Friday, September 08, 2006

Breaking Up With An Editor, Part One

You had mentioned not wanting to burn bridges with editors when freelancing. Have you ever found yourself just not clicking with an editor? Do you try to win them over or just move on? Have you ever ended up in "hot water" or pissing off an editor? I know that there are many different personalities in magazines and sometimes egos can get a little bit big. Do you have any stories from the trenches?

A few caveats before I answer this question. :) First, I've mentioned this before, but I think that often times, writers take things far too personally, and many of us need to develop thicker skins. I definitely know writers who have issues with *a lot* of editors, and I think if you consistently run into problems or are constantly griping about editors, then you should probably do a little self-evaluation. After all, everyone can't be wrong but you. Right? Second, I'm a pretty easy-going person: it takes a lot to ruffle my feathers and chap my hide. A lot. Which I think is part of the reason that editors like working with me - you're not going to hear me complain about much, not because I'm a doormat but because most things really don't bother me to the point of complaining. SO. If I've put an editor on my black list, I probably have a pretty good reason to. And yes, I do have a black list. Third, I want to note that savvy editors - and I work with plenty of them - take your work and enhance it: they push you to be a better writer and a better reporter, and with their help, you can draw out a bang-up article. I have a lot respect for my editors, and I've learned even more from them over the years than they probably realize.

All of this said, certainly, there are both editors and magazines who are easier to work with than others. Many of the women's magazines edit by committee, which means that you get comments back from not just your direct editor, but three or four others as well. Which doesn't necessarily make it more complicated, but certainly CAN make it more complicated. But on the other hand, some of my women's mag editors are dolls, and I'd never give up writing for them.

These days, I'm in the very fortunate position of now being able to pick and choose whom I write for. Specifically, I've axed off all of the pain-in-the-ass editors or magazines who weren't worth my time (or money). But it wasn't always this way. For the first few years of my career, I pitched anyone and everyone and accepted everything that came into my inbox. Thus, yes, I have a few stories from the trenches. I'll post one today and one on next week. Both are good examples of knowing your limits and learning from your mistakes so you don't fall into the same traps the next time out.

Story Number Uno:
I was a very green freelancer and just landed one of my first national assignments. I was ELATED. Big time magazine that I also happened to subscribe to. Yahoo, right? Not so fast. I got the go-ahead call from the editor, only it wasn't quite a go-ahead call. What she wanted instead was for me to draft half of the story on spec, under the guise of "they've never seen me write anything like this before and wanted to make sure that I could do it." Now, what's spec, you ask? Spec is when you write a piece for no money, and then the editor gets to decide if she wants to pay you for it. (Sort of like if someone painted your house, and then you decided whether or not you felt like paying them for it. Seems fair, right? Only not.) I adamantly disagree with writing ANYTHING on spec, but back then, it seemed like a good idea. After all, I wanted to impress said editor more than anything in my life.

So I drafted about half of the piece for her - did a bunch of interviews and wrote it up just as I would have if I'd had a contract in hand. A few weeks later, I received the official go-ahead call. Yahoo, right? Not so fast. While on the phone, the editor proceeded to tell me how she wanted me to approach the piece and where to take the article, only she told me this in the most ambiguous terms possible, which means she didn't tell me anything about the approach or how to tackle the piece. She literally said at least three times, "I'm not really sure what I'm saying here or what I mean, but YOU know what I mean, right?" To which I replied, "of course I know what you mean," even though I had NO FREAKING IDEA what she meant. How in the hell could I have known what she meant or what she wanted when SHE didn't even know what she meant or what she wanted?? I'm an excellent freelancer; I am not, however, an excellent clairvoyant. When we hung up the phone, I was left with a feeling of total malaise - mostly because the editor had failed to give me any real direction on the story, and I, too intimidated or too stupid, had failed to squeeze anything out of her.

Whatever, I thought. I'm good at this! I'm smart! I don't fail! I'll just do this anyway! And so I did. I wrote what I thought was - and what I still believe to be - a kick-ass story. Cited numerous sources. Culled real life examples. Broke it down exactly as I proposed in my pitch letter. Triple-checked it for grammar. And sent it in.

A month later, said editor called me back. "We're killing your story," she said. "It just didn't work. I can't explain why." Really? Well, no shit! Between your incompetent direction and my cowardice to ask you to actually explain what you wanted, it's no wonder that you weren't pleased. Of course, I didn't say any of this to her. What I said instead was: "I'm mortified, sorry, apologetic, want to kill myself, etc," and then proceeded to never, EVER pitch her again. To this day, I avoid her.

A couple of lessons learned. 1) Always, ALWAYS ask for specific details when getting an assignment. It doesn't make you look dumb; it makes you look smart. Especially when you hand in a story that the editor is pleased with. 2) Learn what is and isn't a fair kill fee. Kill fees are written into your contract: they're a percentage of the total contracted fee that are doled out should the publication ax your story. However, magazines might try hand you a kill fee for terms that have nothing to do with your writing, which isn't kosher: the EIC changed her mind, the story now feels outdated, etc, etc, etc,. In this case, I should have been allowed a rewrite, but it was so clear that the editor had NO idea what she wanted from this piece (in retrospect, this was obvious from the get-go), that she didn't want to salvage it. 3) Snoop around about editors, if possible, before you pitch them. Talk to other writers. Find message boards or writers groups that share info. Turns out that my experience with this editor was not at all unique, and even today, I know plenty of writers who deem her too PIA (pain-in-the-ass) to work with her. And in that same vein, there are plenty of editors who receive good reviews from other writers as well. And trust me, editors are doing the same thing about us.

Years later, I can look back on this and sort of giggle. Sort of. At the time, however, it was horrifying. Simply horrifying. But you know what? In the scheme of things, it didn't matter much. So what if one editor thought my story sucked? I happen to be one writer who thought that SHE sucked, so we were even. And hey, good lessons were learned along the way. Which I can now pass on to you. :)


Unknown said...

If I were a betting woman, I'd put money on a name. Privately, of course. I swear, I can even hear her voice on the phone: ("I really can't explain what I want, but you know what I'm getting at, right?")

Anonymous said...

Can you recommend some message boards for freelance writers?