“Oh $&#£ off!” (Mistake #19)

A couple of months ago I read a BMJ editorial by Rhona Flin, Professor of Applied Psychology at the University of Aberdeen, in which she argued that experiencing or witnessing rudeness at work makes you more likely to make mistakes.

This would seem to be common sense, although it’s not something to which I’d previously given any thought. Rudeness can get to you, and make you uptight and distracted. It takes up head space that needs to be devoted to whatever it is you’re working on, which is bound to suffer as a consequence.

I’ve been working in the publishing and journalism business for well over a decade now and I’ve come across a fair amount of rudeness in that time. I remember when I was a writer at a publication whose designer was the most persistantly unpleasant and rude individual I’ve ever worked with, and I’m sure the quality of my work, and that of other members of the team, suffered as a result. We dreaded going to the office. It drove us to drink. It made us bitter and angry. Hardly conducive to creativity.

But that individual was rude by nature. Most people in the industry are anything but. But most of us – the odd saint or angel excepted – can be vulnerable to the occasional flash of rudeness. And for the purposes of this post, I’m interested not only in the consequences of rudeness on witnesses or recipients – but also on its perpetrators. Here are two anecdotes.

A couple of years ago, I bumped into an editor of mine at a health show and we fell into a conversation about freelancers. In passing, he casually let slip that he no longer commissions a long-standing acquaintance of mine who had been rude in a phone call to him concerning an overdue invoice. “It just isn’t worth it,” he told me. “I’m not responsible for payments, and sometimes our accounts team just pay a bit late. I know we should be punctual but I’m too busy to be hassled when money is only a few days overdue.”

About three years ago, when working at another magazine, I was forwarded an email exchange which was ‘doing the rounds’ among the women’s health and lifestyle sector’s editorial staff. A freelance writer had sent a features editor some ideas, not received a reply, and sent a follow-up asking that a response would be nice “if you can be bothered to find the time”. Not unreasonably, the features editor (politely) rejected the ideas, and this triggered an outpouring of indignant fury. It was eye-watering stuff from the writer, accusing the features editor of having an inflated sense of self-importance and being cavalier with the careers of freelancers. “I’m glad you rejected my ideas, as now I can take them to a professional editor who values me and them,” she flounced. I’ve never forgotten this individual’s name, and I doubt others who saw her emails have either. How much work she may have lost because of this can only be guessed. The tragedy of it was that she was “a pretty good writer”, as my deputy editor told me at the time.

The point I’m trying to make is – whatever happens – do your utmost not to be rude in your everyday dealings with editorial staff. It affects them; it affects others; it affects you – and your career. You see, you will get short thrift in this game. You will get ignored. You will get rejected. You will get rejected again. Even the nicest writers – which you all are because you read my blog – will have their patiences tested by the writing business. Swear at editors by all means – but only once you’ve put the phone down. Tell them to roll up their magazine and to stick it where the sun has never shone – but don’t go clicking ‘Send’ once you’ve done so. The publishing world is incestuous and gossipy. News spreads. Names are remembered. Try to bite your tongue and keep smiling and count to ten.

It would be hypocritical of me not to recount my own indiscretion at this point. I’d contacted an editor via email, introducing myself, with some ideas and clippings. I received a polite email back, thanking me, expressing interest in my work and proposals, and stating that the publication’s fee was £20 per 1,000 words. I in turn sent a polite email in return, thanking her for her time, but explaining that this amount was lower than my minimum rate (which was putting it mildly), and that I wouldn’t be able to accept any commissions.

“I must say I find your attitude disappointing,” she retorted. “In thirteen years as editor, I have never had a freelance writer decline to work for me because of money. All of my contributors write for the satisfaction of communicating essential information to people in need, and not for mercenary motivations.”

With what I felt to be nothing to lose, my response was swift and pungent, it didn’t half feel good, and I’ve never for a second regretted it. (I did not tell her to eff off, for the record!)

Mostly it’s wrong to give in to the temptation to be rude. But perhaps sometimes it’s essential.

Comments 10

  • Please don't think this is rude, but may I politely suggest that you meant to say 'affect' rather than 'effect'? :S

  • I don't want to be rude either but please will you reply to my email

  • @ Little Miss H – Whoops! No offence taken. Will change at once. Thanks for eagle-eyedness!

