document, Document
You’d think clear communication would be a no-brainer in this email-driven universe, but I’m constantly surprised by failures on both ends.
Editors: if you have a meeting or phone call with a writer to discuss interests and possible assignment topics, follow up with a summary note. This is not an assignment letter; that follows later, with a specific agreement. This note merely recaps to show an understanding of what was discussed. It’s also great record keeping. Put something descriptive in the message memo to help with tracking (“Meeting notes for possible writing assignments,” for example, plus the writer’s name). I was constantly on the lookout for possible contributors, held many meetings and calls with prospects, and kept contact information and interest summary notes like rare, precious jewels.
Writers: follow a meeting or phone call with a summary note that also thanks the editor for taking the time to speak with you. Include any additional information that might be helpful, such as a recap of past work (links are appreciated) or payment information. Editors think months, even years, ahead; while you may not get something right away, a clear note with basic information may just get you an assignment later.
2. Think Strategically
We’ve established that monetary compensation is problematic. Therefore, it’s important to consider what other benefits can be given and derived.
Editors: always keep in mind that freelancers are not staff writers. Staff writers (people hired and drawing a salary from the publication) can be assigned regular grunt work. If you’re working with a freelancer, assignments with little or no monetary compensation should provide some other benefit, such as satisfying a passion. Save those we-need-this-done-immediately fill jobs for staff. (Think of it as an additional payroll tax: some boring chores in exchange for regular, dependable employment.) If you demand unrealistically, freelancers will walk away, while those who feel respect and appreciated will return for additional assignments. I often sent handwritten thank-you notes for articles, as I considered those jobs a favor done for me (and, by extension, the magazine).
Writers: carefully assess what personal benefits you can reap from an assignment. If the money is crappy, don’t take the job UNLESS you want to spend your valuable time acquiring exposure (be judicious: some is better than others), professional layout (take a look at the magazine first), or access (people, places, or products). Another consideration is whether the editor you will work with provides a positive return on investment. Good editors work hard to give appropriate assignments, beneficial and educational feedback, and additional opportunities; a bad one will bleed you like a leech.
3. Determine Needs in Advance
A certain level of self-awareness is critical to success. Before you ask, you need to know what you want.
Editors: be open to the unexpected find. Your ultimate goal is a stable of repeat, quality writers you can count on, wherever they may come from, and freelancers are uncharted possibilities. If you’ve worked with a freelance writer who performed well on an introductory assignment, it’s worth a little bit of exploration to see what else can be brought to the table. One of my most rewarding writers came about as the result of a follow-up conversation. He first came to my attention as a model; at the photo shoot, we talked, and he pitched a travel piece. The article went so well that we talked again, and I discovered he had a passion for working with nonprofits and was interested in promoting local groups. That passion landed him a recurring monthly article.
Writers: know whether you would ultimately desire a staff position. Because budgets are so tight, editors don’t want to bring people on without a trial period. I used freelancing as a way to troll for possible hires. I appreciated knowing if those writers were open to coming on board at a later date, so never hesitate to speak up. If you contributed and had a positive experience, follow up with the editor as soon as possible to find out what other possibilities exist. Be prepared to commit months in advance on print pieces. There’s nothing an editor likes better getting work nailed down in advance.
4. Represent Yourself Professionally
In this era of 24/7 content, insatiable demand and social media pacing have created a wild, wild West of publishing accountability, especially online.
Editors: if you are asking for unpaid work, tell the writer first thing, before going into any further discussions. Any compensation other than cold, hard cash is unpaid, no matter how sweet the coupon or media pass or perk. Freelancers’ time is money, and, at the least, you owe them its respectful use. Also, if not providing a contract, a clearly written agreement letter should be sent as soon as possible after you and the writer have agreed on terms. Again, this is good record keeping for you as well as a safety net for the writer.
Writers: don’t ever settle for a phone call, meeting, or informal email exchange as final word on an assignment. If the editor hasn’t offered a contract or followed up with an agreement letter, then take it upon yourself to craft one with the terms as you understood them. The time to work out any misunderstandings about fee, schedule, or scope of work is at assignment, not deadline. A word of advice: Never agree to write something for free, reconsider, and demand payment right before deadline. That kind of hostage taking is completely unprofessional, guarantees the piece will not be used, and ensures the editor will never, ever work with you again.