First published here on 12/3/2014
Let me open with this:
“Journalists are anal-retentive perfectionists who can’t turn off their brains. Try watching a documentary with a reporter… Ask a copy editor what his favorite word misuses are. These are people obsessed with quality and correct execution of their crafts.”
Long before the Internet, making money as a freelance writer – of any description – was difficult. Now, with the Internet turning just about anyone with access into a ‘professional’ it is even more difficult. Quality aside, the spin-off is seeing potential clients disinclined to pay higher rates to the professionals because of the glut of available providers (something I will cover in a later post).
Freelance writers and editors are a dime a dozen; there is no shortage of them. Many are genuine, many are not.
Now, while there are numerous factors involved, of which one is a more integrated relationship between Mastheads that have material from one being ferreted out to another within the stable, with another being the ever- increasing number of journalists and associated professionals being laid off because of closures, mergers, or restructuring; resulting in a growing corporate reliance on public submissions, especially to online editions, the Internet has the bulk of today’s genuine, professional freelancers competing with others who are neither writers nor editors.
Don’t get me wrong, everyone has to start somewhere and a single opportunity is all it takes to get rolling.
Indeed, I began my ‘professional’ writing career as a news stringer. Yet it was not until after I found myself independently sourcing and filing up to ten stories a day, every day for over six months, and later being admitted to what was then the Australian Journalists’ Association, that I could even begin calling myself a professional. This is despite having been regularly published as a freelance features writer in both newspapers and magazines for several years before.
Back in the mists of time, while being at the mercy of editors and their payment structures, you could be reasonably confident few others were competing against you. Put differently, assuming you had done your market (publication) research and were confident your story ideas matched the publication, the competition was more in the differing ideas from competing freelancers rather than for anything else. We all pretty much knew what the publications paid and when they paid – on submission, on acceptance or on publication. Manuscripts were typewritten and sent via snail mail (including a stamped, ‘self’ addressed return envelope).
Today the Internet allows a level of communication never possible before, creating what is now known as the Fifth Estate.
Apart from the content mills – three of which I belong to, but have yet use – there are countless people offering their services as writers or editors in some form or another. Perusing Craigslist postings, for example, it is clear many are neither writers nor editors yet, based on a supposed expertise derived from their having an MA or Ph.D., they consider themselves so. Below are a few examples taken from various Craigslist postings (I do not know, nor have I contacted any of the people who made these postings):
· NY Skilled Editor … Hello there, I currently work a full time job which is fairly interesting, but it doesn’t fully utilize my writing and editing abilities that I developed over the years … What I can Edit: Personal statements, Letters, Emails, Business Documents, Expository Writing Essays, Highschool/ College Essays, Resumes, Cover Letters, Books, Articles, Blog Posts …
· English EDITING & PROOFREADING Service … I am an MA graduate from one of the top 20 universities in the world. I offer fast and professional English proofreading and editing services …
· Proofreading & Editing … I am an English tutor in Seoul who has found success in proofreading and editing papers written by students and business professionals alike. I will read through your materials and pay close attention to grammar and structure, all the while giving you helpful suggestions on how to better word phrases and sentences. I hold a BA in English and a certificate in TEFL. I have a host of clients who return to me with their term papers, multimedia projects, resumes, business papers and more because I am thorough and punctual.
· Will Edit and Proofread for Food … Trying to get into Grad school or college?! Need someone to proofread and edit your admission essays?! If so, I’m your man! Let me tell you a story: I had a friend who wanted to get into UCLA Anderson. I helped him write his essays. He got into UCLA Anderson. We all lived happily ever after. The end. If you are in a similar position and need some help with your writing, shoot me an email and we’ll get you on the path to success. We’ll work out payment and all that stuff after we get to know each other. I don’t really work for food. Coffee, maybe. I can’t promise success, but I can certainly edit and proofread.