    @ julie – are you a student of mine, Julie, or another contact? I normally deal with student queries / assigns once or twice a week, so should get to you soon!

  • Another place to be careful of is freelance writers' forums. Don't vent your anger about any editors there as they read them and/or get to hear of them.
    One excellent writer stopped getting assignments from a publication I frequently write for as she was continually bad-mouthing them on writers forums – as the editor said to me ' you don't bite the hand that feeds you'.
    Also don't be too quick to join in communal vengeance. When a pub I wrote for had to almost halve the pay for articles ( I received a very apologetic explanatory email from the editor) some of the other freelancers who write for them contacted me and suggested that we write a joint email refusing to work for those rates.
    I refused to join pointing out that I was well aware that pubs were having a rough time financially and as long as the rate was stil worth it for me I'd continue writing.
    The result was that editor, in her appreciation of my agreeing to the lower pay let me split my next article into two seperate ones thereby generating the same pay for only a small amount of extra work.

  • Count to ten. Actually, make that 10,000. When an editor annoys you, it is so easy to start retaliating, but at the end of the day, I always remind myself that the editor is the 'customer' and as they so often say in the world of business, 'the customer is always right'.

    Sometimes I think writers forget that they are in business, so you need to take a business-like attitude to everything.

    There are studies that have shown that when we are rejected, our IQ level drops. In other words, when we've been rejected, we are less likely to think rationally. Whether it is our articles or our ideas that are rejected, we shouldn't work on gut instinct and retaliate. We should count to 10,000 instead. After a while our IQ level returns, and we can think more rationally again.

    As you say, '$&#£ Off' may make us feel better in the immediate aftermath, but later on, it will come back to haunt us.

  • @ Ann – I totally agree re: writers' forums. Very easy to get sucked into a false sense of fenced-off security – but it's very, very public.

    .. not sure how I feel about the 'go it alone' approach wrt reduced rates and your editor though. As a member of the NUJ, I do have some 'union' sensibilities, and feel getting together with other colleagues to press for fairer terms can be a legitimate and invigorating move. See, part of the reason publishers do this is because they know their scattered freelance workforce cannot easily get together and galvanise itself into action. They wouldn't dream of reducing staff rates by 50% – not in a million years. So why okay to do it to freelancers?

    @ Simon – What an intriguing piece of research re: IQ/rejection. Great advice.

    Just for clarification on my own misdemeanour – I certainly didn't tell the editor to &"%£ off. I did, though, challenge her rude presumption that I am solely a health writer for the financial reward.

    Thanks all for comments.

  • Alex,

    Forgive me for disagreeing with you as I realise that you have far more knowledge and experience than I have in this field but I am not a member of the NUJ, I don't live in England and I write for publications all over the world.

    When you said

    They wouldn't dream of reducing staff rates by 50% – not in a million years.

    that may be true but they do reduce staff.
    Many places I have written for have fired editors and the remaining staff are doing double-duty or face the same .
    I'm sure you know how many magazines and newspapers have completely folded especially in America.
    If no pubs were facing financial difficulties I would never have agreed to it nor would I have agreed to the rates you were offered in the above post – but we're living in financially challenging times.

  • Hi Ann – no need to apologise for disagreeing with me at all! I like to have my views challenged, I take your points, and they are equally valid. My mentioning the NUJ was not to suggest it confered any sense of greater experience or of being right onto me, but merely to explain why I might have a slightly more 'team sport' mentality to the business – especially in the case you describe, which I consider quite shocking. Not sure there's a right or wrong – and can totally understand the need to put oneself first in many circumstances.

  • Hmm.

    "“It just isn’t worth it,” he told me. “I’m not responsible for payments, and sometimes our accounts team just pay a bit late. I know we should be punctual but I’m too busy to be hassled when money is only a few days overdue.”"

    I can't help thinking that someone with such a blase attitude to late payment might be quick to misconstrue something as rude when it's not. Just pay a bit late? Only a few days overdue? If you think that's not worth complaining about, you're probably going to assume any complaints are indeed rude.

  • Maybe. I edited the account somewhat as you can imagine, and although I only heard one side of the story, it did sound pretty rude. And the writer did lose the work as a result. I don't want to suggest I think you should never complain or query, however, for fear of losing work – don't think that at all. But not sure I would start getting heavy after a few days' late payment…

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