Thursday, 16 September 2010

Learning on the job

This freelancing thing that I've been doing over the past few years has definitely taught me the importance of editors (by that, I mean editors of magazines). An editor can make or break a publication. So one would think that the editors of successful magazines out there would be brilliant, right? Sadly, it's not always the case, although there are a lot of passionate, knowledgeable and personable editors out there.

I've been lucky to work with a range of editors - really good ones who treat freelancers nicely and run their magazine exceptionally well because they are head over heels in love with it, and shoddy editors who treat everyone badly and run their magazine like it's a toy they've grown tired of.

Here are my thoughts on editors and what makes them good or bad for a freelancer:

Good editor: gives journalist a clear brief, makes sure he or she understands the magazine's house style and gives reasonable deadlines. This means that I feel respected, am more likely to give my all to the piece and get it right the first time and will probably agree to work for the mag in future and tell everyone else about how awesome it is.

Bad editor: gives journalist a vague brief (or no brief at all. I kid you not - this happens to me all the time) and phones the day before the publication is going to print to ask if you can "do a little favour and quickly write this story". This means I feel like the editor takes me for granted, assumes that I have no life or my life is not important, and is bad at time management, which usually also translates into being bad at paying me on time. I try to steer away from working with mags like this, especially those who don't give a decent brief, because they are more likely to come back to you and say it's not what they wanted, and then not be able to articulate what it is they actually do want.

Good editor: has a clear vision of what the publication is about - what content it should and shouldn't cover - and briefs only stories that fit into this vision.

Bad editor: chooses stories based on which friends her or she wants to be interviewed for the mag, or only publishes content if someone will agree to advertise in the publication first. In my opinion, this compromises the editorial integrity of the mag.

Good editor: keeps a handle on what is happening and always knows the status of any story. She is aware of problems early on and provides support to the journalist, including possible solutions. If a story is published and receives a negative response from a reader, the editor takes the rap, because ultimately it is the editor that signs off all content and dictates what makes it into the mag and what doesn't.

Bad editor: does not communicate with freelancers and when issues crop up, shrugs her shoulders and says, "That's your problem, not mine". This editor doesn't do the editing - cutting out stuff that's inappropriate for the mag and ensuring a high level of quality. If a story is published that receives a negative response from a reader, the editor passes the blame to the journalist and essentially hangs her up to dry.

Having said all of this, being an editor is a massive responsibility. Essentially, you are the face of the publication. Everything you say or do reflects on your mag and you will be judged accordingly. When I was at varsity, I always dreamed of becoming an editor of a successful magazine. It seemed so glamourous and prestigious. But they don't tell you at varsity that the editor is often the fall guy when things go wrong and that when it's deadline time, she must pretty much move into the offices to get the mag put together (so, pretty much one week of every month can be written off).

Working with various editors, I have learnt a handful great life lessons, some from the good editors and some from the bad. I'm sure I'll still be learning as long as I'm in this business, but here are a couple of things editors have unknowingly taught me:
  • Don't take it personally. Nobody produces perfection every time round. If my article gets edited within an inch of its life, I just have to suck it up and realise that (generally) the editor knows what's best for the publication and has probably been doing this for a lot longer than I have.
  • Treat people with respect. There is never a reason to throw a tantrum like a child, even if you are dealing with someone else who thinks that behaviour is acceptable. As my dad always says, don't mud wrestle with a pig - you'll just get dirty and the pig will have a whole lot of fun.
  • Shut up and listen. You can learn a lot from other people's experiences - both what to do and what not to do, and you're more likely to get a great interview if you're asking questions, not blabbering on about yourself.
  • You can say 'no'. You are not irreplaceable. If the deadline is totally insane, the subject matter bores you to tears or you know you can't handle the project at the time, walk away. Don't be the person that says yes and drops the ball later, or the person who's picking up the scraps of work that no writer in their right mind would take on just because you're scared to say 'no'.
  • That said, sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do. They may seem pointless or insanely frustrating at the time, but you can always learn something from the experience. I once edited a book on mining. I thought it was a total waste of time. A year later, I got a nice big story about mining and had a group of contacts ready for interviews.
  • Finally, no man is an island. Without support, you will not be as effective as you could be. So don't be scared or ashamed to ask for help or to probe for more information if you don't understand something. Arrogance will never get you as far as honesty and humility will.


Po said...

I like this post very much. You sound so wise, I hope I am learning from my work experiences like that. That thing about the mining, it's amazing how you can turn it into a positive like that!

Helen said...

Wow, I learned a lot from this! I suppose most people have a tv-inspired idea of what goes into writing and editing and so on, but it's actually (like a lot of jobs) very different in the real world.

And you do sound very wise.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post: it's given me a warning about the industry I am entering. But I feel you when you say sometimes you will do something that you don't want to do: I was doing work for someone else and I hated every one of their "creative" ideas. But then I did what they wanted and it turned out okay because I'd tweak everything with my own ideas. So I did everything on their brief without compromising my own artistic integrity THAT much.

Awesome post!

Angel said...

Those are some very good lessons- for life and for business when you're self-employed!

Shrinky said...

I love the mud-wrestling with a pig analogy (grin). Although in a very different industry from your own, when I ran my own business, I encountered much the same life-lessons too! A fascinating and informative glimpse into your profession, and a great post!

Hardspear said...

Very good advice. The only thing I ever wrote that got published in a mainstream magazine was edited very heavily. The essence of what I said still remained though and I was not too upset.

I do internal company communication for my clients and I do get upset when they edit too heavily or when they are not satisfied with a concept. I feel I have specialised knowledge and I a here to help.

Today's word verification is - dentecti. I think it is the row of check marks an editor makes after having scratched out a word, but as an afterthough decides to still keep in in. They then make dentecti above the scratched out word.

Tamara said...

Thanks, all. Hahaha... someone thinks I sound wise. *grin*