The Renegade Writer

The Laziest Writer Ever? A Vent and a Lesson

Last spring a writer (let’s call her Jill) emailed me that she was pitching a profile of me to a UK writing magazine — and would I be available for an interview?

Here’s how the conversation went:

*****
Jill:

I’m interested in interviewing you for [magazine]. If you are agreeable, I’d need to ask you a few questions in order to prepare my pitch.

Me:

Hi, Jill! Did you want to ask your questions via email or phone?

Jill:

I live in Australia, Linda, and find email is simplest because of the different time zones.

Will just ask a few questions to start with. If my editor at [magazine] likes the proposal, I’ll be in touch again. If he’s already accepted something similar, I’d like to pitch the interview to [two other magazines] if you’re happy with that.

Here goes –

* You list Redbook, Woman’s Day, Family Circle and Writers’ Digest as magazines you’ve sold to. I’m wondering how many you’ve sold to each. What’s the most number of commissions you’ve had from any one magazine that you’ve broken into by initially breaking rules?
* Are there any rules you definitely wouldn’t break?
* What’s the most daring way you’ve broken a rule and gained a commission?
How many magazines have you broken into by breaking rules?

Me:

[I answer all the questions, which takes about 300 words.]

Jill:

My editor at [Magazine] is interested in the interview. I’ll need to slant it to UK writers subbing internationally, and also point out if any of the advice is wrong for the UK market. [Following are 11 questions, many of which are actually composed of two or three separate questions.]

Me:

Hi, Jill! That’s good news!

This is a LOT of writing. Can we do a phone interview? I’m available outside of business hours since we’re in opposite time zones.

Jill:

I’ve been thinking what the best way to proceed might be, Linda. I didn’t mean to swamp you with questions.

One thing I’m wondering is whether you’ve already written pieces that I could read and draw on, that might cover some of this.

Then perhaps we could Skype?

What are your thoughts?

Me:

I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time to write or research for you on this project. I think you will be better off finding someone else to profile.

*****

Okay, so what went wrong in this process?

Let me start off by saying that unless you are just looking for bare facts — data mining, basically — email interviews are less than ideal. I do them for a column where I’m asking for dates, prices, and workshop names for events, but in all other cases I rely on the phone.

But to be fair, I did give Jill the option, thinking there would be just a few questions. Instead she slammed me with 15+ questions (which actually ended up being more like 20 questions). I spent 300 words on the first set, and estimate it would have taken me another 1,200 words at the very least to answer the second set.

Hmm, does that sound to you like I’m writing an entire article?

Then, when I offered to make myself available at some weird time of the day to make it easy for this writer to do a phone interview, she responded by asking if I had ever written anything she could basically lift for her article. Because God forbid a writer should have to do an interview outside the 9-5, right? Much better to ask your source to spend a couple hours writing and researching your article for you.

It reminds me of the writer who interviewed me, and when I asked her to send me a link to the article when it went online, replied, “Oh, just Google your name and the name of the magazine and it should come up.” Um, no. I just took half an hour out of my workday talking to you for no benefit to myself so YOU can earn a few hundred bucks — you can spend 10 seconds emailing me a freaking link.

As a freelance writer, I have done interviews after my normal bedtime and before my usual wake time with people in opposite time zones. I have paid for a Skype phone number and added funds to be able to call overseas to people who don’t have Skype. And I ALWAYS let my sources know when an article I interviewed them for has been published, and try to get them a copy if it’s not available on the newsstands.

In short, I never put the onus on my sources to make it easier for me to do my job.

Too many would-be writers have the impression that freelance writing is a cakewalk — and when they find out to their horror that they have to do actual work, and that it (gasp!) may not be 100% convenient for them, they look for shortcuts.

I’ve earned up to $85,000 per year writing (and yes, this was before I started earning income from my classes) because, well, I worked my ass off. Freelance writing is a job. It’s not all sitting at cafes with a laptop and a cup of joe, typing away as the muse strikes. I really can’t fathom why any person would think that this is the world’s only job where you can put in little effort and reap great returns.

