Guest post: Erin Peterson on Cultivating Freelance Writers

(Ed.: Erin Peterson has worked as an editor at Carleton College, Macalester College, and Grinnell College. Now she scribbles full time as a free lance based in Minneapolis. She has some thoughts on consistently getting good stories from freelance writers.)

erin-2011When I was at the CASE Editors Forum in April, an editor told me about a terrible recent experience she’d had with a freelance writer. The school was just about to open a new building on campus, and she was planning to include a feature story about it in the alumni magazine. She decided to go all-in and reached out to an architecture writer who wrote regularly (and spectacularly) for Vanity Fair. The writer said he’d do the story—for his normal rate of $10 a word. She balked, and they eventually settled on $3 a word, which was far higher than her usual rate. In the end, she got only a so-so story.

This is an all too common experience—writers who have done phenomenal work for other publications feel as though they can phone it in for alumni magazines. But you don’t have to settle for terrible writing and storytelling. The best award-winning stories aren’t written by ringers. In the “Best Articles” category for the CASE Circle of Excellence competition in 2013, for example, 100 percent of the bylines were from staff writers or editors—or freelancers who had written at least two (and typically many more) stories for the magazine in the past.

Getting great writers for your magazine is not about finding the “best writer.” It’s about finding good writers, nurturing them, and seeing them as partners who can help you tell your school’s best stories. Here are my best tips for working with freelancers who will tell great stories at a fair price.

Invest in the relationship. Think of your search for freelance writers the same way that New Yorker cartoon Robert Mankoff thinks of his search for cartoonists: He’s not looking for a good New Yorker cartoon. He’s looking for someone who could be a good New Yorker cartoonist. It’s a subtle but important distinction. One focuses on the thing itself; the other focuses on the relationship. You’re looking for writers who can be great [Insert your Magazine Name Here] writers. They may be student writers with potential, local freelancers who can spend a lot of time on campus, alumni, or freelancers who focus specifically on higher education. Instead of looking for the best “science writer” or “art writer” for a specific piece, look for a good writer, period. They may not be able to take on every story, but they’ll probably be able to take on more than you imagine. A writer who has a deep understanding of your school and your magazine will trump a writer who has technical expertise almost every time.

Think of your writers as partners. By the time they’ve finished their reporting, writers will know the story better than you do, and you can benefit from that knowledge. You might have your writers ask sources about photo ideas. (Every once in awhile, a source will have a great idea that you never could have anticipated.) You can also ask writers to check in with you once they’ve finished their reporting to find out if they think the story could benefit from tweaking the angle, packaging the story differently, or talking to a few more sources.

Budget accordingly. There’s not a linear relationship between fees and quality (see the Vanity Fair example above), but you won’t keep good writers long without paying fair fees. I once heard an editor say that she was happy to “get away with” paying just 50 cents a word, while simultaneously bemoaning the work she was getting. The problem is that freelancers paid low rates will also see what they can get away with—banging out a story in a couple hours with few sources and little research. Good writers aren’t always cheap, but they’re far less expensive than writers who turn in shoddy work—or worse, writers who turn in no work at all.

Offer regular work. When you find a good freelancer, do your best to give them projects as frequently as possible, even if that’s just three to four times per year. Not only will writers appreciate the regular work, but they’ll learn quirks and politics of your school, and that will help them craft better stories.

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