10 Editing Mistakes That Will Drive Your Writers Nuts

This post originally appeared on Contently’s The Freelancer.

A good editor is like a dream. She’ll deftly weave context into a post, rework confusing language, and smooth over the rough edges—all without taking any credit. But editors can also wield their power for ill, and some of the things they do can drive even the most well-adjusted freelancer insane.

At the end of January, Contently Editor-in-Chief Joe Lazauskas wrote “The 5 Worst Things Writers Do That Drive Editors Nuts.” Six weeks later, I’m here to offer the flip side to that topic from a writer’s perspective. Here are 10 ways editors make our blood boil on a regular basis.

1. Editing errors into your work.

So you’ve slaved away on a well-researched post, meticulously reporting on complex details and double-checking everything from statistics to proper nouns. All set, right?

No. The post goes live and there, smack dab in the middle where you didn’t put it, you’ll find a misinterpreted study, a decimal in the wrong place, or a factual error. Meanwhile you’re getting concerned emails or more hostile feedback in the comments section from strangers, which puts you in this awkward position where you don’t want to take the fall for a mistake that’s not yours, but don’t want to throw your editor under the bus either. To make matters worse, sometimes editors either stop responding to emails or refuse to make revisions once the article gets published.

A possible solution? Mine has always been to request to see edited posts before they go live—but that decision has cost me two gigs that would have paid a combined total of $18,000 per year. I suppose this is a decision all freelancers must make for themselves, weighing their long-term reputation and credibility against the potential short-term payout.

2. Sitting on assignments for months—then asking for an immediate rewrite.

It makes sense for editors to prioritize certain stories when working on revisions. Time-sensitive pieces must go live first, and believe it or not, some of your fellow freelancers can be notoriously unreliable. But knowing that a backlog exists as a necessary evil doesn’t make it any easier on us. It sort of feels like you have to sneeze, but can’t. The worst is when editors sit on an assignment for months and then suddenly need an immediate revision. To add insult to injury, sometimes this requires correcting out-of-date information, even if it was correct when you submitted.

My worst personal experience was when I completed a white paper, forgot about it for months, and then got multiple calls and emails about it one evening—while I was at the gym. Although carefully choosing which contracts to sign or adding stipulations can help you outline when you’ll receive payment, there’s not a whole lot to be done about editors sitting on pieces indefinitely.

3. The scope, it creeps.

It’s not unusual for freelance projects to be improperly defined or increase in scope. Some examples:

  • You were assigned a web-researched blog post, but your editor wants you to do a lot more research and speak to various experts, requiring multiple interviews.
  • You turned in your 1200-word article, but your editor wants you to throw in a couple of 200-word sidebars for no extra pay.
  • Suddenly you’re required to gather images for a post, load it up in a CMS, set up pull quotes, come up with Twitter headlines, and find three to five related articles.

Unfortunately, the only real antidote for scope creep is to confront the editor by referring back to the contract, if applicable. You can also list proactive solutions (e.g., “Here’s what I can do at that rate”), or negotiate for a pay increase. Some editors are more understanding than others, but letting scope creep win the battle will only lead to more work at lower pay.

4. Sending you questions you should have asked the person you already interviewed.

Editors are busy. We get it. It’d be very difficult to manage an editorial calendar, deal with internal meetings, and stay on top of analytics while also knowing when a freelancer is interviewing a specific subject. Still, that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when an editor responds to an email saying, “I’m speaking with X tomorrow” a week later with a line of questioning you never even considered. Plus, reconnecting with a source who might be very busy isn’t always a sure thing. To avoid these situations and smooth any potential frictions, get to know which type of communication an editor prefers (and whether multiple reminders are appreciated or come across as pest-like).

5. Repeatedly “losing” invoices.

So you submitted your piece, and it was published without any hiccups. Then you send an invoice and hear crickets. You follow up, only to learn the invoice was never received. “Can you resend it?” So you resend, but apparently your W-9 disappeared. Oh, wait, they found your W-9, but where is the contract you emailed? These forms are usually sitting in your sent folder, and resending them seems like busywork. Were these documents really lost, or is your editor just disorganized and/or stalling? You may never find out. There’s no real solution to this other than meticulously tracking your assignments using invoicing software and following up as needed. Some programs even track accounts aging so you’ll know how long it takes to get paid when making decisions on future work.