As a freelance writer, you need to put in the hours and shoe leather to get gigs, do great work, keep your clients happy, and deal with sources in a way that they’ll want to help you again in the future. In other words, it’s work.

Enough of the vent. How about you: Can you tell us about a time you went above and beyond in your freelance writing career? Or how about describing a time you dealt with a lazy writer? Let us know in the Comments below! [lf]

photo by:

Jul 22, 2014 Freelance writers, Motivation, Rants, Writing

56 Responses

  1. Linda,

    In my former life I was the editor of a small paper, and I can attest to the frustration created by lazy writers. I had some staffers who thought it was acceptable to copy and paste information off websites. There were others who thought I had nothing better to do than to hold their hands and tell them exactly how to find the information for the articles that they volunteered to take. Your frustration is more than valid.

    I once had a writer who didn’t proofread her article at all, and it was full of random punctuation and typos. I refused to run her article, and then she wanted to yell at me about how it was my assistant editor’s job to proof the piece in whatever state she submitted it. She also said that I should get new editors if they were too lazy to fix it. I told her I would be looking for new writers who see the value in editing.

    I do want to note that I had more diligent writers than not, so they weren’t all bad, but lazy writers create massive headaches.

    • Wow, great to hear from an editor’s perspective. You know, the non-lazy writers should only rejoice that THIS is their competition. You look good just by having a normal amount of motivation and good work ethics.

      • It’s so true. The competition is not as fierce as many think. All it takes to make it is the ability to follow directions, basic proofreading skills, and well-written and creative content.

    • I hear this over and over again from my editors (not about my work, but the work of my peers!) so thanks for commenting, Peggy. I tell writers in my classes that if they can show initiative, get off their butts, and go out and conduct solid reporting, they’ll stand out from their competition.

      Linda and I were chatting this a.m. after I read this post, and I told her I’m pretty sure the same writer contacted me, too–twice, in fact. Both times I declined after seeing the list of questions she wanted answered by e-mail. I go out of my way to make interviews easy and painless for my sources, and of course, it might be easier for me to cherry-pick from their written e-mails. “Easier” is relative, though, because I tend to get better quotes during a phone/in-person interview and can cover a lot more territory.

      • I hope it was the same person. I agree. I always have better results from talking to someone. It’s so easy for the source to give you a quick answer that doesn’t really address your question in an email. Also, since most people aren’t skilled writers, their quotes sound more natural when they talk than when they write the answers.

  2. Wow, Linda! O_o That writer went well beyond lazy. No wonder her behavior ended up in a rant-ish (but helpful!) post.

    Honestly, as an Italian writer working with international clients, I’ve never found it an issue stay up an hour after bedtime to talk or write to/for a client, nor to wake up an hour earlier for the same reason. Heck, I used to do it all the time when I was still in school! :)

    I like email interviews when it’s just about getting a few quotes for a blog post, but lately I’m loving Skype/IM chats much more; it’s still writing, but it’s less stressful for both me and the source. I have yet to get VoIP phone number for my clients, but that’s in my to-buy list for 2015.

    Alas, I wish I could use my cellphone, even just for interviews that last only a few minutes, but I live in an area with some crappy network, so I had to give up.

    Anyway, no matter the technical issues, it just takes a bit of honest communication with the source or the client to find a good compromise. I recently lost a pretty good gig because my ISP shut down service for 48 hours without notice, but the prospect told me they will keep me as a name to go to next time they need a writer. That made my day, no matter how unlucky a day it was. :)

    – Luana

  3. Larry says:

    IF the interviewee doesn’t mind taking the time to write their responses to the questions I actually do prefer to do interviews by email. The main reason is that it gives the interviewee time to say exactly what they want to say rather than whatever comes to mind during the phone conversation.

