In one of the gigs Elizabeth and I share as contract editors, we assign articles to freelance writers. And every once in a while, one of those writers will go AWOL. The deadline will approach, but I’ll get no word about the progress of the story. I’ll let the “cushion” I’ve built into the deadline pass and then try to reach them again. Sometimes, it takes weeks to hear back from them.
When I’ve finally caught up with these folks, they’ve usually hit a roadblock on a story and been afraid to bring it up. Maybe the central premise hasn’t worked out, a competing publication has covered a similar story, or the legwork required to get the story has turned out to be many times more time consuming than we originally thought. Sometimes, they’ve had a family emergency. One time, a writer had actually completed a terrific story on time but thought it wasn’t good enough and kept asking for more time to polish it, until I persuaded her to send in a “draft version”–which turned out to be excellent. Her own perfectionism had gotten the better of her.
In every case, I would have been happy to find a solution with the writer–I constantly renegotiate deadlines and the like with my “regular” writers to take into account things like unexpected business trips or a fresh news hook–but I wasn’t given a chance. Instead, I was left wondering what happened. In some cases, I had a worked with the freelancers for years with no problems and what happened was a blip on the radar screen, explainable in retrospect, so I continued to assign work to them. But typically in cases like this, I won’t trust the writer with another assignment. Why would I? It makes my job a lot harder.
If you’re struggling to make a living as a freelancer, it’s important to take a look at how you’re communicating with your clients when “life happens” and you can’t meet a deadline. We all hate to ask a client for more time or to report that a week of research has been fruitless. But most reasonable customers won’t take you off their list of go-to freelancers if you shoot them a quick email at the first sign of trouble and say, “I have to leave town for a few weeks to deal with a family illness. Can we extend the deadline of my assignment? If not, would you like to reassign it?” The same holds true if you send a note saying, “I’m sorry–the angle I suggested isn’t working out. Can we talk by email or phone to figure out if there’s some way to salvage the piece?” It’s long, unexplained disappearing acts that lead to lost business.