6. Expecting weekend and evening work.

There’s something to be said about going the extra mile to meet a deadline. I do, however, draw the line at repeated requests for emergency late-night or weekend rewrites. My worst experience was when I drove eight hours to speak at a conference and cover some of the sessions for a publication when my editor kept sending me revision requests on a different project well into the evening (around 11 p.m. my time).

The problem for some editorial teams is they’re expected to work ridiculous hours. But that doesn’t mean freelancers or contractors want to play ball, and generally we don’t have the same incentive to do so without salary and equity. Unfortunately, requests for weekend and evening work don’t die on their own; they typically require you to set boundaries with your editor after each new unreasonable request. If you’d like to try a more subtle approach before escalating to a confrontational one, let phone calls go to voicemail, and schedule response emails to get sent at 9 a.m. the following morning.

7. Asking if you’ll write quick pieces for a fraction of your rate.

The pitch presented to you is as follows: If you’d write an 800-word blog post for $250, why not write a 150-word blog post for $50? Because proportional division doesn’t necessarily account for all the time required for each piece, no matter the word count.

I tend to give editors the benefit of the doubt since some of them haven’t freelanced and are unaware of the fact that writers aren’t just multiplying their hourly pay by 40 to determine a weekly salary. However, I do have a minimum I stick to, and if payment goes below that number, I’ll turn down assignments that don’t seem feasible.

8. Rewriting posts as clickbait.

The first time one of my articles was rewritten as clickbait was after I’d hustled hard for an interview, convincing a source we wouldn’t twist his words for a story about a controversy he was involved in. That was my intention, but my editor thought the post would generate more pageviews if it was rewritten Valleywag-style. My source was livid. I tried to explain myself, but it didn’t help. This scenario ruins your reputation and credibility—in addition to destroying your relationship with a source. The worst part is it’s not always possible to know which sites do this, because some editors are opportunistic. The answer, again, is to ask to see drafts before they go live.

9. Emailing to say they love your work—then asking you to jump through hoops before they offer work.

Sometimes I hire freelance designers to help me with assorted CSS tasks, or freelance editors to review copy. To find the right people, I check credentials, explain the scope of the project, reach out with a contract, and send the money once the work is finished.

When some editors try to hire me, though, they send an email explaining how much they love my work, tell me about the project, and then… ask me to set aside a half hour to talk on Skype. Then, before we talk, they expect me to fill out a questionnaire detailing why I wish to work for their company. So basically you think they’re talking about a possible gig, but what they’re really asking for you to do is sign up for an interview.

Occasionally, they even want you to sell yourself. What do they think you will say? “Hi, stranger! Let me drop everything for this unsolicited job interview for somewhere I’ve never heard of!” This isn’t to say all out-of-the-blue offers aren’t worthwhile, just that a lack of transparency about motives can come across as manipulative. To make matters worse, some of these offers include “opportunities” to write for free. I typically weed out assignments-turned-interview-requests by specifying my rates in advance: “Yes, I’d be happy to discuss contributing to your blog at my regular rate of $X/word.”

10. Kill fees.

Scott Carney wrote an incredible post about how kill fees, as he puts it, ruin writers, kill magazines, and destroy journalism. The kill fee clause means a publication choosing not to run a post only pays a mere fraction of it, even if the writer followed the assignment to the letter. As Carney explains, this possibility penalizes writers who report diligently and honestly but find themselves writing a story that’s perhaps less colorful or more complex than originally discussed. Some magazines are even using kill fees as an insurance policy, assigning more articles than they plan to run. “This policy has nothing to do with the quality of what a writer submits, rather a business model that intentionally transfers risks reporting onto the backs of their authors,” he writes.

It’s possible to negotiate the full fee when the reason the piece a killed was out of your control, but even full payment doesn’t lessen the sting when your work meets the chopping block. Another option is to try to get a contract without a kill fee, and make sure payment is on submission rather than when the article gets approved or published. Otherwise, you’ll be waiting forever.

Image by Ollyy

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