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Archive for July 27th, 2009

If you’re a freelancer, you tend to be haunted by the thought of lacking work. Yet today, against all my freelancing instincts, I walked away from a source of income without having anything to replace it. It was not a step I took easily, but I had no choice if I wanted to keep my self-respect.

The problem wasn’t that the editor was doing their job. I’m a professional, and I have no illusions that my work is perfect or can’t be improved upon. I am incredibly inefficient at editing my own work (although a demon at editing others), and I generally welcome observations that make my wording clearer or more accurate.

Why wouldn’t I? An editor who points out problems before they see print makes me look good.

At the same time, I have worked with half a dozen editors, and I know what editing is generally required to make my work presentable. The number of revisions are roughly the same, no matter who the editor, and rarely require more than half an hours’ work – often less, and almost never more than an hour.

With this editor, though, revisions averaged three or four hours. I admit that he received a few pieces that I wrote while ill or under personal stress and that I should not have submitted in their current shape. However, regardless of the quality of each submission, the editor would almost always return a couple of pages of notes, amounting to a rewrite of the article.

Even if I didn’t have considerable experience, I could have guessed that this amount of revisions was unreasonable. The few times the senior editor looked over a submission, the changes were far fewer, and often minor enough that he made them himself rather than send them to me. But I continued to submit articles, partly because the pay was halfway decent, and partly because I told myself that things would get better once I learned the expected style.

The trouble was, the comments never lessened. Each article I wrote for the editor took twice as long to complete as anything else I wrote. If the revisions weren’t about typos, they were about content.

By my count, about one-third of the comments were legitimate improvements to the article. Another third consisted of explanations of how the editor would have written the article or shibboleths such as insisting that an article should never end in a quote, and one-third nonsense such as labeling a long but grammatical sentence a run-on sentence. I didn’t mind the legitimate improvements, but, to say the least, I felt that I was humoring the editor about the rest just to receive a pay cheque.

Asking other writers, I found that I was not entirely being singled out. Other writers told me that they also expected to waste half a day answering the editor’s notes. But the experience of others showed that the editing process was clearly being used to assert the editor’s authority.

In fact, the criticism was so unrelenting that I began to entertain serious doubts about my writing ability. Once or twice, when I was sick, I was so rattled about the thought of the revisions to follow that what I submitted was definitely below my usual standards. Why bother for quality when you know your article is going to be shredded regardless?

Even so, I might have endured the process while I waited for better times if the work had been regular. But the editor started forgetting my submissions – or so he said – and the one article per week slipped to one article every two weeks. Answers to my queries were delayed so that I had less time to research and write. I strongly suspected that the editor was pressuring me to quit so he wouldn’t have to take any action himself.

This morning, a submission of better than average quality received the same treatment as usual. Annoyed, I queried a couple of points – including one about the slant of the story, which I had based on the senior editor’s request – and received the usual ungracious reply.

Suddenly, I had enough. I was receiving less and less money from the editor anyway, so I had little to lose. Abandoning all plans of waiting until I found replacement work, I emailed saying that I was withdrawing the story and would not be submitting more. With an effort, I refrained from saying anything else.

The reply was a cheerful thanks for my work and best wishes for the future. So far as I was concerned, it was proof that my email had given him exactly what he wanted. Anyone who placed any value on my work, or didn’t want me gone would have asked for reasons.

I still feel nervous and wonder if I have done the right thing. But you know what? I feel so much better now that I’m out of a toxic situation that the challenge hardly daunts me. I’ve already been through far worse.

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