Saturday, October 20, 2012

Freelancer Best Practices

Today I received my first official topic request. Darrin Drader, from Rhode Island, wrote in to ask for advice for dealing with editors. My advice, after 17 years in this business, both as a freelance writer and full-time line editor, is “with extreme caution.” Let’s put it this way: You wouldn’t walk up to a caged gorilla and poke it with sticks, would you? I don’t know how it is today because the market is so much different than it was ten years ago (though with this most recent project I’m going to go with “not much different”). But allow me to explain what your typical line editor has to deal with.

First of all, he has deadlines. He cannot miss these deadlines, because then the company has no money. Here’s how it works: Alliance orders 1,000 copies of your book (HA! We know that never happens) and expects them on November 1. They don’t have to pay you for 90-days after receipt of the shipment, so as soon as your book arrives in their warehouse the clock starts running. Then, 90-days later, you get a check from Alliance (HA! Again). So if you deliver your book on Nov. 15, that’s when the money-clock starts ticking. You’ve pushed the company’s payday back by two weeks. Most companies have reserves, so they can cover the two week gap in their cashflow (HA! How many lies can I stick in a paragraph?!), but you’ve made things tight.

So your editor is in his office, furiously hacking away at a text full of “verys” and “wills” and “to bes”, he’s slashing someone’s manuscript down to the 6,000 words for which he asked, and he’s changing that section on monkey-thing sex into a section on monkey-thing religion. He’s got blue lines on his desk for the next release that he has to review. He’s got to outline the next book, set the word counts, and assign it. He’s got a meeting with the production department about the book two releases out. He’s got to wade through email, at least one of which says “your game sucks, hire me to fix it.” And his boss has just stopped playing XCom long enough to come out of his office to ask “where’s the next book, dude?” All the while, he’s got one eye on calendar, because he cannot miss a deadline. (Andrew Greenberg calls this “the mill” because it’s like a millstone that will grind you to paste if you don’t stay ahead of it).

That’s when a writer calls and says something like “I’m having a hard time finishing, because I’m just not feeling it. Can I have another week?” That’s when the editor wants to reach through the phone and strangle the writer until he’s “feeling it” and gets back to work...

Let’s talk about best practices for dealing with editors. I’ll be honest, I know we can be irrational. I worked for one guy who preferred I write through telepathy; he could never explain what he wanted, so I’d write something and he’d call up and say “nah, that’s not it.” I worked for another who wanted four drafts because I wasn’t writing in his style. One guy asked for extensive re-writes, I made all his changes, and he changed his mind back. The editor is, however, the dude in charge:

Say “Yes, Sir”
I once had a writer write something for me, and I didn’t like it. I asked for a race of monkey-things, and he droned on about monkey-thing mating rituals. I was working on a licensed property at the time, and I knew there was no way they’d approve anything covering monkey-thing sex in such extensive detail. Moreover, who the hell cares about how monkey-things get it on? So I called the writer and asked him to replace the section (it was about 500-words long). The writer told me, in no uncertain terms, that he would not.

The monkey-things were a work of art. Removing the section would wreck the artistic integrity of the piece. He felt the sexual practices of monkey-things was important, given that the property involved the captain getting it on with just about anything with a hole in it. I reiterated that the people who actually held the IP rights would never approve such a thing, even though the logical extension of their character jumping everything in a skirt was that a lot of boning was going on in their setting. No, the answer came back, it ruined the artistic integrity.

Okay. Back in the Renaissance, the Medicis were the richest guys around, and they hired artists to paint their portraits. If they asked the artist not to paint the giant, hairy mole on their cheek, the artist did it. Because he wants to get PAID (and not murdered in his sleep). So, if you want to get paid, you’ll remove the monkey-thing sexathon. There’s your “artistic integrity, dude.”

Your editor controls access to the checkbook. He tells his boss that your work is acceptable and he should cut you a check. If he doesn’t like the work, he tells the boss to go back to playing Xcom. Moreover, if I have to cut out the 500-words of monkey-thing sex and write it myself, you get paid for 500-words less (because I’m not paying you for words I wrote).

