Freelancing Sucks. Long Live Freelancing.


6788587420_edab72e009_zLast month, Fast Company senior editor Reyhan Harmanci published a column called “Freelancing Sucks.” She wrote:

Everyone knows this: the freelancers, who are forced to beg for months-late checks; the editors, who surf on an endless sea of referrals, looking for unicorn writers who turn in copy clean and on time; the readers, who get the short end of the content stick when writers are rushing to work quickly to justify their unlivable wages and editors don’t have the room to build relationships with writers more than one story at a time. It’s a broken system, based on bad economics.

To me, a freelance science journalist who works as both a writer and an editor, this is an all-too-familiar list. The publishing industry’s increasing reliance on the “gig economy” isn’t good for journalists, and it’s not good for journalism. (For war correspondents, it’s arguably life-threatening.) Harmanci is happy that digital-media organizations like Vox and BuzzFeed are bucking this trend with new staff hires, and so am I.

Staffing up is only part of the solution, though. Journalism needs freelancers, and staff editors can make freelancing a whole lot better. Here’s why they should, and how they can.

Freelance journalists—the writers, photographers, artists, editors, and others who work contract-by-contract for multiple publications—have much more flexibility in where they work, and what they work on, than staffers ever will. Without freelancers, publications would have fewer reports from distant destinations, and fewer stories from obscure or complicated but important beats. They would have fewer distinctive voices, and fewer surprising ideas. While Harmanci acknowledges that there will always be “occasions when freelance or contract work is mutually beneficial,” that dramatically underestimates freelancers’ role. A publication without freelancers is like a country without immigrants: kinda boring.

If publishers recognized the value of freelancers, freelancing wouldn’t suck. But the journalism business has been in upheaval for almost 20 years; even our disruptions have disruptions. More and more, publishers treat freelancers as cost-saving opportunities, cutting staff in favor of freelancers and then cutting—in some cases completely eliminating—freelance fees and travel budgets. I’ve chosen to freelance full-time for 15 years now, and freelancing continues to work for me creatively, personally, and even financially. Every year, though, I have to fight harder for the money and time required to do decent work.

But there are ways to brighten this picture—and here’s where I really take issue with Harmanci’s column. While staff editors may not have much control over their publications’ freelance budgets, they shouldn’t just throw up their hands and hope that their bosses hire more staff. There are a lot of things editors can do, right away, to make freelancing suck less. Most of them are free, easy, and likely to pay off big in writer loyalty and better copy. My favorite editors do them already. Any editor can. (Some corresponding suggestions for writers can be found here and in Chapter 8 of The Science Writers’ Handbook. Also, watch The Open Notebook this month for advice on pushing back against low pay.)

Cultivate relationships with trusted freelancers. Editors who have to “surf an endless sea of referrals, looking for unicorn writers who turn in copy clean and on time,” as Harmanci puts it, are either new at their jobs or not spending enough time building their own networks of freelancers. When an assignment goes well, keep in touch with the writer. Ask for or offer ideas for the next story. Tweet a compliment. Pass along an email about an award or reporting grant. Honestly, we freelancers are pathetically susceptible to this stuff—a couple of one-line emails will probably convince us that you’re a lovely person with impeccable taste, and that we should send you some really polished pitches.

Make the pitching process as painless as possible. Editors who respond promptly to pitches save us time, and time is money. A quick explanation of why a pitch doesn’t work for your publication makes it more likely that we’ll hit the mark next time, again saving us—and you—time and money. We do know you’re busy, and we don’t expect immediate or elaborate responses. But ignore too many pitches for too long, and you may end up wondering where all of us went.