    The downside is that you may not have worded your question well and the question they answer (what they thik you asked) isn’t what you thought you asked. Which is why an interactive conversation is normally better.

    Another reason, and maybe the main reason, is that transcribing takes forever for me to complete. I sometimes think that using chat to do the interview, where you can get a transcript of the chat, might be a good compromise. Linda, do you do your own transcribing, or can you recommend a good service that does it?

    LS

  4. Great rant, Linda!
    I once queried a magazine and was assigned the piece. Wrote it per query specs. Months after turning it in a new editor came on the scene. She emailed.
    Can you change this?
    Yes.
    And this?
    Yes.
    And this?
    Wait a minute, I think you want an entirely different article. Yeah, I do. Can you do it? Before deadline?
    Of course–with a smile.
    We are in the service business, people. Not here to be served.

    My favorite come back for editor requests is “Absolutely, not a problem.” (Even if I have to complain to my hubby on the side.)

    Oh, and I always send my sources a hard copy or a link to the published story. I’ve even gone out and paid newsstand prices to get the copies to give them.

  5. John says:

    Excellent post! I always try to send a copy of the magazine to my sources and, if that’s not possible, I send a link (even if they don’t ask!). That just seems like common sense. And this: “Freelance writing is a job. It’s not all sitting at cafes with a laptop and a cup of joe, typing away as the muse strikes.” Perfect. Though I do sometimes work at a cafe with a cup of joe (I can’t help it, I like a change of scenery), I do so with or without the muse. I’m new to this business and I plan on working my ass off to make it happen. Because that’s the only way it will happen.

  6. I’m so glad I stopped a moment to read this, it focused my energy for the day! Always willing to go above and beyond and always willing to listen to more experienced writers. Thanks for the reminder, Linda.

  7. Tom Bentley says:

    Linda, I have selectively used email interviews for articles before, but only if the article context (deadlines or other constraints) called for it, and if the interviewee was very comfortable with the process. Any hesitation on their part and I’d turn it into a phone interview. Imposing the kind of requirements that person made on you for the interview is nutzoid.

    I just interviewed (over Skype) a professional woman wrestler this past week, and because the interview questions changed (and expanded) greatly due to her answers, I got so much more than I would have received just from some stock emailed questions. It was more fun too, even with me having to transcribe later.

    • Yes, you get SUCH better answers and quotes when you can talk to someone! And I agree — if you ask for an email interview and the source feels better doing it by phone, then you make that happen. I once did an article for a local college’s alumni mag where the source felt more comfortable being interviewed in person. He was a key source, so I made the trek, though I grumbled about it loudly to my husband. :)

  8. Oh Linda, this article gave me a pit in my stomach and triggered my PTSD! I learned the hard way on this one by enabling a few too many lazy writers.
    A couple years ago while trying to promote my book (shameless plug –> “31 Dates in 31 Days’), I was asked by several writers if I could just respond to a few emailed questions and/or if I could email them a short write-up summarizing such-and-such points. This was a complete surprise to me. I’d spent more than 15 years as a journalist and would have quickly been fired if I’d tried to pull anything like that.
    Since I was new to the “book world,” I thought I was doing what was necessary to get the word out. I spent many hours coming up with new ways to say the same-ish thing over and over again. Then, the “writers” would write a short intro to their “interview,” then cut, and paste.
    Guess who *didn’t* get paid for all of those hours of crafting and head-banging? :/
    But from my mistakes comes the lessons learned. I realized that if I took that same amount of time and antsy energy, I could turn it into a freelance writing career. So here I am now. Turning to smart pros like you and others to help further this part of my career. (Thank you!)

    • Haha, good for you for turning that into a freelance writing career of your own! You’ll surely do far better than the lazy writers who expected you to write their articles for them.

  9. Absolutely right…

    – And if you want to write a book, everything Linda says goes double. Buckle in, kids, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

    – And if you want your website to rank high on Google search lists, take your time. It’s gonna be 5-10 years of posting real articles, not marketing poop – once a week. Oh, and don’t ever post anything that you haven’t lived with for a WEEK.

