The Necessity of Professionalism
Three editors offer advice for freelancers about the dos and don’ts of maintaining professional working relationships.
Many years ago, before email and the internet, I was a senior editor at a midlist tabloid newspaper called The National Examiner. Part of my job involved working with freelance contributors, making assignments, and overseeing their work. One day, I assigned a piece to a new writer with instructions to turn it over as quickly as possible. A week went by, then another. I called the writer, who assured me the piece was in the mail, and I should have received it.
A few days later, the article finally arrived on my desk. The writer, fresh out of envelopes, had placed the manuscript in an airline vomit bag, stuck some stamps on it, and dropped it in the mail. We never used that writer again.
Shortly after, another new writer delivered a great piece, then immediately pulled it because she wanted to pitch it to one of our competitors. She did, they declined, and so did we. We never used that writer again either.
In both instances, the writers lost work because of their unprofessional behavior. Instead of using a vomit bag, the first writer should have gone to the store and purchased some envelopes. In the second example, the writer should have honored her commitment to the publication that first gave her the assignment.
Professionalism is vital to success in any occupation, but especially a person-driven profession such as freelance writing. Failure to act professionally at any stage can have dire consequences for the writer, their editor, and even the publication itself.
MANY FORMS OF UNPROFESSIONALISM
Unprofessionalism can take many forms, editors report. Most common are writers who ignore word counts, blow off deadlines, hector editors with frequent emails and texts, and fail to deliver what was assigned.
Sarah Smith, editor-in-chief of Prevention magazine, recalls a writer she worked with at a previous publication who was assigned a story on three ways to be creative with kids. “The story I got back was five theater games for kids,” Smith says. “I went back to my original assignment for fear I hadn’t been clear that I needed a variety of ideas, but I had. When I asked the writer about the story she was assigned, she replied that she was thinking of including a theater game, and it was so interesting that she decided to do that instead.” Smith paid the writer a kill fee but says that she wouldn’t do so now because the writer did not deliver the assigned article. Smith never worked with the writer again.
More than once, Smith adds, she has had a freelance contributor submit a story with numerous blank spaces, known as TKs, and a request for the editor or the publication’s fact-checkers to confirm and add the missing information. “I’m fortunate to have a fact-checker and a copy editor, but I hire outside writers to do the complete story—find the statistics, research the studies, send me clean copy,” Smith notes. “These things I send back with other revision notes with a reminder to send me all the info with the next draft, but I find it sloppy, and I don’t go back to those writers because I can’t count on them.”
Beth Shugg, executive editor of Midtown Magazine, a regional lifestyle publication based in
Raleigh, N.C., laments writers who submit writing samples that suggest they are more skilled than they really are. “Sometimes writing examples are more reflective of a previous editor’s good work at making a story read more smoothly than when it was turned in,” she explains. “[Substandard] stories like these, which can require hours of editing, are not an efficient use of my time, and I give them no more than two chances.”
Another unprofessional peeve: writers who aggressively insist on more money than Shugg is able to pay. “These are often writers who don’t have a full-time job or feel they are so good that they deserve more money, and sometimes they can be quite persistent,” Shugg says. “When that happens, the writers usually don’t make my list of writers to work with. If I give an assignment that ends up requiring a lot more research and interviews than I anticipated, I will certainly try to bump up the payment. But if a writer turns in a lackluster story that doesn’t meet my standards and still asks for more money, they are off the list. It just isn’t good business to continue a working relationship with someone like that.”
DON’T HESITATE TO ASK
Smith believes that a lot of unprofessional behavior on the part of writers stems from an unfamiliarity with how editors work and being unwilling to ask. “I’m sure writers don’t want to come across as inexperienced or not in the know, but I need to be in the loop if stories evolve as writers write,” she explains. “I’m planning an entire issue and I need everything to work together; I can be flexible if I know early enough that something isn’t working out.”
Smith and Shugg speak from personal experience on the issue of unprofessionalism, both as editors and writers. Smith, for example, was once assigned a story for the magazine she worked for at the time and found it beyond her capabilities. She was intimidated and acknowledges turning in incomplete work that she never revised. “My problem,” she says, “is that I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t say, ‘I don’t know how to do this part. Is this a good approach?’ The good outcome is that I was so embarrassed about it for so long that I got better at going to my editors with potential solutions to problems and asking them to guide me to the best choice.”
I’m guilty of unprofessionalism as well. Early in my career, I pestered an editor whom I felt wasn’t responding quickly enough to my wonderful queries. He finally read me the riot act, and essentially told me to stop pitching. My immature behavior cost me a potentially lucrative market.
Loss of a market and future work is just one possible consequence of unprofessional behavior. It may also place a long-lasting black mark on a writer’s reputation and make future editors reluctant to work with them.
“Editors are juggling so many things every day that we, unfortunately, don’t have the time to train someone promising to become a regular contributor,” Smith says. “I need to work with people who send me clean, complete copy. I’m never too busy to answer questions as a writer is working or to work through a tricky story with a revision or two—most editors love those parts of the process—but the consequences of unprofessional behavior are pretty simple: I’ll move on to another writer.”
Shugg doesn’t hesitate to move on as well, though she will forgive an unprofessional writer if they are willing to change. “If a writer is polite and humble, and open to my changes and suggestions—and shows a willingness to learn and grow—I may give [them] another chance simply because [they were] so pleasant to work with and so willing to work hard,” she says.
A CASCADE EFFECT
Unprofessional behavior can have consequences beyond the writer. In certain circumstances, it can cause serious problems for their editor and the publication itself, Smith reports. “There are so many things on our end that can get derailed,” she explains.
“If the lineup of the issue is affected, the editor has a hole to fill and there may be wasted expenses on images or problems with the printer. For digital, there’s the potential for lost traffic as the editor either loses a planned story or has to take time away from editing to deal with the problem.”
A professional demeanor is not difficult to maintain, and the results can be career-advancing. “Professionalism, like manners, really has its roots in treating people with respect,” concludes Smith. “I’m looking for people who value mutual respect—those are the writers I have long, productive relationships with.”
Don Vaughan is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. His work has appeared in Boys’ Life, Writer’s Digest, Military Officer Magazine, Encyclopedia Britannica, and MAD Magazine. He is the founder of Triangle Association of Freelancers (TAFNC.com).
POETIC FORM: CHANSO
The chanso is a French form that offers poets a great deal of freedom— even as it sticks to some very defined rules. Here are the guidelines:
• Five to six stanzas of the same length followed by an envoy (a brief stanza that ends French poetic forms such as the ballade or sestina) that’s roughly half of the size of the first five to six stanzas
• Those first five to six stanzas can be as concise as couplets (or twoline stanzas) or have more than 10 lines
• Each line should have the same number of syllables, but whether it’s five syllables, 15, or somewhere in between is up to the poet’s discretion
So, as you can see, this form has a few strict rules that provide a lot of wiggle room for poets. Subject matter is also open. A poet could write about war, literary feuds, or the waking of trees as in this example by a Poetic Asides reader: