Photo courtesy of SXC.
Today kicks off a new series of posts talking about the skills that freelance writers need to cultivate to ensure healthy and happy relationships with the editors they work with. For happy, successful, prolific writers, these traits and skills are second nature.
Rule number one is: Meet Deadlines.
Deadlines are the ever-present reality of anyone who works in media. If a newspaper says it will publish every day, it has to publish every day. A monthly magazine should come out once a month. Even online publications, which can be updated continuously, set deadlines for copy to ensure a steady supply of new stories.
Managing editors like myself are essentially project managers. We set deadlines for writers within a matrix of other deadlines—sales/ad deadlines, design and production deadlines, printer’s deadlines, etc.—and have to flex with the inevitable changes, such as a special issue that will require an extra day at the printer because of the metallic finish on the cover, or a layout that has to be redone when significant new developments make the gist of the original design idea obsolete.
How a writer meets a deadline says a lot to me about their general work style. If I need the draft by a particular time on the day I’ve specified (first thing in the morning, close of business, early afternoon), I let the writer know. If you aren’t clear if “due next Monday” means “I want it in my in-box when I get into work” or “before midnight Monday night,” ask.
I try to give writers as much leeway as I can with deadlines. In return, I expect writers to let me know how the reporting and writing process is going. If sources aren’t cooperating, tell me a week before deadline, rather than the day before. Editors can usually suggest other people to talk to, or another approach to a topic, if it’s the structuring of the article or the actual writing of it that’s causing problems. I don’t see questions or requests for advice as a sign of weakness.
Another caveat: I freelance myself, and I understand how easy it is to over-commit. But don’t make your full plate my problem. Be honest with your editor if you’re overbooked. If you just accepted the assignment, call them back immediately and beg off, as graciously as possible. Maybe even suggest one of your less-overburdened buddies to do the assignment (you’ll be making three people happy—you, your writing buddy and the editor—if the writer you suggest is up to the job).
If you’re already well into the interview/writing stage, call the editor and talk about what can be done to rectify the situation, but don’t drop the ball unless you don’t want to work for that editor again. It’s an open secret that many of editors pad their deadlines to deal with writer break-downs, but writers who take advantage of that all the time are not at the top of our “favorites” list.
Writers who meet deadlines promptly and who communicate about issues related to deadlines get assignments. Writers, no matter how good, who cannot make deadlines do not.