Tell me how you really feel

When you work in house, you’re a member of a big extended family: the managers are the elders—parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—and it’s easy to develop sibling-like or cousin-like relationships with your other coworkers. No family is without its dysfunction, of course, but even more fraught is the freelancer–client relationship, a dynamic that can feel an awful lot like dating: as a freelancer you try to make enough of an impression on the other party to be engaged on a project/date, and if it goes well, you hope they like you enough to contact you again. But if they never call, well, that can evoke the same kinds of thoughts and insecurities, whether you’re looking for love or looking for work.

One perk you enjoy by being in a family—something that may feel like no perk at all—is the scathing, critical honesty that only your kin could get away with dishing out. But “when a client stops calling,” said a friend of mine a few years ago when she first left an in-house position to go freelance, “you never know why. Maybe they just don’t have any work. Maybe your contact got fired. Or maybe you did something wrong and royally screwed up a project. The problem is that even if that’s what happened, you never get any feedback. How are you supposed to grow as an editor or to make sure you don’t make that mistake again?” Ann-Marie Metten echoed the frustration at last month’s EAC-BC meeting. When asked why she chose to organize her style sheets the way she did, she admitted she now understands why her method may not have been ideal, “but when you’re a freelancer,” she said, “you hand it in, and nobody ever tells you anything.”

Unfortunately, clients—and my focus is on publishers here, especially book publishers—aren’t in the business of helping their freelancers grow as editors, and they often don’t have the resources to do much training. They have certain expectations of their freelancers, and when those expectations aren’t met, they may decide it’s easier to move on to other contractors rather than invest the time to give feedback. So what should we do?

Freelancers

  • Be proactive about asking for feedback. When I submit a finished project or when I invoice, I’ll add a brief line thanking the client for the work and saying something like, “If there’s anything you’d like me to do differently for future projects, please don’t hesitate to let me know.” One of my current clients, after my first project with the organization, responded with a pages-long email listing everything I should have done. It stung, but at the same time, it was reassuring. My contact probably wouldn’t have taken the time to offer those suggestions if she weren’t planning on giving me more work.
  • Keep a running checklist based on your past mistakes. (And these don’t necessarily have to come through direct feedback. Sometimes we all know why a project/date went badly.) Eventually you’ll know what kinds of problems to look out for and what kinds of questions to ask new clients.
  • Try to keep learning and improving your skills. Editors’ Association of Canada seminars and workshops are always a good place to start, as are editing and publishing courses offered at schools across Canada and around the world.
  • Maintain a high standard of professionalism and ethical conduct. Most of the time publishers drop freelancers not because they missed a serial comma but because they missed an important deadline.
  • Finally, take it easy on yourself. (Remember that first dates are almost always awkward.) Sometimes the problem is related not to skill but to an incompatibility of personalities. Know that although the publishing community is small, industry-wide blacklists of editors aren’t as prevalent as you might fear. And clear, honest communication with the client will encourage reciprocity.

Publishers (and other clients)

  • Develop clear guidelines—not only about matters such as style but also, and perhaps more importantly, about your editorial process. Different houses have different expectations of where the freelancer’s role begins and ends, and a freelancer’s failure to adapt to your process can be one of your greatest sources of frustration. Are you expecting your editors to format the manuscripts in a certain way? Do you have a specific file-naming convention? Do you want your proofreaders to flag changed pages and use red ink? Say so in your guidelines, and make these easy to access and search (preferably on an online resource like a wiki). That said, expect new freelancers to ask questions that your documentation may already answer. When faced with a huge volume of new information, a project with a new client, and a looming deadline, freelancers may not always know what to prioritize.
  • If a freelancer messes up, tell him. Doing so will save you time and trouble if you use him again, and at the very least, it will make him aware that there’s a problem. If you start to notice a recurring problem with several of your freelancers, take a look at your guidelines to see if they need to be revised or rearranged to highlight specific issues.
  • If you can afford to, build in a postmortem as part of your publishing cycle, and make editorial feedback (for both freelancers and in-house editors) a component. This feedback doesn’t have to be long, and keep in mind that positive comments are just as important as the negative.
  • Finally, if you never intend to use a particular freelancer again, let her know (gently!). She wants to be barking up the wrong tree no more than you want to get an inquiry from her every few months for which you have to take time to compose a cryptic, evasive response.

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