Deadlines: it’s make or break for freelancers

by Lezlie Lowe

Do you own a calendar and know where to locate it? Yes, you say? Then you’re already a step ahead of scads of freelance journalists out there who need to get on their editors’ good sides; you’ve got the first tool you need to meet your deadlines.

I mean, it’s simple, right? The editor tells you when she wants it. You agree. You live up to the agreement.

As if.

Working as a freelance writer and editor for more than a decade has taught me plenty. One painful truth? Few novice writers manage to produce their work when it’s supposed to arrive. The good news? The serious ones, the ones who actually want to work as journalists, or at least make some cash on the side as a freelance writer, always file their stories on time. And they rise to the top of the stack.

Being on time has little to do with the ability to write well – to craft a compelling lead, to find a focus and stick to it, to ask sources the right questions. But it’s a quick and easy way for editors to tell who’s on their game.

When I worked as the editor of a small regional music monthly, few writers filed their work on time, despite the regularity of their monthly deadlines and the simplicity of their assignments.

Maybe it was the crappy pay. Maybe it was that they didn’t respect me or know how stressful it is to receive copy late. Maybe they just didn’t care about the publication. Or maybe they just didn’t care. Period. But some of those writers, I know, wanted to work as freelance journalists.

They just didn’t get it.

The ones who were on time got more work and made more money.

Truly. The equation was that simple. I assigned more stories to the few who bothered to be on time. Just knowing that I wouldn’t have to nag and bitch and mail and call to get someone’s piece in made me more likely to ask the person to work on other pieces. Even if their writing wasn’t up to snuff. I would take a mediocre writer with great communication skills and a daytimer that worked over a (supposed) genius I had to nag any day.

Believe it. Devoting an extra half an hour to make someone’s work shine at the editing stage versus toiling every day for a week trying to track someone down with an (invariably) as-yet-unfinished piece to squeeze it out of them like a dirty mop? Forget it.

And, guess what?

Whenever an editor colleague asked me to suggest a writer for a piece for another publication, I would refer them to the deadline-conscious freelancers.

Being on time has worked for me as a writer, too.

Perhaps it was my experience as an editor and knowing the frustrations of late-filers, but I figured it out and I figured it out early – you have to file on time. (A brief note: filing on time means starting early. It’s not enough to get at your piece a few hours before it’s expected to flutter in to your editor’s inbox. You need to outline it, do the work, write it, re-write it, re-write it more, let it sit and re-write it again. All before it’s due. For my own writing, I create a series of deadlines, allowing myself enough time for every stage of the process. Being on time, in other words, starts the day the piece is assigned.)

Look, fallibility isn’t missing in this story. I admit: I have missed deadlines. And any editor worth working with will understand if there’s a real reason you can’t file on time. But it’s a slippery slope. And many writers lose their footing and go swooping off the edge.

Deadlines are, simply, easy to miss. And especially in the freelancing world. The whole culture of freelancing can foster (if you’ll excuse the meaningful-yet-odd adjective-turned-noun) loosey-gooseyness – you’re not on the payroll, you don’t have a desk or co-workers, you don’t have benefits, you may have never even physically met your editor.

It’s almost as if the threat of getting fired (or losing money) isn’t real. If anything, the peril for freelancers is greater; editors often show more flexibility with staff writers (I’ve been one of those too). Freelancers who can’t hand in their pieces on time aren’t worth the trouble. And they’re easy to cut loose because they’re less entrenched in the newsroom or organization. It’s like the difference between breaking up with someone you’ve dated a couple of times and dumping your live-in lover.

Me? I’ve always kept a watch on my deadlines. And, rather than deleting my pitches after my last two pieces were late, editors have worked to keep me.

I’ve had editors suggest me for pieces for other publications, just as I suggested my on-time writers to editor-friends. I’ve had editors take me with them from publication to publication to publication.

My writing? Well, yes, probably that got me somewhere. But knowing where my daytimer was? That’s one little trick of the trade that’s really made me some cash.

Lezlie Lowe is a freelance writer, broadcaster and researcher and has worked as a writer and editor at Halifax weekly paper The Coast since 1995. In 2004, Lezlie received a regional Radio-Television News Directors Association of Canada honourable mention for a CBC commentary piece on George W. Bush, and in 2007 a Gold Award for Feature Writing at the Atlantic Journalism Awards.