  10. Linda says:

    This post made me laugh. I’ve been interviewed by a few folks and yes, they tried to get me to write the article for them. Only I wouldn’t. I always vied for a phone interview instead of email. Even if they were in Australia, France, or the Middle East.
    I prefer phone interviews because like others have said, you get better quotes and since I’m a fast typer I can get those quotes. I’m not writing articles, per se, but it all works for me long-term and that’s what matters.
    This is a great discussion because I see the results of such writers and know that they really aren’t as professional and thorough as they pretend. That’s why I’m focused on staying with the best like you, Diana, Carol, and a few others you’ve introduced me to. My writing career is taking a turn; at least I know which bridge to cross to go the right course!

  11. Pooja says:

    Hey Linda,

    First off, although you called it a rant, I think it’s a perfectly honest and helpful post for those reading it.

    Reading such horror stories, I can recall my own pet peeves. But my problem was the opposite — I’d been on the same side of the fence as you and I had NO boundaries. I’d do anything and everything if someone asked me a favour or offered me an interview.

    Sigh.

    I’ve come a looong way since then and I can relate with your story. Speaking of which…

    A few years ago, I got an interview request to be featured in a book. The broad topic was how to edit your writing. The author reached out to me and after a few email exchanges, she sent me a list of questions that I would fill up. From my memory, it had 10-12 questions.

    Anyway, I went out of my way and completed the questionnaire with detailed answers (they would take my quotes from it) and hit Send. The author acknowledged the receipt, but after that I never heard from her again (I was given a time span of 3 months).

    After 7 months of so, I was going through my list of ha;f-yearly “follow ups” when I realised I hadn’t heard form this author yet. I did a quick Google search of the author’s name and lo and behold! The book was already published on Amazon!

    That was a disappointment. I didn’t get a thank you or a link to an e-copy.

    I emailed the author gently pointing out that I never heard from her. In her defense, she was apologetic, and sent me a PDF copy of the book.

    Lesson learned. Sometimes people will forget you. But you’re the one who sets the boundaries.

    Great work Linda!

    Pooja

  12. Debbie says:

    Thanks for a laugh, Linda, and a reminder that it doesn’t take much to rise above the mediocre. I hardly ever rely on email for interviews except to get an occasional quote and to confirm information. And I’ll schedule phone interviews after hours to get the info/quote if necessary. Doing what it takes is part of the job!

  13. Katharine Logan says:

    Linda, you’re spot on about e-mail being less than ideal. There’s just no replacing the character and liveliness of quotes from an interview, not to mention how much more time-consuming e-mail answers are for a source, or how much easier it is to misunderstand one another by e-mail.

    In fairness to Jill, though, I notice that once you drew the line at answering a zillion e-mail questions, she did offer to skype.

    And as for her asking whether you’ve already written something that might serve as background, my own practice before I interview a source is to read anything they’ve published on our subject so we don’t spend interview time covering info I can get elsewhere. I can usually track down more than I need without their help, but if not, I’ve found that sources are happy to fill in the blanks with whatever they’ve got available. Assuming Jill made her own search before she asked you, might her question just have been meant to save you both time? Do laziness and efficiency have points in common?

    Thanks for all you do, Linda!

    • Yeah, I dunno…the way she said she was trying to figure out the best way to proceed sounded to me like she was trying to figure out the best way to do as little phone interviewing as possible…and the onus was still on me to point her to my writing!

      • Daryl says:

        I do agree with Katharine – I assume that her question was to save you BOTH time, and to her credit she did offer to Skype as soon as she realised that you obviously (and rightly) had an issue with having to sit and type lengthy replied to the questions asked.

  14. Marisa Moore says:

    I’m often called upon as a source. I’ve experienced what you describe above far too many times to count. I used to do email interviews but I limit them now.

