the Periodical Writers Association of Canada
Top 10 ways editors can work
successfully with freelancers
By John P. Mason
Timing, talk and trust. These are the foundations of success between
editors and freelance writers. Whenever an assignment turns sour,
chances are that at least one part of this triad was ignored.
I've seen many sides to Canada's periodical industry -- as freelancer
and staffer, as a writer and editor -- in the almost 20 years I've
lived by my pen and word processor. Like most professionals, my
resume is checkered with some notable highs and lows. There was
the struggling newspaper that went on to thrive. The long-established
trade journal that tanked a year after I joined. And the tiny magazine
that grew from a money-loser into a million-dollar windfall for
its owners (not me) in just four years.
There's been one constant in all these experiences. An editor's
attitude to freelancers who come calling with queries is very important.
It's a measure of the respect the publication has for its editorial
content and, ultimately, to its readers. How editors treat freelancers
is an excellent barometer of a publication's future fortunes.
Of course, establishing solid working relationships between editors
and freelancers is a two-way street. Both sides need to know the
basics of their craft and be able to function with both professionalism
and civility. For those who want to learn more, the following tips
are for you.
10. Know what kind of story the magazine wants. Before commissioning
any article, every editor should write an outline. Good editors
make this a habit. This requires more than a snappy headline and
word count. It involves some hard thinking about the approach, the
content and interviews. Is the article intended as an industry overview?
a thought-provoking feature? a service piece? Mapping out a solid
editorial plan at the onset makes the journey to final published
editorial easier to navigate for all involved
9. Know what kind of freelancer is needed. Armed with a blueprint,
an editor can find the person with the right tools and skills to
bring ink to the idea. Some topics require an industry expert, while
other approaches favour a generalist. A novice may have a unique
experience to tell, while a "brand name" writer can add
marquee value to a manuscript and a masthead.
8. Know the publication's resources. Many editors and freelancers
find themselves in the same situation -- they have champagne tastes
with bare-bones budgets. Editors need to be realistic about what
they want a freelancer to deliver given the time and dollars available
for an assignment. Other resource-related issues may be outside
an editor's direct control and can vary considerable between publication.
These can range from how quickly are freelancers' invoices paid
to how much influence, if any, do advertisers have in editorial
coverage? Editors need to be well versed in their employers' policies
so they can be up front with freelancers.
7. Put it in writing, always. So many freelancers learn the hard
way that an unwritten contract for an assignment is worth the paper
it's written on. That's why 'Put it in writing, always' has become
a credo among the veterans in the Periodical Writers Association
of Canada (PWAC). Of course, not every assignment needs four pages
of legal fine print. A letter of agreement that's based on the editor's
original outline (as mentioned in Tip #1) is often enough. When
an editor fails to prepare such an agreement, the freelancer needs
to create the necessary paper trail. PWAC has developed a standard
Letter of Intent and Freelance Publication Agreement as simple,
one-page documents that reflect the responsibilities of both sides.
6. Pay fairly. Sorry to keep coming back to dollars, but the reality
is freelance rates haven't changed in 20 years. In contrast, Statistics
Canada recently revealed that for the 1996-97 fiscal year, the average
operating profit for Canadian magazines hit seven per cent, a four-fold
increase since the early 1990s. Driving this healthy growth was
a nine per cent rise in advertising revenue and a 4.5 per cent increase
Since it's editorial content that makes our periodicals distinctly
Canadian, I have difficulty understanding why so few Canadian publications
continue to treat the providers of content so poorly. Editors who
know the value of quality editorial and are willing to pay reasonable
rates are investing in the future of their industry.
5. Talk and be available. An assignment doesn't write itself once
it's commissioned. Editors need to keep in touch with their freelancers.
Whether it's giving new information, providing a mid-course correction
should an interview fail to happen, or simply offering moral support,
talking about the project keeps the process on track and avoids
4. Work with your freelancers. Keeping freelancers in the loop
can make the job of editing a lot easier. Asking for the writer's
input for headlines, photos, cutlines and display copy all can lead
to a published piece that delivers much more impact to readers.
Remember that editors are obligated to ensure the writer has an
opportunity to review the final edit. This more than a professional
courtesy, it can prevent those stomach-wrenching errors that, for
the want of another set of informed eyes, wind up in print all too
3. Build a team of freelancers. Developing a group of skilled freelancers
gives a host of different voices and perspective to a publication.
It also increases the ability of an editor to match story ideas
with the appropriate writer. As more freelancers become familiar
with a publication's style and operation, editors can spend less
time of mundane copy-editing and rewriting. Instead, they can devote
more time to managing other aspects of their publication, such as
developing long-term editorial plans and gaining the resource to
carry them out.
Team-building is about trust. It can start as simply as inviting
a few freelancers to an info session about your publication, distributing
editorial guidelines, asking them to critique the magazine, or adding
them to your mailing list.
2. Be professional. I'm always amazed at the number of people in
our industry who plead ignorance on crucial issues that affect the
way periodicals do business. This includes basics such as fees,
copyright and professional practices. It also extends to technology-based
subjects such as electronic rights, Internet distribution and computer-based
Since little formal training opportunities exist within the periodical
industry, the best source of information comes from professional
associations that represent the interests of editors, freelancers
and publishers. Being professional means being involved in such
1. Make sure the pen stays mightier than the bean-counters. My
number one fear about the future of Canada's periodical industry
is that too many decisions that affect our magazines and newspapers
are made by people who fail to value editorial excellence. Editorial
content is valuable. That's why it seems that everyone -- from publishers,
to advertisers, from lawyers, to accountants -- wants to have control
over what's on a magazine's front cover, how a headline reads in
a newspaper, or how much money gets spent on editorial.
In the past, editors managed their printed realm of words and images
by setting budgets, developing editorial policies and generally
having a strong voice in important business and creative decisions.
Today, I worry that we are seeing an editorial ghetto emerge. This
is where editors work in positions of responsibility, but lack the
needed authority and resources to maintain the editorial integrity
of their publications.
Of course, the editorial well may never run completely dry. There
are always the hacks and flacks who are happy to provide their own
low- or no-cost copy to promote their products or services. But
once a publication's editorial integrity is compromised, professional
freelancers take flight to other markets. And as quality freelancers
go, so do quality readers.
John Mason is an award-winning editor, freelance writer, corporate
communications specialist and former national president of the Periodical
Writers Association of Canada. This article is adapted
from a presentation he made at the magazine trade show, Magazines
Published in Sources,
Number 43, Winter 1999.
Next Best Thing To A Clone: Subcontracting Do's and Don'ts
Sources, 489 College
Street, Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
Phone: (416) 964-7799 FAX: (416) 964-8763
Include yourself in Sources
Mailing Lists and
Media Names & Numbers
Names & Numbers