What Jeremy Lin Can Teach Freelancers

The story of Jeremy Lin is barreling through the press. Lin was a standout at Harvard — but hardly anybody in the basketball world notices standouts from Harvard. Now, after being passed over in the 2010 NBA draft, he’s the new start on the New York Knicks.

In fact, Lin spent years quietly working hard at the game before getting his moment to shine. We think there’s a parallel to freelancing. Because making a career in freelancing is not about landing that single great story at the New Yorker — it’s about consistently delivering a high standard of quality and being the writer editors know they can count on.

We also think that being a 200kfreelancer means playing well with everyone on the client’s team, even when that’s difficult. (See number 4 on our list of Six Questions To Ask Yourself About Becoming A Freelancer.)

Elaine and I are both assigning editors and have been for decades. (We both write, as well as edit. In our experience, you have to do both to be a 200kfreelancer).

We talked the other day, and realized the number one thing that puts a freelancer on the top of our lists is the ability to roll with the punches. We’re looking for writers who are like Jeremy Lin — who just keep working, even when it looks as if the payoff is merely another notch on the belt of professionalism.

I respect people who speak up when an assignment isn’t clear, or when I’ve asked for one too many revisions. But a freelancer who constantly pushes back if there are any unexpected bumps in a project or complains about the legwork involved in an assignment won’t be first on my list.

Rather, I want someone who delivers something of acceptable quality even when an assignment completely goes south, and does so without making me feel like a jerk. The number one thing I want to avoid as an editor is a disaster–a story falling through–because that will throw my life into havoc.

I also understand that this is a two-way street. Nobody wants to write for an editor who is too demanding or who hands out assignments that always go awry. If a story turns out to be unusually difficult, I’ll usually try to remedy that by getting more money to pay the writer or by tossing them an easy assignment a short while after.

We surveyed some other editors we know to come up with this list of other items that editors look for. Writers will earn new assignments – and undying gratitude – if they:

Hold up their end. That means delivering on what they say they’re going to do by meeting deadlines and sticking to the assignment’s parameters. – Holly Smith

Respect the word count. (This relates to the point above). A 500-word assignment should come in at 500 words. I’ve had way too many writers submit overly long pieces and then glibly say, “Oh, I just couldn’t find anything to cut.” Somehow, *I* will manage to make cuts. – Holly Smith

Submit clean copy. Everybody makes a typo here and there, but there’s no excuse for rampant sloppiness (or for spelling a subject’s name more than one way in the same piece). Writers should submit pieces that are publishable in their current state (an editor can dream, can’t she??). I cringe anytime a piece comes in with internal notes to me along the lines of, “Check this fact” or “double-check this quote.” It’s always ominous when the writer him/herself is saying something he/she just wrote ought to be verified. – Holly Smith

Communicate. Speak up quickly – during the reporting/writing phase – if there’s any confusion or trouble surrounding a piece. – Holly Smith

Report thoroughly. I’d far rather have a well-reported piece than a flashily written one. For assignments for Tier 1 and 2 publications, I think a 500-word story for $1 or $2 a word should reflect at least a half-dozen different sources. – Elizabeth MacBride

If I had to boil it down to one thing, it would be: Get all the details and information you can the first time. As an editor, I can always rewrite and reorganize something, but I don’t want to re-report it. If I have to track down any missing information, even things as simple as a person’s title, then I tend not to call on that freelancer again. —Joel Berg

If any of you assign freelance projects, we’d welcome your comments on what you seek when you hire people to tackle them. 

Related posts:

5 Reasons People in Your Life Don’t Support Your Freelancing–and What To Do About It

Put the Right Price Tag on Your Talent

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  7. I cringe anytime a piece comes in with internal notes to me along the lines of, “Check this fact” or “double-check this quote.” –really? Do writers do that? Boggles the mind (to me, a freelancer). Who, exactly, do they expect will fact-check their work?