    After a lengthy email interview, I once had a writer say, “boy I wish I could just take what you wrote and use it just like that for the article.” That’s when I realized… hmmm maybe I should give writing a chance? So, now I write and interview expert sources – via phone!

  15. Daryl says:

    Hmmmm,

    I have to say, I have slightly a different take on exactly what went down here.

    In fact, I don’t think the writer was lazy at all- more like she wasn’t necessarily clued into your preferred format of phone interview.

    In the first “interview” she probably thought that a simple email would be the best way for both of you to get your information (with which you complied with by the way.

    It isn’t lazy – simply that she found it more convenient to do so via email rather than arrange times for both of you.

    I’m assuming that after passing the initial interview off to her editor, they requested a number of key pieces of information.

    After you balked at having to do so much work from which you weren’t being paid for (understandable!) she then offered to make your work easier by both getting the information straight from pieces you had written, and ALSO offered to Skype.

    Her motivation to asking for relevant pieces was not to give you MORE work, but less.

    Obviously she went waaaay overboard in the number of questions she asked, but I would chalk it down to lack of interviewing experience as opposed to “laziness”.

    That’s my 2 cents anyway

    • I just don’t see it that way. If she wanted to make it easier on me, she wouldn’t have sent 15 questions and then asked me to provide her with stuff I’ve already written. And I’m guessing if my final assessment had been wrong, she would have let me know…after all, she had an actual assignment on the line. SHe just never wrote back.

  16. Suja says:

    Very recently, I wanted to talk to a psychologist who i understand was busy. I even told her that am ready for a quick interview even after her business hours. She refused flat and asked me to email m questions saying it will give her a chance to think what she wants to say.

    So, i guess its both ways!

    • I have heard of that happening. Email interviews aren’t the best but if it’s a KEY source and it’s the only way to get her, that’s what you have to do. (Though you should let your editor know.)

  17. Huh? If the writer wanted to look at stuff you’d already written before getting on Skype to interview you, why didn’t she just Google up your past articles?

    I get requests for email interviews all the time, and most of them want to ask the same questions. So I put together a written “interview with myself” covering the most common questions, and now if someone requests an email interview that does’t break any new ground I simply send them a copy of my self-interview. ;)

    • I love that! I’ve thought of doing the same but then I feel bad because I feel like they should get something original that hasn’t already been published…but I have to say, I do get tired of writing out the story of how I got started. :)

  18. I can so relate to what was shared by Peggy Carouthers, who wrote from an Editor’s perspective. I SENT an assignment to a freelance writer and provided as much detail as I could concerning the slant we wanted to take – complete with a title and subheading to use as examples. She agreed to the assignment, and then emailed me two days later to tell me that she was ready to start the article and she knew I was busy, but she was “patiently waiting” (and those were her exact words) – for ME to send her some contacts and sources.

    *Blank stare*

    O_o

    I once sent back an article to a freelancer, asking her to insert subheadings to break up her piece. Her response? “Oh, you can do it – however you want to break it up is fine with me.”

    O_o

    ~Le sigh.

  19. I just don’t want to participate in email interviews. Usually I look at the questions they’ve written and want to throw up. They rarely have anything to do with my situation, or they’re rude and personal questions I don’t want to answer for a total stranger – such as “Tell us how much money you make from your blog!”

    Yes, I’ve really been asked that one.

    The only ones that work is where they are asking just ONE question, in a roundup with others. I have done a quick email response for a few of those, and thought it was workable. Beyond there, I’m with Linda — please schedule a call. Interview sources should not have to do all the writing work for you.

  20. Although I don’t have any lazy writing experiences to share I do want to say that I appreciate the reaffirmation: hard work does pay off. I try to go above and beyond for my clients by being prepared, thorough, timely, and deliver documents of the highest quality. It’s also nice to know that the vets take the time to share and help our newer generation of writers to perfect their craft while promoting professionalism.

