In preparation for the "Write What?" talk two weeks ago --- which in turn generated the preceding three blog entries on writing and editing courses, Singapore writers' groups and social networking --- I stumbled across the webpage, "Carving out a career in freelance writing" at Youth.sg. Youth.sg is a youth-oriented website produced by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. The article in question on freelance writing has been reproduced with permission from Career Central, which is described as "Singapore's leading campus career magazine published by JobsFactory Pte Ltd".
While some of the advice in the article is perfectly healthy, it was the section sub-headlined "The perfect writer" that got my goat, viz.:
What encapsulates a perfect writer? From your client’s point of view, the list of qualities will read something like this:Oh. My. God.
- Able to instantly understand a brief given by a client
- Knows the style of writing required for any topic
- Possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of a wide variety of subjects
- Willing to make amendments multiple times based on clients’ requests
- Prompt in submitting articles and always meeting deadlines
- Ready to work seven days a week, 24 hours a day
- Always available to take on a project, no matter how last-minute, immense or “trivial” the project might be
- Flexible on payment options and dates
Let's look at this a little more closely.
Able to instantly understand a brief given by a client
Let's assume that they're not talking about some kind of Vulcanesque mind meld with the client. I've never met a brief that was so all-encompassing that I didn't have to raise at least one query, no matter how minor, if only because clients usually write briefs from their point of view, i.e. the insider view of their organisation. Freelance writers typically come in from the outside and, more often than not, part of their job is to be able to take what's being said on the inside and communicate it effectively to the outside. The fact that they don't immediately understand everything is an asset, because any questions they raise can help to clarify the organisation's thinking or priorities for external communication. If I were hiring a writer who didn't have a single question, I might wonder if s/he were sufficiently engaged with the content or direction of the writing assignment.
Knows the style of writing required for any topic
Um ... again, an assumption that a god-like omniscience is a good thing. I don't think striving to become an expert at every kind of writing style is a healthy or practicable career objective. I'd rather work at the types of writing I'm good at or comfortable with, while beingversatile enough to juggle a few different styles (and hence clients), than struggle to be good at everything, by hook or by crook. Different topics also often require different knowledge or expertise, and a person'd go crazy trying to become an expert at all of them.
Possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of a wide variety of subjects
Ugh. See point previous regarding omniscience and becoming an expert at everything. A client will certainly look for a writer who has expertise or background in the requisite field, but you don't have to be a polymath and know everything about everything. In this day and age when information is copiously available, more and more what a writer needs to hone are not only writing and editing, but also research and analytical skills. What sets apart a good writer from an intern, hack, computer or search engine? Not only familiarity with certain fields of knowledge, but also having the right contacts or sources, and being able to assess whatever information s/he comes across.
Willing to make amendments multiple times based on clients’ requests
Oh please. Who is the writer --- you or the client? If you allow clients to make as many rounds of amendments as they want without compensating you for the additional time, then you're sacrificing your own profits for the job (this is work, not a personal favour.) Also, if you limit the number of rounds of amendments (I usually go with two rounds), then it gives the client some incentive (and discipline!) to pay more attention and be specific about what they want, rather than waffle back and forth interminably. It's also more productive for the writer to receive specific feedback in a controlled manner and respond to it accordingly, rather than to be perpetually rewriting. You can rewrite things forever --- doesn't mean version #49 will be any better than version #3.
Prompt in submitting articles and always meeting deadlines
Yes, okay, no argument with this. The only caveat I'd add is that sometimes it's okay to negotiate a deadline extension, but sparingly and only with the client who won't think poorly of you for it. And always, always proceed at your own risk.
Ready to work seven days a week, 24 hours a day
Sure, if you want to steer yourself rapidly into a nervous breakdown, not to mention wipe out all energy and enthusiasm for the job. There's a reason ancient scriptures mandated rest days and modern labour laws regulate (or at least offer guidelines on) the number of hours one is legally permitted to work. We are not machines and we need rest. It's tempting as a freelancer to be always "on call" --- but unless you are charging very fat fees or people's lives are at stake, there's really no cause for it. I totally overworked my first two years of freelancing and things were much saner after I eased myself into more typical "office hours" (I now typically work from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.). I don't respond to phone calls or emails outside of office hours (that includes weekends and public holidays), unless it's a project where I was forewarned that I'd have to work during those times (and therefore I would've billed the client for it), or if it's a regular client whom I totally trust not to abuse that privilege.
Always available to take on a project, no matter how last-minute, immense or “trivial” the project might be
See previous point. Regular clients whom I totally trust can throw a last-minute assignment at me once in a while; for everyone else, unless they're offering me a fee that provides sufficient remuneration for the last-minute nature of the job, then no, thank you. The fact that they didn't manage the project schedule properly is already a warning flag; I'm not going to risk getting involved with that. The size of the project isn't really the issue, so long as it's spec'd out sufficiently beforehand and fees were negotiated accordingly.
Flexible on payment options and dates
A definite no-no. Work is work, business is business. Admittedly in Singapore there is little inexpensive recourse for a freelancer who's chasing an overdue payment (elaborating on this would be fodder for a separate blog post), but it doesn't hurt to lay down industry-standard terms of payment. One way of thinking about it, which may not sway a recalcitrant client but at least makes the point, is to ask yourself: would your landlord/Singapore Power/phone service provider give you flexible options for paying your monthly rent/utilities bill/telephone bill in full? And if you defaulted on a payment, would that not affect your ability to continue working?
All right, enough serious stuff. For a lighter take on related issues, see Mridu Khullar Relph's "My Writerly Confessions", or leaf through the excellent and often spot-on web comic Freelance Freedom.