The Fault, Dear Brutus: Writing and Personal Responsibility
Forgetting the particulars of political machinations at work in the play, the statement is an exquisite summation of the source of much human failure and pain: We seek a star, or excuse, on which to blame our choices. And, has become clearer to me this year, that is emphatically true in the field of freelance writing.
I've started magazine editing this year and have had just enough experience to empathize with editors and their often low opinion of writers. In just one special project for one regular client and the first issue of the new quarterly I'm editing, I have run across the following:
- a writer who kept promising to get things done, but who kept lying (even after I caught the person at it and brought it up) and then ducking phone calls/emails to avoid confrontation
- a writer who took the topic I assigned and focused it specifically on a business vertical that I never said was the focus of the piece
- a writer who after a week under an admittedly tough deadline (known from the get go) said, "I can't find any sources" and who had never heard of profnet or haro, and then ignored two of three sources that I found and then discounted an interview with a third because the subject wasn't good enough (I did a second interview and agreed with the comment about the quality of answers - and *still* found a way to use the information and one quote)
Now the really distressing parts. These writers are all highly experienced pros and they represent two-thirds of the writers I've dealt with so far. I don't think my standards are unreasonable. If a publication is paying $1.50 or more a word, I expect deep research, a plethora of sources, and care in the writing. Hell, if I took an assignment I'd expect to do that at any price.
I remember years ago writing for a trade magazine and having an editor say to me before I turned in a first assignment, "We need at least three sources for 1,200 words." I was startled. Of *course* they would need that many. I'm often aghast at online discussions in various venues, as writers complain about having their material heavily reworked, or chafe at being asked to put more work into an article. Ever wonder why editors don't get back to writers? Chances are that they are spending hours and hours working over copy that came in, trying to make it work. Sometimes even conducting additional interviews and undertaking research to prop up thin work. Writers who get angry about seeing an editor add a byline might wonder how often editors ethically could add their own names, but simply don't.
My experience has me double-checking my own behavior. I don't claim to be perfect and certainly am not one of those who can say "I've never turned an assignment in late." But when there are problems, I generally talk to editors up front. In some cases, I've gotten even more time because there was a lot more time than I had thought and I and the editor badly wanted to get a particular source or bit of information in that wouldn't otherwise be available. There are times I've written an entire draft and tossed it because I was unhappy with the result. There are times I can feel a probelm with one section and look to an editor for a clearer eye.
But, really, I'm surprised at the number of people who give up when things get even mildly difficult, or who complain, complain, complain about ALL the work they had to put into an article. Well, why shouldn't they put work into an article? If I'm writing, say, 1500 words, I fully expect to spend a good seven or eight hours interviewing sources, additional time researching and planning the article, and then a day or more of writing to get something reasonable.
I'm becoming convinced that way too many "pro" writers only get work because the average writer performance is so poor that it takes next to no effort to look good in comparison. The editors have to hire *someone*, after all. But when times are getting tight and more competitors hitting the streets after losing their jobs, the attitudes of many writers are going to leave them stranded.