Despite being a smart, professional freelancer, you made a mistake. You forgot about an interview. You missed a deadline. You sent the wrong article to your editor. What do you do next—other than hang your head in shame? Read on for how to rectify six common mistakes freelancers make—and how to avoid making them in the first place!
Photo by J.C. Suares
1. Mistake: You forgot an interview. A couple of months ago, I was researching a book that entailed interviewing about 20 people. No problem. Until I got an e-mail from a source on the East Coast (I’m in the Chicago area) that read, “Kelly, I thought we were supposed to talk at 1 p.m. today. Did I have the time wrong?”
I checked my calendar. I had the call written down for 1 p.m.—my 1 p.m., which would be her 2 p.m. So, yeah, I blew it. I was mortified and called her immediately to apologize. We ended up conducting the interview at the time I’d planned (and she was gracious about it), but this reminded me of the importance of double-checking interview dates and times. Say something like, “So, I’ll call you on Tuesday, June 22, at 1 p.m. Central time, 2 p.m. Eastern time.” If you forget an interview entirely, get in touch with the source immediately (I suggest you call so the person can hear the apology in your voice!) and reschedule. Most people, like my source, will be gracious enough to accommodate you.
2. Mistake: You sent the wrong article to your editor. Recently, a colleague told me about a possible reprint market. An editor she knew was looking for health stories to reprint for a condition-specific magazine, and she thought of me and gave me his name and contact info.
Within an hour, we’d connected via e-mail, and he asked to review several stories. He liked one and asked me to rework it to better fit his audience. We agreed I’d cut it by about half and aim it at an older demographic of men and women. He gave me a four-day deadline, and I turned it in two days later. But later that same day, he sent me an e-mail telling me my story wasn’t what he wanted. And for good reason—I’d sent him the wrong piece! Instead of the 700-word story he’d requested, he got a 1,900-word piece aimed at 20-something women on a completely different topic.
I called and left him an apologetic voice mail, promising him the correct file ASAP. Happily, he e-mailed the next morning, accepting the story. The lesson? Double-check every file you attach before you hit send. And if you do send the wrong file, rectify your mistake as fast as possible. (Because I turned in the story two days ahead of time, I was able to send the correct file and still beat my deadline. That’s a good reason to turn work in early.) 3. Mistake: You got something wrong in your story. Years ago, I turned in a feature about contraceptive options to a national women’s magazine. I’d interviewed seven sources for the piece as well as read a dozen or so medical-journal articles. I’d spent a lot of time on the piece, and thought I’d done a good job—until a fact-checker called with a problem. One of the physicians I’d interviewed was recanting what he’d told me. (I don’t know why; it wasn’t a particularly outrageous claim.) But he basically said, “I never said that.”
Well, he did. I had the tape from our interview (now I use a digital recorder), and the transcript. I sent the latter to the fact-checker, and the doctor admitted that he had said it but didn’t want to be quoted in print. My editor wound up striking his comments. My point, though, is to make sure that you record your interviews. A recording helps you quote people accurately and gives you proof (even if you’re not likely to need it) that the person said what you’re claiming he said. Make sure you confirm things like the spelling of someone’s name and current job title (if you’re including that in the piece) when you speak with him. And if you have a question as you’re writing the piece, ask your source!
I like to close my interviews by thanking the person for his time and telling him I’ll be in touch in the near future if I have a question for him. And if you do make a mistake (it happens), apologize and promise to practice better due diligence next time. You may lose your client over it, but you don’t have to repeat the same mistake in the future. 4. Mistake: You can’t make a deadline or you’ve blown one. Several years ago, one of my regular editors called me with an emergency. She needed a 1,500-word story turned around in a few days because the original writer for the story never turned in the piece and never returned the editor’s calls or e-mails! I don’t know what happened to this writer, but I know she’ll never work for my editor again. Regardless of what happened, she could have called or sent a quick e-mail to the editor to tell her she couldn’t complete the assignment rather than dodging her calls.
I’ve never missed a deadline, but there’s a simple reason for that. I’ve never taken on a deadline I couldn’t meet! Meaning, I will (and I must) turn down work when I know I won’t be able to complete it in the time allowed. Before I accept an assignment, I make sure that I’ve built in enough time to research and write the article or book, and I assume that each step of the process will take a little longer than planned.So before you say yes to an assignment, ask for more time than you think you’ll need to complete the project. Next, get started on the background research, including identifying potential sources, as soon as possible. You can’t interview your sources until you know who they are, and the earlier you get cracking on this essential aspect of researching the topic, the better.
If a problem develops along the way, don’t wait until the last minute to let your editor know. If you can’t reach an important source or you’ve had a family emergency, for example, your editor usually can give you a little more time—as long as she has some advance notice. If it’s becoming clear that despite your best efforts you absolutely are not going to make a deadline, tell your editor. Offer her some alternatives. Can you finish the piece if she gives you an extra couple of days? An extra week? If that’s not possible, can you hand over your research or suggest another writer who can easily step up and take it over? You’ve screwed up, so address the issue and be as helpful as you possibly can be. With a little luck, your mistake won’t mean losing her as a client.
5. Mistake: You turned in work with typos, misspellings or grammatical errors. I hate proofreading. When I’m done with a piece, I want to turn it in and move on. But when I don’t proof, my work contains mistakes. Maybe little mistakes—an “on” instead of an “of,” a missing “an” or a misspelled word. But they don’t make me look very smart or professional.
Don’t rely on a cursory read-through before you turn something in, be it an article, essay or query letter. Print it out and read it aloud. You’ll be surprised at how much more you catch when you hear the words, not just read them. (In fact, studies show that we catch more mistakes when reading a printed page than reading on the screen, which is another good reason to proof on paper. Just recycle it when you’re done.) 6. Mistake: You ignored your editor’s requests. I have a client I syndicate content for. She publishes small custom magazines and relies on me to provide her with articles in specific areas. I have a number of freelancers I work with who provide me with a list of their relevant stories. I keep a master list of what’s available and provide it to my client. She chooses the stories she wants, I request the stories from the relevant writers, check them over, send them to my editor, and take care of paying the writers. It makes me valuable to my client and has resulted in a lot of reprint sales to my stable of freelancers.
But my client is only interested in articles of 750-plus words, which I’ve made clear to potential contributors. So I was disappointed when my client requested stories from a writer who was new to me—and whose stories turned out to be nowhere close to 750 words. I couldn’t buy them, as my client couldn’t use them—and yet the writer had told me they were the correct length. That’s the last (and possibly most dangerous) mistake I want you to avoid—ignoring (or forgetting about) your client’s specs. Before you turn a story in, double-check your assignment and make sure you’re giving her what she asked for in terms of subject, sources, tone, word count and format. Make her happy and she’ll make you happy by giving you more assignments.