Monday, July 5, 2010

Introducing the Freelancer from Hell

I've been hearing a lot about freelancing lately - it's getting more and more popular as staffs are cut but copy is still needed. It makes sense. I freelance. You probably freelance, too.

But I hear a lot of authors offer advice to newbie freelancers. Be tenacious, they say. Don't give up. Don't give in.

Solid advice to a point, I believe, but I have to wonder if any of these authors have ever worked the other side of the fence - you know, as editors. I have. And I have a few freelancers who still appear in my nightmares occasionally. I doubt anyone would duplicate their behavior, but I swear I'm not making these stories up.

So let me introduce you to one of my favorite Freelancers From Hell. I'll call her "The Diamond in the Rough."

This freelancer was tenacious. She called me every single day, usually with story ideas that were borderline interesting. She sent in story samples that were not that great, and when I told her, politely, that she didn't really seem to know a lot about journalism and AP style, she informed me she was a "diamond in the rough" and that she was hoping I could help her improve.

Yeah. About that. Not to be mean, but I kind of had my own staffers to worry about. I really didn't have time for stone polishing. But she kept calling. And I gave in. She wrote a few small stories. They weren't that great. But frankly, I needed the copy.

Eventually, I let her do one of her own stories - a simple human interest piece about a woman who had an extensive herb garden.

She turned it in. It was okay. Not great, but okay. The woman had 220 herbs in her garden, according to the story. That seemed like a hell of an herb garden, so I read it back to her.

The garden was amazing, she told me. So we printed the story. Two days later, the herb lady herself called. She had 22 types of herbs in her garden. So I called the freelancer. "How could that happen?" I asked her. "Did you not notice the difference in the size of garden?" She was defensive, and swore that was what the subject told her. But then she hemmed and hawed. "Well, I didn't actually see it," she eventually told me. "I just talked to her by phone. I guess I could have misheard."

So annoying. She hadn't lied to me, per se, but I still felt like I'd been had. That was that, I thought. Bye bye, freelancer.

But she kept calling. She was very sorry, she said. She'd do better. Writing was her life. Would I please give her another chance? Please? Please? She called about art exhibits. About Branson shows. Finally, after weeks of daily torture, I gave in.

I know - stupid, stupid me. Editors today probably know better. But I was a sucker.

One more chance, I told her. That's it. She told me she would be interviewing this Branson entertainer after his show, to do a little human interest piece on him. So when the phone rang soon after, I assumed it would be her. It wasn't. It was the entertainer's assistant. She was very worried. It seems the entertainer didn't have time to talk to my freelancer, and the freelancer lost it. Just lost it.

My freelancer allegedly said that if the entertainer didn't talk to her, then the paper was going to essentially run a hatchet piece on the show. The assistant was very upset. Was this true? It was just that he was very tired - he would be happy to reschedule.

I was speechless. I was horrified. As a matter of fact, I was in disbelief. I had the woman describe my freelancer, to make sure it wasn't somebody pretending to be her. But it was her. So I assured the assistant that no hatchet piece was planned, and that was not the way we did business.

Then I politely called said freelancer and made an appointment for her to come into my office. I put a stickie note on my computer reminding myself not to kill her.

When she came in, I didn't mince words. "I heard you threatened (so and so) in Branson with a negative article if he wouldn't talk to you," I said evenly. "Can you tell me what happened there?"

She burst into tears. "I'm so sorry," she said. Stupidly, I thought the apology was directed at me. But she continued. "I'm so sorry, Jesus," she said, and she dropped to her knees.

Um, what?

Then she looked at me. "I know this isn't the way Jesus wants me to act. I know he's not proud of me now." I didn't know if that was directed to me or not. I really didn't want to be accused of talking for Jesus. I just wanted out of of that office, and out of this freelance relationship pretty much more than anything in the world.

Eventually, I got out. I didn't kill her. I hope I didn't speak for Jesus. I did sever our relationship. And I did have my assistant answer the phone for the next two weeks - you know, just in case.


  1. My favorite freelancer-from-hell story involved a photographer in Australia. He was hired to shoot a solar car race in the Australian outback. It was strongly suggested that he have a photo with a kangaroo in it. Well, he delivered on the 'roo and the photo was printed in papers worldwide. But then a day later, an editor at a U.S. paper called and asked if the kangaroo was real because it looked a bit too perfect. The photo stringer was asked about it, and he confessed right away that the kangaroo was actually a stuffed animal. He noted that when he was hired, the photo editor never specified that he shoot a REAL kangaroo, so he brought the fake one along in his car trunk and positioned it in the background when the solar cars raced by him. Freelancers from hell usually produce correctives from hell.

  2. Ohhhh, the "You never told me!" defense. But of course!!

    I think that's why plastic bags say, "Do not place over head," and why those styrofoam peanuts have "Do not eat," printed on them.

    You know, just in case . . .

  3. Ahahahah! I remember the freelancer from hell as though it were yesterday. She called after I assumed the mantle, figuring I'd never heard of her I suppose. Wrong. I just firmly said that I wasn't hiring any new freelancers and abruptly hung up. BTW, it's people like her who've made my little biz a success. A former editor for a freelance writer? Easy sell.