· English Writing/Editing (anywhere) … Allow me to write or edit your: Résumé Cover Letters Application Essays Statements of Purpose Research Papers Business Documents Personal Correspondence… actually…anything that doesn’t constitute plagiarism or some other illegal activity. I hold a master’s degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and have worked as a military language specialist, assistant professor, English teacher, business manager and language program manager. I’ve edited English documents for many years. I’m a perfectionist and will ensure that your work effectively achieves your goals. If you prefer, I can do the writing for you according to your specifications…
· Academic proofreading and editing … I am an American exchange student at Yonsei University, currently enrolled in graduate school. I have experience in proofreading English academic work up to the graduate level … Please contact for more details and to discuss you particular piece of writing. Cheers~
It is clear who such people are essentially targeting; students whose first language is not English and who consequently feel a need for help. For many, especially cash-strapped students looking to improve their chances of admission to an overseas university, the postings are attractive. After all, these people are university educated, have ESL qualifications, or even have a friend who got into UCLA, ostensibly on the back of the essay he or she edited.
However, as one professional copy editor, a member of ACES (American Copy Editors Society) writes:
“I spent 17 years as a newspaper reporter and copy editor… Editing matters, and now that I’m outside the newspaper industry I find editing matters even more than I thought it did when I worked in journalism. I work with a lot of people who hold advanced degrees, and it’s amazing how many MDs, PhDs and MPHs can’t spell or even construct a simple sentence.”
Additionally, while speaking largely to those who write fiction and are more likely looking to have a novel published, Victoria Strauss, in a posting for Writer Beware provides us with nonetheless equally pertinent advice:
“… paid editing is not a magic fix. Editing is a subjective process — there’s no set formula … (beware of any independent editor who tells you there is) … even the most accomplished editor can’t turn a bad manuscript into a good one … They can only work with what’s already there … The Internet is rife with editors who’ve set up shop without much — or sometimes anything — in the way of relevant credentials.
“These folks are often entirely well-intentioned, sincerely believing that a lifetime of reading, or a teaching career, or some technical writing experience, is enough to qualify them to edit manuscripts. But it’s much more likely that they don’t possess the specialized skills that are essential for a useful critique or a professional-quality line or content edit. Some provide no more than glorified proofreading or copy editing … Some amateur editors I’ve encountered aren’t even fully literate.”
Now, among my clients is a company specializing in helping Korean students polish their essays for numerous undergraduate and graduate schools and colleges, both in the US and elsewhere. My subcontracting role is editing translated submissions. That I have a degree and have taught English is, in my view, of limited use. Rather, it is my years of professional writing that is more helpful. Aside from that, my language usage skills cut across more than one type, thus taking into account an applicant’s destination language. Also, I would never make any claim that an essay I helped polish for a student resulted in their successful application. It would be misleading and by default, unethical.
While essays and personal statements, for example, play a role in college applications they are not the only factor involved. Indeed, as Bruce Poch, Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, California answered in 2008 to a question about the role of essays posted on the New York Times’ College Admissions Q&A:
“In the case of an otherwise weak application, it may not take much more than a skimming of the essay to seal an impression. A brilliant essay presented in an application with substantial weakness in academic performance will not likely compensate for other concerns and could possibly lead to questions about authorship or editing influences. Essays that reflect or amplify the impression of the person created by the application as a whole are read fully and appreciated.”
So where does this leave us?
Although commenting on hiring ex journalists within a marketing context, Dennis McCafferty’s view can equally fit across a broad spectrum of writing assignments:
“Hiring former traditional journos (either full-time or contractually) presents many benefits…These professionals tend to write well (most of ‘em, anyway). They’re adept at gathering large amounts of complex material and translating it into clear, focused content…And since many of them are required to Tweet, blog, produce online audio/video/image-driven content, etc., you won’t spend too much time bringing them up to speed…Given the advantages here and the sheer, vast numbers of available talent, it simply makes sense…to recruit journos to help generate white papers, blogs, podcasts, webinars, native advertising pieces, and other content marketing materials.”
In short, if you are looking for writers – be it for relatively simple editing or for more complex assignments – look to the professionals: those with extensive, quantifiable, and qualitative experience as writers. And, where possible, look for those with journalistic experience. If this doesn’t convince you to hire journalists then take another look at this.