by Devyani Borade
Virginia Howard, editor of Thema, has done it. Linda Formichelli of TheRenegadeWriter.com recently did it. Angela Hoy, editor of Writers Weekly does it all the time. What is it?
“It” is riff about how a writer messed up big time.
Most editors are calm, sensible, well-balanced people. They need to be, if they’re going to have to deal with the complexities of publishing – from reading submissions to getting that highly coveted periodical out, time and time again. Every once in a while, though, editors get a query that forces them to tear out their hair and abandon the air of restraint to vent their long-suffering emotions. This kind of query comes from the writer who quickly becomes the Unpopular Freelancer.
As a freelance writer, you’re always seeking custom. You wish people would notice you and your work more often. And you’re not alone. Every freelancer wants to be popular and the editor’s first choice when it comes to acquiring more business. Sadly, there aren’t any guaranteed secrets to ensure you are always regarded with great favour, approval and affection. But, with growing communities of freelancers – both online as well as offline – there are a few unsavoury behavioural traits that will make you the cynosure of all eyes for quite the opposite reasons! If you find in yourself any or many of these habits, you may well be on your way to freelance perdition.
These are “soft” skills that govern our interaction with our customers and colleagues, and it pays to pay special attention to them.
No. 12. Being anti-social and un-cooperative
So you hate responding to those email messages that beg you for all rights to your work in return for $20. It makes your skin crawl to sit opposite that woman in your writers’ group who always insists on praising even the most terrible stories. The first assignment with a new client has just started and your fingers are already worn away with the effort of replying to their frequent demands of ‘So how much is done by now?’ on text and email. Fair enough. Not all men (and women) are social animals. However, more and more customers nowadays expect their freelancers to be active on social media and socialise in real life to advertise themselves as well as their clientele. You are expected to interact with the larger writer/editor/publisher community; it not only encourages team spirit but also increases productivity by sharing ideas, and helps spread the word like an unstoppable force of nature. Attending an occasional publishing conference or a couple of writing courses a year are not going to exhaust you. If you avoid social setups, your clients and co-freelancers might think you are snooty or, worse, contemptuous of them. It only takes a few such incidents to ostracise you.
Part of being a member of a community is that from time to time, you may get “lucky” enough to cover someone else’s tasks while they are temporarily absent from work for a brief period. Do offer without being asked. And when asked, don’t show your reluctance, even if you are about as keen to take on extra assignments as getting your head tonsured. Unless it is becoming their habit, share your colleagues’ work graciously. Help them in their time of need and they will help you in yours.
No. 11.Using FUD – Fear, Uncertainty and Dread
When you talk or write email messages, does a note of imperiousness creep into your tone? Do you often interrupt your colleagues before they have finished speaking? Do you feel the need to resort to veiled threats of unpleasant consequences to get your own way? Do you have difficulty in offering criticism constructively? Bullying, harassment and rudeness are all unpleasant traits that can be big blocks in building healthy work relationships. People don’t get along well with those who they find unapproachable or those who make them uncomfortable. Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity.
No. 10. Being deceitful
Lying about originality or copyright, making excuses for missing deadlines, passing the blame, hogging the credit for someone else’s work and selfishly keeping the best for yourself will make you unpopular faster than you can say ‘unpopular.’ No one likes to work alongside somebody who doesn’t own up to their fair share of responsibility and pretends to be Little Mister/Miss Perfect all the time.
No. 9.Being sycophantic
Sucking up to the boss is a phenomenon that plagues all fields of work. Do you find yourself often undermining someone else’s contributions in an effort to look good in front of the Editor-in-Chief? Remember, the people you deal with, including that editor, are not stupid. They will recognise and resent your actions and make their feelings known in unmistakeable ways. Flattery will get you nowhere. Genuine openness, honesty and mutual respect will.
No. 8.Finding fault
People who excel at finding faults with others are usually the people who are the most unpopular in any job. Everyone makes mistakes. What is important is to correct them as soon as possible and learn from them so that they are not repeated. But what is not important is pointing them out in an unkind and unnecessarily elaborate way. Nobody likes to be in the wrong. Most people have a sense of pride in their work and are mortified when they realise they’ve been at fault. You don’t have to rub it in. You also aren’t always the right person to convey this to them. If there is a better way of doing something, suggest it tactfully. Whenever possible, make it appear as though it was their idea right from the beginning. You’ll gain their appreciation for this small gesture. Otherwise, if you are so good at finding defects, then maybe you should become a Quality Control specialist. Your talents would be better utilized there.
No. 7.Offering unsolicited advice
One of the worst mistakes you can make is to voice your opinion freely, especially when not invited to do so. ‘I really think…,’ ‘If you ask me…,’ ‘You must/mustn’t…’ No one likes to be told what to do or how to do their job. Everyone has an ego, even though civilisation would have us believe otherwise. To advise someone when they haven’t requested for your advice is to make them feel inferior and put upon. The inevitable reaction? Instant dislike.
