As a freelancer, it is refreshing when an editor or outlet publishes a pitch guide. It helps us know how to tailor our pitches, article style and timeline for the publication.
Unfortunately, there is no playbook to help editors work with the growing slate of talented freelance journalists in the marketplace. This has facilitated some horror stories that no one wants to deal with.
Here’s a guide for editors on how to avoid common faux pas, and what freelancers appreciate when working with editors.
Be upfront about your editing style
This may seem self-explanatory, but career freelancers work with a wide variety of editors. While one may like a flawless draft that only needs a quick glance before publishing, another may not operate that way. Some like to be an active sounding board and go through several rounds of edits.
Most career freelancers work with a combination of both. Don’t assume that one way is standard. Like any workplace, the workflow is an element of the company culture which can be drastically different depending on the publication. “Be transparent about the scope of the project and how many edit rounds you think it will be,” said Sonia Weiser, writer of the Opportunities of The Week Newsletter.
I often preemptively ask how the editor I will be working with likes to operate. What do they expect from a draft? Do they want to see something as close to done as possible, or would they rather a frame we can work on together?
Don’t pass along freelancer pitches
Don’t take a freelancer’s pitch and give it to a staff writer or another freelancer. This also is fairly self-explanatory but it does happen, though fortunately less than it used to because, of course, people talk. It happened to me three times, all of which were from publications under the same parent company. Pre-reporting and putting together a pitch takes time — time that we may or may not be compensated for.
Please don’t tweet out copy from pitches or correspondence. You may think our pitch or approach is outlandish or not a good fit, but not everyone will feel that way. By tweeting out an idea, you may inadvertently hand off our idea to someone else.
Seek approval on headlines
It is important to properly represent the reporting after the fact, especially when it comes to headline choice.
“Allow for freelancers to see the headline prior to publication,” Weiser said. “Because sometimes the headlines don't capture the actual essence of the story, they are very misleading, and freelancers are unhappy with how their articles are promoted.”
Be clear about timelines
Freelancing is often a full-time job. It’s not always a side hustle — in fact, more often it’s not. It’s not a novelty. Please respect our time and energy the way you expect us to respect yours.
Pitches take time to put together. Freelancers prefer it if you respond to them quickly, especially if they’re time sensitive. Sending a swift “no” about a piece may be a bummer but it allows us to take it to another place while it is still timely.
Once a story is approved in process, be transparent and clear about your timeline. If a piece is more evergreen and has to sit for a few days because of breaking news, that comes with the territory. Keep your freelancer in the loop. “If things are changing send an email with an update. I have some great editors that I love working with who are a week or so late but in the interim they sent an email saying, ‘hey I can’t get to this right away but I will get to it by next week,’” said freelance journalist Shivani Persad. “It’s okay if things change. It’s okay if deadlines change. We have to be flexible, but we are not mind readers. We are not in the organization where there is a Slack channel.”
Keep in mind that a story is not just about the writer or the work they put into something. It’s also about the sources interviewed for a story who graciously took the time to talk, and in some cases opened up about something traumatic. Persad recently wrote a story pegged to a major news event that required sources to discuss a vulnerable experience. The piece has still not been published and there is no clear indication when it will be.
Compensate freelancers fairly, even if you don’t publish the piece
Because edits may not be on par with what you would like does not mean that you shouldn’t move ahead with the story. I recently wrote an article that was spiked, with no ‘kill fee’ after a month’s worth of work because the editor suggested the piece needed more edits than he had the bandwidth for. Refusing to pay for work and time put in wouldn’t fly in other industries. Journalism should not be the exception.
Like with a salary, negotiating a rate is an art. It’s a give and take between a freelancer and editor. The nature of a flat fee is pretty self-explanatory. Personally, I prefer that. It’s much easier to gauge my incoming revenue that way.
However, others feel differently and are more open to pay per word. Cutting words can sometimes come across as cutting simply to cut costs rather than custom fluff.
Editors should make sure they explain why pay rates are what they are and why. “Recently I wrote for a digital publication with an assigned word-count of 600 words—but they wanted me to include two sources and the topic was way too complicated for that length,” said Brittany Robinson, author of the One More Question newsletter. “I now suspect the word count was based solely on their ability to claim they pay $0.50 per word, which isn't a great rate once you've spent hours trying to chisel down a piece that should really be 1,500 [words]. I understand there are often important reasons for word counts, but it's so helpful if an editor can be transparent about that.”
Consistency in payment terms is also important. Be on time with payments and stay on top of the payment timeline. Most importantly, be clear on what those rates are. To echo what Opportunities of the Week writer Weiser regularly tweets, please share your rates.
Andy Hirschfeld is a New York City-based reporter focusing on cost of living issues. He writes for publications including Al Jazeera English, Observer, OZY, Salon, CNBC and many others. He’s also the anchor for the nationally syndicated business news program Business Brief.