Dealing with commissioning editors: When shifting the goalposts can work to your advantage

As a freelance journalist, it’s inevitable that now and again editors will ask you for more work on a piece – once you have already filed. It’s a situation that can make your heart sink – but can often be met with good humour – or avoided in the first place.

Freelance travel, health and fashion journalist Lucia Cockroft says it happens in around five to 10 per cent of features. ‘In some cases the original brief is vague. This can be rectified if the writer goes back to the editor for clarification immediately,’she says. ‘Sometimes it’s a case of the editor just wanting additional information.”

Cockcroft adds that despite the extra demands on her time, she doesn’t consider it the right approach to ask for an increased fee if the editor’s demands are reasonable.

‘If the editor was making unfair demands such as asking for additional interviews that would take a significant amount of time, I would ask for more money,’she says. ‘In most cases, however, I just accept that sometimes more work is needed.”

We’ve all been there. Accepting ‘adds’may be needed and getting on with them is part of the job. Like Lucia, the NUJ‘s freelance organiser John Toner advises that you should always make sure the brief is as clear as possible. But Toner also sounds a note of caution.

‘If you are the sort of journalist who insists on your rights every five minutes, then you wouldn’t work. Of course they may come back saying a different angle would work better, that’s reasonable and most journalists would work on that.

‘But there is a point where it can become unreasonable, and you can say: ‘I’m sorry I’m not going to do any more work on it.”

Christine Michael has edited five magazines, most recently Slimming World. She stresses that communication and flexibility are at the heart of a strong working relationship and can avoid problems.

She says: ‘It’s quite rare that I’ve asked a writer to redo a piece completely. I’ve generally preferred to work on a brief with a writer in order to be confident the copy is going to be pretty much as I expect it to be.

‘For an editor, having a detailed house style guide that covers policy issues can save a lot of time and misunderstandings.”

‘Sometimes you do have to change the goalposts – for example, the submitted piece may have ended up too similar to something that’s appeared recently, or you may find something in it that takes the feature in a more interesting, unexpected direction,’she says.

‘I like writers to let me know if this happens as they’re working on a piece, so we can agree how to take it forward.

‘It’s great to find writers who are willing to be flexible and keen to get the piece right.

‘I’m much more likely to re-commission writers I can build a good relationship with.”

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