I didn’t receive permission to post this follow-up to Roblimo’s advice in time to include it in yesterday’s post. This list comes from Esther Schindler, tech journalist/chocoholic.
I also do think that we need more. There are a bunch of things that you didn’t address – topics that, as an editor, I’m wishing that more freelancers understood.
* When I invite you, the freelancer, to pitch articles to me, I expect that you’ll spend a bit of time researching the publication (or at least its online site). I have the expectation that a freelancer will want to create an ongoing relationship with me, as an editor who can be a regular supplier of those fancy pieces of paper called “checks”, so it behooves you to learn the publication’s “voice” as soon as possible. I don’t mean just in the way of style, but recognize (or ask) “who is the reader?” I just had a freelancer pitch me a well thought out article that could be great to read, but is utterly useless to the readers of my publication. (If you can’t tell from the publication, or honestly can’t get your hands on it, it’s fine for you to ask who the reader is and what he cares about. This is one way to get into my good graces, as it shows me that you’re thinking about the correct issues.)
* If I ask you to provide me with a few article pitches, they should be specific and at least a bit thought out. You don’t have to know exactly which products you’ll include in your review, for example, but you should at least be able to say, “Several vendors are promising solutions to the old problem of [whatever], and at least a few are offering products under $100. I’d like to take a look at them and see whether they deliver what they promise.” If you can name names, great – but it’s always a good idea to err on the side of specificity. What I don’t want to see are vague ideas like, “I could write something about storage.” Once we have a working relationship, that might be feasible; at that point we’ll brainstorm based on your interests and my needs. But to begin with, I want to hear about things you know, and I want details.
* Apply the Rule of Three to your article pitches. Give me three ideas, each one in a single paragraph. Tell me what the idea is, why my readers will care about it, and why you’re the right person to write this story. In all likelihood, I’ll pick only one of the ideas. (Although I’ll feel stupid about doing so; however, I rarely want to give anybody multiple concurrent assignments, and surely not when we’re new to one another.) Recycle those ideas with another editor, but once you’ve finished the assignment I give you, it’s OK to remind me about one of the “failed” ideas one more time. (“I’m still interested in doing the comparative review of dark chocolate desserts, which I’d mentioned to you last month. Here’s why I think it’s still a timely story….”)
* I’ve been surprised at how many freelancers expect me to contact them with ideas for them to write about. When I know you, I’ll tend to do so, especially once I’ve discovered that you’re really good at covering marketing issues or that you grok the matters important to Notes users. At that point, I’ll pick up the phone to say, “Hey, I had an idea for an article we could do about marketing chocolate-covered mouse pads, and I think you’re the right person for it.” But if you want assignments, buck-o, you’re best off to suggest them to me. Otherwise… – well hey, how else will you get to write about the things that really interest you?
* Re: introducing yourself. I’ve found that it’s hard to “get to know” a new-to-me freelancer. Give me some idea of the beats you cover, and the way you cover them (product reviews, news, trend features). Tell me what topics enthuse you; I’d rather assign articles that you’re passionate about. Not only are you more likely to spend a lot of time on subjects you care for, but your enjoyment is likely to show through in the text.
* Ideally, I’ll send you an e-mail that confirms what we agreed to: “You’ll write 750 words for me on the history of chocolate, and how it relates to recent events in the computer industry. I’ll pay you $1/word, and you’ll get me the text – with at least one screen shot – by November 1.” If I don’t send you this, it’s OK for you to send me a written understanding of what you’ll be doing; at least this way we both have a record. (It isn’t for CYA reasons, at least not usually, but I know how often, as a
freelancer, I’d forget the details and wonder, “Did I say I’d have that done by the 1st or 2nd?” As an editor, my memory is even worse, as I have a lot more article balls in the air.) You and I are best off if this e-mail assignment letter is very descriptive: this is the angle you’re going to take, these are the vendors you’ll probably include, etc.
* If you run into trouble with an article, tell me as soon as possible. I’d prefer you err on the side of worrying aloud in my direction, to tell me that “I’m having a hard time getting through to the PR people… if I don’t hear from them by Monday, I may ask you to step in.” If I know, early enough, that a product won’t arrive or that your mom went into the hospital, I have a chance of assigning something else. (Maybe even to you. If it’s a product-not-arriving problem, you might end up with two assignments: the substitution and the original review, when the item does eventually get there.) If I don’t know about the problem until two days before the piece is due, I’ll be in a world of hurt and you’ll never get another assignment from me.
* I’ll try to send you comments on the text you send in, within a couple of days of receipt. Unfortunately if I need major work done on it, I’ll need an unreasonable turnaround period – this is karmic payback for the times you called a PR person and needed questions answered in three hours. I still need you to drop everything and respond to my queries.
* Not every editor sends back your text with queries, though, and (unfortunately) few give you an opportunity to correct errors introduced during the edit process. Don’t expect it.
* It really helps me if you write a spiffy headline and appropriate subheads. I might not use them, but at a minimum I appreciate that you spent time figuring out the break points in the article. If we use them, include a deck too. (From a creative standpoint, try writing the deck first: a wise editor once told me that if you can write the deck, the rest of the article is easy. I’ve found it to be true.)
* And please, please learn to write a useful lead, that draws the reader into the article. In the assumption that most editors will change your lead no matter how good, I’ve found that several freelancers do a shoddy job at this figuring that “the editor has to earn her pay too.” In reality, I’ve found that most people who don’t write a good lead don’t have a good article that follows. Make every word your very best. Even if I change your text, I’ll appreciate your good writing – and I’m apt to talk with you, the next time, about how you can structure your piece so it fits into what I’m looking for. (If you hope to write for me often, it’s a good idea to do a before-and-after, comparing what you sent in to what I published. The more you can approximate our published style, the less work I’ll have to do and the more I’ll cherish you.)
* This point really varies by publication, but I feel strongly about it myself: for God’s sake, let yourself show through. Let your article reflect your personality, your sense of humor, your delight with a cool product, your disgust with a bad situation. That doesn’t mean that you should make every article an opinion piece, but pick expressions that reflect who you are. You can still stand on the sidelines as a dispassionate observer, but let it be you standing on the sidelines, not some other bozo. Note, for example, that I always choose chocolate examples; that’s part of my online and writer’s persona, and reflects a real person who, of course, h
as the good taste to know that chocolate is an important part of life. I could pick much more mundane and boring examples but this lets me show through even when I’m being very serious. Readers respond to this sense of a “real person”, too; I’ve had readers give me pounds of chocolate when they’ve met me at conventions.
* Once we’ve been working together for a while: If you’re going to be at a trade show, let me know about it. I may want to guide you for possible assignments. (“If you’re going to be there, please make a point of looking at the biometrics devices, and tell me if you think there’s something worthwhile for us to cover.”) If you’re lucky, I’ll be there too and we’ll have lunch on my publication’s expense account.
I haven’t touched on getting freelancers paid, on what happens when I edit your deathless prose, on asking for contacts, on the “package” matter (screen shots, side bars, etc). Maybe someone else (who’s working as hard as I am to procrastinate will chime in on those subjects.
Bonus notes on nocturnal activity:
I had a migraine last night that took four pills to kill. I paced around my room for an hour and a half until the pain was dulled enough for me to lie down in bed and fall asleep, about 11:30. Until the painkillers kick in, lying down makes the pain worse as the blood vessels enlarge further with increased blood pressure.
I woke up about two hours later, pain-free, but wide awake. I got back to sleep about 3:00 and spent the rest of the night in that same sort of fitful sleep I went through last weekend. So, Alex, that might explain why I would fall asleep on your couch later this morning….