I recently accepted a commission that I should have turned down. So why did I take it? It is a question I have been asking myself for the last few weeks. There was no financial imperative to take the gig, not because I’m rich, but because I’d achieved the targets I’d set myself for that particular month. The creative merits for taking the commission were also questionable. I guess the main reason I took the commission was ego, I liked the magazine and I thought the writing credit would look good on my CV.
So what was it about this commission that made it wrong from the start? From the first day of writing I was trying to shove a very square peg into a very round hole, and to make matters worse I knew it would be this way because my gut was telling me to decline the commission. The editor had liked my initial pitch but by the time he commissioned me to write the article he had subtly but significantly changed the article’s direction. I knew that the person I was interviewing (I had worked with her previously and she is wonderfully kind and forthcoming about her specialist subject) wouldn’t be able to come up with the gossipy, tabloid style quotes that the editor was now suggesting.
But instead of stopping I ploughed on regardless, letting pride claim victory over sense and not surprisingly the finished piece didn’t meet the editor’s approval. I was never going to be able to betray my contact’s integrity and ask the salacious questions required to make the piece work, so I should have stopped and saved myself, and my contact, some time and stress.
This has been a hugely enlightening process as I am increasingly learning to trust my instincts and turn negatives into positives. The other important thing I have learnt is to be a little more savvy when dealing with editors. This is something I already knew I had to get better at and this experience has just built an extra layer to this necessity. The fact is that editors don’t always volunteer up a contract, they should – it is professional if they do so, but sometimes they don’t. This editor didn’t send me a contract to sign yet I started work on the piece regardless, I naively went on trust. Whilst having no contract meant I retained the rights to the piece of work, it also meant I had no chance of getting a kill fee. I wasted a lot of time and effort and it had mostly been my fault.
It is an unfortunate fact that some editors withhold a contract as a deliberate ploy, so if they change their minds about a piece they can just say, “thanks for the effort but I don’t want this anymore”. This is of course an editor’s prerogative but it is the freelance writer’s duty to get a contract before they start work.
Halfway through writing the article, I got another email from the editor and he wanted the article to change again, so because I’m nothing if not stubborn, I complied and changed the article to fit yet another new set of requirements. I hated the new direction the article had to go in but I changed it anyway, even though my inner creative voice (his name is Malcolm by the way) was screaming PULL THE PLUG YOU STUBBORN IDIOT!!! Sometimes you write whatever is required, a job is a job and that’s the nature of freelance work. However on occasion you need to accept the fact that it’s ok to say no.
I have taken a lot of positive things from this experience (and it is overwhelmingly not a common experience for me in my dealings with editors) and this positivity is the message I wanted to share. I have managed to split the article in question into two separate articles and a blog post, so I feel it has turned out to be a worthwhile endeavour.
Let me know your thoughts on editors, contracts and the art of saying no. I’d love to hear about your experiences.