No. 6.Being too argumentative
You may be right. Perhaps even all the time. But that doesn’t mean others should not get a chance to express their views. Give your mouth (and their ears) a rest, let the other person get a word in edge-wise! Listen for a while. Keep an open and receptive mind. You may just learn something new, useful or fun. If you have to discuss something long and involved, allow the other person to save face and leave the discussion without feeling upset or victimised. Never attack the person, always focus on the issue and never, ever, introduce a personal motif in a professional debate.
Rejections are a part of every freelancer’s life. Learn how to deal with them and move on. Think about it – what exactly do you aim to accomplish by raving at that editor who “doesn’t know what’s good for him” and “wouldn’t recognise a masterpiece if it hit her on the nose”, apart from a momentary feeling of triumph that quickly dissipates into frustration and self-pity? In all probability, you’ve burnt that bridge and lost any scope of having future work accepted. Instead, thank the editor who rejects your work, for you may have just been given another opportunity for improvement.
These are the “hard” skills that bring in the big bucks. They are vital to cultivate.
No. 5. Being too docile, under-haggling
You need to be assertive about what is best for you. In many cases, the variables of the publishing business – rights, payments, schedules, word lengths, bios – are negotiable. If you don’t take opportunities for bettering offers, or are afraid to come across as too demanding, you risk portraying yourself as someone who doesn’t know his/her own worth or doesn’t have adequate knowledge of the industry, neither of which is appealing for an editor to have to deal with. Suddenly you become an unreliable asset. It raises the inevitable question: if you didn’t know that, what else do you not know?
No. 4.Singing your own praises, over-haggling
The opposite can be just as bad. If you are too aggressive in your dealings, people will soon learn to avoid getting into conversations with you. Market yourself confidently, but don’t brag and don’t make like you are God’s gift to the publishing world, even if you think you are.
This is especially true when it comes to discussing rights and payments. Settle the negotiations politely, frankly and quickly. Don’t overdo it. Wrangling that carries on over a period of two weeks is boring and not worth the effort. Pushy people are never preferred.
No. 3.Being unprepared
If you find yourself getting a lot of “does not fit our editorial needs” responses, it’s time to pause and ponder. Are you sending the right material to the right market? If you’re pitching a “health with aerobics” story to a magazine that only deals with the mechanics of garbage collection, simply because it is called Skip Today; or sending an introspective story to a practical magazine focussed on how-to, you’re obviously going grossly wrong. Do your research and tailor your work to fit the essence and theme of your target publication. You’ll waste less of your time and everybody else’s.
Take a moment to find out who to pitch to, by checking out the masthead and staff profiles on the publication’s website. There is nothing more calculated to irritate than a filler sent to the features department editor.
Determine the word counts, the style requirements, and other important nitty-gritties like rights and payment in advance, and decide if you’re comfortable with it all before going ahead.
No. 2.Being unpunctual
If you’re the type of person who is regularly handing in work at the last moment and holding up everybody else’s progress, or worse: misses deadlines, then your customers are not going to be very happy. They will be bound to feel they are paying you in vain and you are not pulling your weight. Animosity and rancour towards you will soon be rife. You need to be putting in as much effort as it takes to get the job done in time. Aim to complete assignments with time to spare, in case of emergencies. Keep in mind that even though you are freelancing, your work goes through an established procedure of fact-checking, copy-editing, layout, production, etc. before it sees the light of the day, and this is all accomplished by several other people as part of a team, working as hard as you. Anyone who doesn’t contribute their fair share bears the brunt of the rest of the team’s ire.
No. 1.Being unprofessional
Gossiping maliciously, being petty, bearing childish grudges, acting immaturely, measuring everybody by preconceived prejudices, jumping to conclusions, giving in to bias and temptations, manipulating emotions and playing ‘office’ politics, narrow-mindedness, unwillingness to change, unpreparedness and disorganisation – all these are signs that you need to seriously introspect and take stock of who you are and what kind of image you are projecting. These characteristics come under the broad umbrella of ‘unprofessionalism’. Today the connotations of the word ‘professionalism’ are no longer limited only to ‘accepting money for a service provided’. Professionalism also means conducting yourself with the business-like manner that everyone has come to expect in the Knowledge & Information Age. Your customers wouldn’t tolerate any display of amateurish conduct. Get on the ball and focus. Or risk facing impatience, exasperation and the odd wince of despair. Remember, even when you’re working, you’re unconsciously selling yourself all the time. Like any other product, the value of your skills is only appreciated until those skills are useful, popular and required.
Keep working on your personality so that YOU never go out of style or become unpopular!
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© Devyani Borade