Make the editing process as painless as possible. We freelancers care about the quality of our projects just as much as you do, and we’ll work hard to make them shine—as long as you treat us like the colleagues we are. Know that tough edits are fine, even appreciated—they mean you’re taking the project seriously—but that they go down a lot more easily when you say please and thank you like your mom told you to, and when you take the time to be clear about what you want from us. (New to editing? Ask to take a look at other staffers’ edit memos and draft markups, and notice what works and what doesn’t. Though each editor-writer relationship is unique, editors can learn a lot of useful tricks from one another.) Be sure that what you want is also roughly what your boss, and your boss’s boss, wants—revising a piece multiple times to meet radically different expectations is a time and money suck for everybody, and does nothing to improve the final product. Finally, try not to make your emergencies our emergencies. Our place in the publication process means that we often pay the price for upstream delays; we’re used to it, but it still makes us cranky.

Help us get our &*$! checks. Speaking of cranky, few things are more exasperating than having to pester publications for payment. Each freelancer is a small individual enterprise, and we really don’t like being forced to carry your giant corporation’s debt. And every time we have to write an extra email to your business department, or re-send a misplaced invoice, our already inadequate hourly rate shrinks just a little bit more. Editors who approve invoices quickly, do their part to resolve payment problems, and are otherwise conscientious about their role in the business end of the process earn buckets—buckets—of good karma from freelancers.

Make the case for freelancers to your higher-ups. Because we’re not present in the office, it’s easy for publishers to forget our importance, cut our fees, and gut our rights. As editors, you know as well as we do that bad terms force you to hire less experienced freelancers, and spend more time editing a worse publication; make sure your publisher knows this, too. Publications whose bosses understand these invisible costs are less likely to put the squeeze on freelancers, and more likely to attract our very best ideas.

Freelancing may well be, as Harmanci says, a broken system, and until publishers provide better fees and contracts, it’s likely to stay that way. The practices above won’t fix the system, and they won’t fix the many other current challenges to quality journalism. But they can, in small but significant ways, make freelancing suck less—and by doing so, make publications more interesting, more relevant, and very possibly more profitable.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a deadline to meet.

Thanks to the fine writers and editors, both freelance and staff, who read and commented on drafts of this post. Top photo: “Human Writes,” a 2012 performance installation by William Forsythe and Kendall Thomas at the U.N. Office in Geneva. Creative Commons.

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9 thoughts on “Freelancing Sucks. Long Live Freelancing.

  1. An enormous heap of thanks to Michelle for writing this no-nonsense expose of sorts on the realities of freelancing. Thanks also to LWON for running it. I love the how-to for editors, who do need to be freelancers’ partners every step of the way. I too am a long time freelancer, but I no longer view it as a sustainable professional status, not if a healthy level of angst is to be part of the deal. May this essay, a labor of love that surely bit into Michelle’s hourly rate this week, move at least some editors and publishers toward better and more respectful partnerships with their freelancers. If that happens, everyone will benefit.

  2. To any editors reading this, here’s an additional piece of “painless editing” etiquette. Don’t assign a story of x words, then ask questions during editing that balloon the word count to 2x on first revision, and then tell the writer, “Don’t worry, I can edit it down.” This practice comes across as particularly clueless to writers who are being paid by the word, but it wreaks havoc on our hourly rates either way, and doesn’t do the story any good either. Be realistic about what can be accomplished within a certain number of words, and don’t ask questions if the answers won’t fit. If a piece of information is absolutely essential to the story, let the writer know up front.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Michelle. It’s good advice. As an editor who also freelances, I regularly have experiences (good and bad) with other pubs that remind me that I must always try to do right by freelancers. Still, endless meetings that come with the desk job sometime get in the way of the best intensions. That is no excuse. But rather a note of encouragement to writers to speak up if something’s not going well. As long as everything stays professional, communication can help, now and down the road. Yes, it takes up some time. And I know that sucks. But it can be worth the extra effort. I’d also say there are writers who do everything right to keep the assignments coming and get paid on time. They run their freelancing like a business. And when I’m wearing the freelancer’s hat, I definitely try to keep those unicorns in mind.

  4. Thank you for this article. As I read it, I (sadly) saw a parallel with tenure positions and adjunct positions in colleges and universities. More and more, full time professional positions are cut in favor of “cost saving” adjuncts (which I currently am). It’s a sad ordeal, all the way around.

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