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Managing Freelancers

Posted on Friday, September 28, 2012 at 9:38 AM

Editorial managers share their tips.

By Meredith L. Dias

In August, we asked our readers about outsourcing. In last month's issue, we shared some of our survey findings and reader comments. Now, we give spotlight to the last item on that survey: tips for other editors. How do you ensure a smooth transaction? How do you cultivate long-term relationships with outside consultants? What should you do when a freelancer's work falls short of expectations or contracted requirements? We offer tips from our reader and some of our own.

Communication Is Key

Most of the editors who contacted us agreed that communication is the most vital component of freelance management. It's important to remember that, because most freelancers don't work onsite, your expectations and guidelines aren't second nature to them. Even your longest-standing freelancer won't be as up-to-the-minute as you are on style changes, new guidelines, and redesigns. "Overcommunicate," advises Michelle Russell, editor in chief of Convene. "While your staff may have a clear idea of your goals, direction, and expected outcomes, freelancers or consultants do not."

April Tibbles, chief communications officer for the Association for Middle Level Education, also emphasizes the importance of communication in the editor-freelancer relationship. "Clearly itemize your expectations of the deliverable," she says. "With proofing, we often want a light treatment for basic corrections and we do not want editorial suggestions. We make this clear to the contractor."

Things can change on a dime during production, so editorial managers must keep in constant contact. "Be diligent about communicating schedules and schedule changes," says Tibbles.

Constructive Feedback

Upon completion of the project, it's important to review the freelancer's work. Of course, you want to praise someone who has done exemplary work for you. But if he or she has failed to implement house style correctly, to deliver work in keeping with the project specs, or to deliver on or ahead of deadline, a different kind of communication becomes necessary. Constructive feedback is one of the most crucial elements of a healthy editor-freelancer relationship.

So how should you proceed if you receive editorial or written work from a freelancer that falls short of expectations? You'll need to navigate that conversation with finesse. Offering negative feedback can be unpleasant, even anxiety-inducing, but it's vital if you want to maintain a long-term relationship with a freelancer whose work isn't initially satisfactory.

Odds are, the freelancer hasn't slacked off on the job. When you contact the person, ask some probing questions. Was something in your guidelines unclear? Did the freelancer feel crunched for time? Did he or she overbook (i.e., take on too many projects at once)? Once you've asked the tough questions, make sure to convey what went wrong without being accusatory or insulting. You want to convey what went wrong without driving away a freelancer who has done (or has the potential to do) good work for you.

Building the Right Team

As I've stated throughout this article, cultivating long-term relationships is key. According to Patti Harman, editor-in-chief of Cleaning & Restoration magazine, "finding the right partner is critical. We work very well as a team and have now built a relationship with a lot of trust. I still have more technical expertise, but the rest of the team is learning about the industry. It takes several months to get a new editorial team up to speed if your magazine is extremely topic specific, but I couldn't produce the magazine without them." So even if you're dealing with a lot of freelancers, it's possible to develop a truly collaborative relationship.

Ryan Alford, owner and publisher of Snowshoe magazine, also emphasizes the importance of relationships: "Develop solid relationships with writers and give them ownership over certain regional coverage or sections of the magazines."

Knowing What to Outsource

Our last piece of advice comes from Rachel Grabenhofer, editor of Cosmetics & Toiletries magazine: "It's important to limit what you outsource, because outsourced services do not usually have the insight that industry-embedded editors with years of experience do. You have to choose wisely what you send out."

This is an important distinction for editorial managers to make. Before hiring someone from the outside, consider whether or not the outsourcing will save you time or create more work for you in the long run. Do you have a freelancer in your stable who is suited for the work at hand? Will you spend more time answering questions and cleaning up the content afterward than you would just writing or editing the content yourself?

If the answer to the latter question is no, then consider some of the advice fellow readers have imparted above. Think long and hard about whom to hire for your project. And, above all else, keep the lines of communication open during the project. Be proactive. Check in from time to time. If you take these steps now, today's new freelancer could become tomorrow's go-to.

Meredith L. Dias is senior editor of Editors Only.

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