Therefore, if your editor asks you for something, the answer should be “yes, sir.” If he wants you to add flying donut-monsters, the answer is “yes, sir.” If he wants you to write it in Urdu, the answer is “yes, sir.” The editor is the guy in charge. That editor who asked me for four drafts of a 500-word piece? I told him “yes, sir.” The dude who had me change everything, only to change it back? “Yes, sir.”

If you disagree, then be respectful about it. I’ll listen to your ideas. Maybe we can come up with a compromise. Maybe you’re right, and you can convince me that monkey-thing sex is the most important part of the work. But, at the end of the day, if the editor puts his foot down, you’re answer should be “yes, sir.” Don’t argue with him.

Don’t Get Emotional
A lot of what we do is for lousy pay, so the only thing we have left is the sheer pleasure of creating. We get emotionally invested in our work. The words are “ours.” Those monkey-things are the greatest thing since toothpaste and shoelaces, and the editor is an irrational idiot for wanting to cut them. He’s asking for a ridiculous amount of words on an insanely-tight deadline, and now he’s being a mouth-breathing pinhead.

Stop. Don’t get emotional. Calling your editor and giving him what-for is not a good idea. I have several examples of writers who called to slag on me, the company, and my boss. I don’t need your tidal wave of righteous indignation, because I’ve got my own problems on my end. I’ve got a deadline. Often three. I’ve got a boss who’s breathing down my neck. I’m working 10 to 14 hours a day. You may be absolutely right, but cloaking things in emotion just adds fuel to the fire. He’s not going to listen to your perfectly reasonable request, because you just called him a moron.

If you’re really that upset about something, then stop, take a hot bath, take a walk, take a shot… whatever you have to do to calm down. Then, call your editor.

Be Honest
When I was a waiter, we once had a big party come in – 15 people. They sat in my section, so it was my table. The boss came over and asked, semi-jokingly, “can you handle it?” I told him the truth. No, I can’t handle it. I’m better with lots of small tables, because I like to keep moving, and 15 people can be hard to control. So the boss gave the table to someone else, and she made a $200 tip. Was I mad? Not really, because I also waited on 15 people, spread out across several tables and made $200 in tips. The boss, however, was thrilled because I was honest and there were no problems on the dining room floor.

My advice to you when dealing with an editor is to be honest. If you can’t write the assignment, be honest and tell him you’re not interested. It’s better than having to slog through 5,000 words writing something you don’t like. If he asks you to change something, and you can’t say “yes, sir,” then tell him so. If you’re going to be late, call up and be honest. Often times, the editor has a little space to wiggle, because he’s got five other chapters to read, so he can just move yours to the end. Don’t wait until the day of the deadline to do this, because that’s the gamer equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.” And never, never, never make him call you looking for the work that should have been turned in two days ago. While he may have room to juggle things around to give you extra time, don’t make him chase you down to find that out.

Really, a little pro-action on your part can save you a lot of headaches. If you don’t understand something in the outline, call and ask about it. What may be clear to me, because I’m referencing Gormenghast, may be obscure to you, because you’ve never heard of it. Be honest. I’ll tell you what I meant by putting it another way. A half-hour phone call could save everyone a lot of headaches later on. Need more space? Call and be honest. Maybe the editor can find you some extra words, if you really need them. In the end, I’m more likely to give future work to someone who calls and is honest with me, even if he backs out of the project, than someone who screws me over a week after the deadline.

See It From His Side
It’s always a good idea to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes and try to see things from the other direction. I think a good political debate would be the two guys have to argue the other guy’s case for him. Imagine if Mitt Romney had to make a forceful case for Obamacare; maybe he’d see that it wasn’t so bad after all. What if Obama had to argue in favor of tax cuts for the super-rich; maybe he’d adjust his policy a bit. I see this all the time in daily life. We’re so wrapped up in our own headspace that we fail to grasp what the other guy is saying. It’s polarizing.

