By Moira Butterfield
I have been thinking recently about the delicate balance that exists in the relationship between an editor and freelancer. Having been both an editor and an author, I know there is a trade-off between meeting the needs of the company and its sales targets, and keeping contributors engaged and committed and generally ‘onside’. But what constitutes good and bad practice? Below is my list (in no particular order) of suggestions to smooth the relationship. If you are a freelancer, please add your own thoughts and experiences and it would be great to hear from some editors, too.
1. Don’t treat an author’s text as your own. Don’t try to re-write it wholesale. Good authors spend a lot of time choosing the right vocabulary and establishing the right rhythm. Many inexperienced editors don’t realise this and tamper with text too much. Suggest improvements by all means, but let the author convert suggestions into text.
2. Don’t ask your author to make changes without carefully explaining why. This may seem obvious but surprisingly it happens a lot. It isn’t about being above criticism. An author needs to know that the editor is clear about the direction of a project. There’s nothing worse than “Hmm. It’s not right yet,. I don’t know why….Can you sort it out?”
3. If you have a brief or some comments on work, email them over but also make sure you explain properly what you mean. Emails are notoriously bad communication tools. People take them to mean one thing when they mean another. Better to email, then phone.
4. Constant phoning with thoughts and requests isn’t great, either. Not only is it time-consuming, but the freelancer is going to feel that the editor doesn’t quite know what they are doing.
5. I have been to lots of sales conferences in the past, and salespeople often suggest useful improvements to proposed new projects but they have occasionally been known to spout ill thought-out nonsense, too. Good editors can sort the wheat from the chaff and gently but firmly head off the less considered comments. Don’t pass on all comments wholesale to the author and expect them to act on all of them. If there are consequences – a change of schedule or a lot of rewriting – it needs pointing out in-house.
6. If there are changes to be made, is it a rebrief on your part? Did you ask for one type of text and now you’re asking for another? Don’t pretend it’s not a rebrief when it is. If it is, you should allow for more time, and if appropriate, some recompense.
7. Freelancers are not employees. They need to be properly paid for their time and expertise, and treated with respect. See Point 6 above.
8. Keep your contributors in the loop about what’s going on in-house – If there’s been a delay or a postponement, for example. Silence is the worst option.
9. It takes surprisingly little to make a freelancer love you forever. ‘Thank you’ is good. Thank a freelancer immediately for work sent, even though you may not have had time to read it yet.
10. Tell your authors and illustrators what kind of projects your company is looking for, perhaps in the light of bookfair or sales team feedback. Your contributors are creative thinkers and, given the chance, they are likely to produce the goods.
Keeping the balance right is a difficult skill, requiring fine judgment and good people-handling skills. The payback for a good editor is in creating a good pool of creative talented people who are always keen to work for you.
One other thing. Get out of the office once in a while. Come and have a chinwag, a cuppa and a bun. Then you really will have your freelancer eating out of your hand!
PS: It would great to post a similar list from an editor regarding contributors. Do get in touch, editors.