The Freelance Writing Trenches: Writers Behaving Badly

Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Jo Seated on the Old Sofa from "The Most Beloved American Writer"
I stumbled upon a travel article about the region where I live last week. I'd been keeping my eyes out for the article, since early this spring, before we'd even opened for the season, the writer had made a special visit to my work place for the article.

Because my work place is a fairly new travel destination, we often get freelance writers in and I've learned that the way I would do things if  I was writing the article and the way other writers approach the assignment can be drastically different. On at least two occasions, there have been writers who wrote articles about the place without even bothering to talk to anyone connected with it; the articles were basically 500-800 word laundry lists of what the museum contains. An article without quotes? Boring!

But I digress . . .

So the other day, I read this article that I knew was coming out and my jaw dropped. No mention of my work place, while sources who had ferried around the author (and family) for three days, were hardly mentioned. The author confused recent wildfire incidents. I felt a twinge of disappointment, then of annoyance, and finally, anger. In writing the article, the author had broken just about every unspoken rule of the freelance writer. 

Don't want to be a writer behaving badly? Just follow these three rules:

Rule #1 - Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say:

From the get-go, the author lead sources to believe the article would be published in a very well-known national publication. While not technically untrue, the article was actually destined for the website of a specialty spin-off of the well-known national magazine. Would sources have bent so far backwards for the author if they'd known the article wouldn't even be published in print? Probably not.

As a freelance writer, you don't always know what the fate of your article will be. Once you submit your article, the article's fate is in the hands of your editor who may print the article in another issue than previously agreed upon or the article may never be published at all. If you're writing on speculation, you don't even know if your article will ever be published. But if you are gracious and kind and a good steward of your source's time, they'll be happy to talk with you for an hour or so even if you aren't sure where the article will end up.

And you owe it to your sources to be honest about what you do know about the article's fate. The only thing you achieve by making grandiose promises you can't deliver on are bad feelings. While I'm not upset that my work place didn't get a shout-out in the article (hey, I get word constraints), I did find it odd that the entire area where I live only got about three teensy, weensy paragraphs in the article which were half filled with incorrect information. I do find it rude when you accept a three-night complimentary stay at local lodging and then hardly eek out three paragraphs about that location. 

Which brings us to rule #2  . . .

Rule #2 - There's No Such Thing As a Free Lunch Vacation:

As a freelance writer, you will get free things. I just finished reading a complimentary copy of a great book that I'll blog about later this week. I have no problem with receiving free items for review purposes, especially since most reviewers have disclosure policies they use when reviewing free product.

But size does matter.

If you are a travel writer, you may accept discounts, but you should not accept free lodging, meals, tours, etc. etc. If you want to write unbiased copy for masses, you've got to pay, just like the masses do. You can absolutely can not be in debt to your source. If you're working for a large publication, they'll be reimbursing your travel expenses anyway. That's what makes the travel writing gig so sweet.

Rule #3 -You're Not That Smart . . . Fact Check:

Confusing the locations of our many, (extremely) well publicized wildfire incidents is just plain sloppy. I suspect the author didn't send a draft out to the article to sources to fact check because the author knew sources might not be too pleased by the pithy coverage offered in the article. However, a simply Google search would have quickly pointed out the author's errors.

By the way, you certainly are not obligated to send sources a draft of your article. After all, you're supposed to have gotten the facts right the first go around. But having sources look over an article for accuracy is a great way to nip mistakes in the bud and save you the shame of the publication printing a correction to your article.

Moral of the story: be straight with your sources, don't take free things, and fact check your article. If you don't, you make the rest of us writers look bad. Don't be a writer behaving badly. Don't spoil everyone else's fun.



  1. hehee... now I want to see the article!

  2. That's ultimately just makes the author look like an idiot, though. Hopefully it isn't widely spread article, that will detract from the tourism!

  3. oh, #2. how old was this person who was writing the article? i think that "no free stuff" kicked in *just* as we started our careers. i know a TON of writers who expect everything comped!

  4. Back in the day we called that "graft" or "grafting" and it was beyond frowned upon, you could get fired for doing it. It's never good, aside from dishonesty, it ruins it for the next writer who has a legit story with those who were burned by the first writer.
    Getting review products is necessary to give a solid review.
    This author was just unprofessional and naive, and I'll bet she/he created the story to fit their vacation.
    I think the publication should be made aware of what the author gained, the mistakes made and things missed. I'm sure they want solid and correct stories to keep their reputation in-tact.
    I'm dying to read the article too ...

  5. Boy,these rules sound like common sense to me. Can't believe any writer would think otherwise. Sorry that happened :(

  6. I think you make some good points here. But I agree, with the previous comment--- they should be common sense! I too want to see the article (marked up by you in red!)

  7. that is infuriating- you should have that writer's job and do a much better, more thorough job of it!

  8. I truly appreciate that you are so open and honest about it. Doing your best to ensure integrity of the writers guild. Chapeau!

  9. Well that just stinks about the article! Great tips and yes, common sense would have come in handy!


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