Try to see life from the editor’s point of view. You innocently call to ask for more time, or for more words. Those are really the two biggest reasons I would get calls. My mind immediately runs to two things: deadlines and costs. Will it blow my deadline, or will it increase my costs? If I answer “yes” to either of those two questions, I’ve got to go to my boss and explain it to him. And he’s a lot less forgiving than I am, no matter who he is.

Deadlines: Will this request blow my deadline? Late is bad. It affects cashflow. I once had to tell a writer that his request for two more weeks meant that the entire project would be two weeks late, which meant the other five authors who managed to turn in their work on time had to wait two extra weeks to get paid. Deadlines are tight. It’s a millstone. It just keeps grinding. I want everything in on a certain date so I can get to the editing. I feel better with the whole book on my hard drive. My boss is asking me about it, and I really don’t want to tell him you’re late, because HE feels better with the whole book on my hard drive.

If I don’t give the writer the time, I don’t get my manuscript, and I have a hole to fill. If I do give him the time, will he call back later and ask for still more time? Is it just better to get another writer to do it? Should I write it myself? Can I switch things around so that the book still comes out on time, and the process still moves forward? How much time do I have to edit the late work, and still make deadline? Can I edit the chapter in a day? What if it’s total crap and it takes a week? These are the kinds of questions that are running through my mind while I’m still on the phone with you.

Costs: Will this increase the cost of the book? There is a layout guy who’s sitting at his computer waiting for a book to layout. There’s an art director waiting for the book so he can start assigning art. The boss has to schedule time at the printing press (oh yeah, you can’t just send your files to a printer any old time. You schedule press time, often weeks in advance. If you’re late, guess what, you’ve got to wait until they’re done printing 250,000 copies of J.K. Rowling’s latest wet dream). So my being late means a lot of people sitting around, getting paid for doing nothing, because there’s nothing to do yet. So they sit at their desks and play computer games. 

What about the costs to the project? Every project has an assigned budget. Can I find space for those extra 2,000 words the writer says he needs? Can I take up the per page word count to 650 or 700? Do I have to add another signature? Can I cut something someplace else? Are the extra words really necessary? While you’re talking to me, I’m thinking about money.

If you can say “I need more time, will this affect your deadline?” or “I know this will affect the book’s cost, but I really need another week,” at least he knows you understand his problems. Better if you can present a solution to the problem as part of your pitch; that’s called “being helpful” and your editor appreciates that. Even better if, after seeing it his way, you don’t even make the request in the first place, unless you really, really have to. In other words, just be on time and be on word count.

Ogre: One last thing on the subject. I’m not an ogre. I understand that you had to go to the hospital with your sick kid. I know what it’s like to spend the day at the DMV. I’ve had hard drive crashes before. Life happens. Tell me what’s going on, without getting too emotional (because then I think you’re just playing to my sympathies). Lastly, don’t play this card too much. If you blow every deadline because of a catastrophe in your life, I’m going to start thinking you’re the unluckiest person alive, or that you’re blowing smoke up my ass. 

There it is, Darren. These are the best practices for dealing with editors. Do what he asks. Don’t get emotional about it. If you can’t do what he asks, say so, respectfully. Be proactive. Try to see things from his side, and address his concerns. That’s how I did it as a freelancer, and what I appreciated when I was a line editor. Do you have any specific situations that you’d like to discuss? 


  1. Ross,
    You've got a few years on me writing for a(what we laughingly call) a living. But your advice is spot on. The only thing I would have changed is to say that if you are emotional and find that you can't divorce yourself from your attachment to your work, its probably a good indicator that freelancing isn't the job for you.

  2. Yup, what it all comes down to is pretty simple: if you want to be a professional, just act like one.

  3. this is some good advice...really does help to hear the nuts and the bolts of it-i didn't know how the pay structure worked.