Erik Sherman's WriterBiz

A spot about the business of writing as seen by a freelance writer. That includes marketing, sales, contracts, copyright, planning, research - in short, the business end of writing.

Name: Erik Sherman
Location: Massachusetts, United States

I'm an independent writer and photographer who covers business, food, technology, books, media, general features, and pretty much anything appealing that results in a signed check. My work has appeared in such places as the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Newsweek Japan, Fortune, Inc, Fortune Small Business, the Financial Times, Advertising Age, Saveur, US News & World Report, and Continental

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Reaping What You Sow

I've been having what for me is an atypical experience: working as an editor on a large special feature for a magazine to which I regularly contribute. the editor had me work with several writers, and I've been coordinating and editing a large number of short pieces. What I'm getting to see up close is just how badly a writer can destroy a business relationship and develop a terrible reputation.

It's been interesting to see how three specific writers fell into categories, and how little things colored how I perceived them. One writer was great. Copy needed some editing, but that didn't matter, as each piece was slightly longer then I had requested and had most of the information I might want. the next writer was pretty good, but not as good. The differences were subtle. For example, the second writer had a couple of delays (but communicated and kept me informed), used an odd font in the story files (I had to adjust them to make them readily readable), and took a while to include all the information I needed in the format I wanted.

And then there was the third. I was able to catch the person in one outright lie after another; learned that the writer had missed an interview with a subject without immediately following up to fix the situation; would email to say "I'll have XYZ done by tomorrow morning," only to have the deadline pass without a peep; would ignore more and more harshly worded instructions I'd send; never responded to a phone call; offering one excuse after another; and during all this, would pretend that I had never mentioned some things and keep talking about how the writing would "sing." Too bad it was all off key, trying to get away with as little effort as possible for the assignment and pay (which, by the way, was hardly bad) and keep every dollar of assignment, no matter how much that might have screwed me or the magazine up.

I bet that the writer still thinks he/she was a) actually clever, b) good, and c) reasonably decent to deal with. I talked to two editors I know who had dealt with him, and heard stories ranging from only slightly better to just as bad and even worse. When talking with a third editor who didn't know the writer in question (but who has now added the name to his "black list"), we joked about knowing all the tricks becsue we've been on one or the other end of them in the past. If you think that you have never done any of this at any time in your working life, even in youth, then you are probably fooling yourself.

However, the important question is how do you relate to the rest of the industry today?; Are you trying to shave corners? Do you do things "your way" because that's the way you like it? If there are problems developing, are you quickly on letting your client know and working out other arrangements as necessary? Even worse, do you think things are fine because you don't hear anything negative?

One editor I spoke with said, who heard how hard I had been on the person, said, "You've inspired me. I think I'm not going to use X any more." Sometimes editors keep writers around out of inertia. They don't get rid of someone and find ways to cope. But tolerance doesn't mean welcome. You should do your own self examination and see where there's room for improvement, and then work hard to make the necessary changes happen. Don't depend on inertia, because eventually something will bump into the client, and by then, rescuing the relationship may be impossible.

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