  21. Sam says:

    What are your views on sending the interview questions ahead of the phone interview? I’m often asked to do this – people don’t like to be blindsided by something they feel they can’t answer well on the spur of the moment; others simply feel they don’t speak well off the cuff. But doing this can detract from the freshness of the unexpected.

    • It depends on the type of article you’re writing. For the kinds of things I do — health, nutrition, pets — it’s fine. But for investigative or controversial pieces, you don’t want sources to be able to prepare and sanitize their answers.

  22. Trish says:

    When I read this blog post, I wondered why that lazy writer didn’t read Renegade Writer because it seemed as if she hadn’t done so. Researching the subject is key before inviting that expert for an interview!

    For me, as a freelance business reporter, I have to interview at least 20 people each month for stories and I’ve found that both email and phone interviews have their value. A lot of busy CEO/president types and celerities prefer email so they can construct their answers while on planes, etc and in between meetings. Also to make sure they don’t blab something that will legally bite them in the butt later. Others prefer the phone call or conference call. When I send out an invite for an interview, I ask them how they would like to do the interview: email or a phone call at a convenient time for them. I always accommodate their schedule, since they are doing me the favor. When a source passes the buck back to me and says however I want to do it will work fine, I always request a phone interview. Because when someone talks directly to me, I get to capture the regionalism of their style of talking…and best of all, sometimes they veer off into stories that they wouldn’t tell me in an email. And I can’t even tell you how many times these tangential little stories turn into the part of the article that makes it truly come alive because it is so human.

    Also, I would NEVER send someone more than five questions in an email. If a story is based on one source and is bigger than five great questions, a phone call is imperative. It’s so not fair to have someone agree to an interview and then turn THEM into the writer! Very bad manners!

    • That’s a lot of interviews you do! I’m so glad to hear you don’t take the easy route, which for so many writers would be very tempting with that amount of volume.

      • Trish says:

        Thanks Linda! That’s interesting, I never thought that I was doing more than an average amount of interviews. I guess maybe it’s because sometimes I need up to four sources for one story. Plus I’m full time freelance so I can write a lot. Anyway, thanks for all you do with advice and great topics! Always inspiring! And FYI, after I read your two Renegade Writer books to learn about queries and other ‘rules’ I sold my first article and have been working like mad ever since! Those books are amazing — I keep them on my desk at all times.

  23. Melissa says:

    When a source agrees to an interview for me, I am so grateful I would do whatever I can to make it simple, easy and QUICK for the interviewee. I sometimes provide a set of pre-questions if the source asks, so that they are better prepared for the call/meeting.

    I’d like to say that I do what I can to make their lives easy because of my training as a PA to a CEO. But, honestly, it seems like common sense that when someone is doing you a favor and your income is dependent upon that favor, you make it as easy as possible for the interviewee. Simple, no?

    Reminds me of an article I read yesterday on Ragan.com about requesting a meeting with a big-wig. It’s a quick read and applicable to writers, so here’s a link: http://tinyurl.com/k425s96

  24. Melissa says:

    Hi Linda and everybody :-)

    One more thought after reading all the comments that this post generated. I am surprised by the number of people who’ve commented something along the lines of “I find it easier……” or “It takes me less time…”

    Here’s the thing: it’s not about making the job easier or faster for the writer. It’s about making the job easier and faster for the interviewee and the editor. So the question I need to be asking myself is, “how can I make this as simple as possible for the person I’m asking the favor of?” And that’s what I need to do.

    I’ll be quiet now.

  25. Cheryl says:

    As to the addition:
    It reminds me of the writer who interviewed me, and when I asked her to send me a link to the article when it went online, replied, “Oh, just Google your name and the name of the magazine and it should come up.”

    Not surprised. Well, I am, but the truth is, this is the direction the entire world is going (not just the states). Technology is turning humans into mush (there’s a reason why it’s called the “smart phone”.) everywhere! Sad commentary on humanity.

Leave a Reply

Top 10 badge 2012

RW Topics