Communication – you’d think it would be the most natural skill for any writer. I mean it’s what we do, isn’t it? But even writers have communication breakdowns at times.
Picture this: while you’re sitting at home quietly working on writing assignments, your magazine or newspaper editor is working in a hectic office, getting hundreds of emails every day and feeling as if there’s never enough time to get everything done. You’re there to help, right? But sometimes stuff happens… such as an interviewee jacks in her job and goes off to travel the world.
This happened to me, and then the magazine editor called up with extra questions…
“How old is Helen?” she asked.
“About 50?” I guessed. “She’s gone off travelling round the world, so I can’t ask, sorry,” I explained. I wished I’d asked her before she left, obviously.
“Oh. So you don’t have her new contact details then? We’d like to read the final version of the story to her.”
“No, sorry, but she was fine about what I sent you, so as long as it hasn’t changed too much, I’m sure it’ll be OK.”
A few other things had happened in the intervening period however, which meant one of the photos was out of date too. None of this changed my interviewee’s story, so I didn’t think it was important. But it seems I should have mentioned it, as the editor decided to add a footnote to the story, while grumbling that I should have told her earlier. A lesson has been learnt.
It’s easy to think that when writers are enthusiastic about appearing in a magazine article, they’re happy enough for you to use the same material in a book. But for my new book, The Little Book of Freelance Writing (reviewed by Mistakes Writers Make here) one interviewee said no, and her piece was pulled from my manuscript at the eleventh hour. It’s good to check!
Get the terms in writing
Quite recently I started work on a new writing project for an editor I’ve worked for before. He asked me to do some background work for a new article and get the ball rolling with an interviewee. I assumed that the length and fee would be the same as before, but queried anyway, as it’s good to have all this confirmed. The editor didn’t respond, however, and after asking several times I started to wonder whether they’d had budget cuts and didn’t expect to pay me at all! It was awkward, because by then, I had an enthusiastic interviewee in the loop.
It was the following week when the editor finally confirmed the terms, and they were fine. But the lesson is, always get these essential details in writing BEFORE you start work!
Make sure you understand the assignment
On another occasion, I was asked to write up a short travel article and add a walk… at least that’s how I understood it. After I’d submitted my work, it turned out they wanted a mapped and detailed walking route INSTEAD of the travel article that I’d pitched to them. I hadn’t even done a walk when I visited the location, so I didn’t feel qualified to write about the walk in any detail.
In the end, they used what I’d written and added a walk. But next time, I know that if they say they want a walk, I need to clarify the format from the outset.
The lesson: make sure you understand instructions – it’s sometimes better to ask questions than to do the wrong thing!
Susie Kearley works for magazines and newspapers around the world. Read more about the ups and downs of freelance writing in her new book, The Little Book of Freelance Writing, available in paperback or ebook. It includes inspiration and ideas, identifies opportunities for writers, includes interviews with other successful writers, and it helps you understand rights and contracts. She is also the author of Freelance Writing: Aim Higher, Earn More, and of Freelance Writing on Health, Food and Gardens. You can buy and view all her books via Amazon.