“All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.” In the immortal words of Aristotle. The question is does work have to make people miserable? (If you don’t know whether you hate your job, you can take this quiz to find out.) I propose that it doesn’t; we don’t all have to feel like drafthorses harnessed to pull wagons of concrete. Bearing in mind that drafthorses have no choice. We do.
If you are someone–let’s say an editor at a Great Big Huge Publishing Company or a vendor who provides materials to Great Big Huge Test Publishing Companies–who hires freelancers, considering how to increase the absorption and decrease the degradation will help you retain the best writers, will help you make sure that writers given the choice will choose to work with you.
This work of K-12 content development is inherently interesting, if not fascinating, and challenging (in a fun way) to writerly types. Item writers get to spend the day reading, analyzing literature, and then writing questions about text. This work we do combines so many activities that are naturally fun and deeply absorbing. So if the work is so great, why is it so difficult to retain the talent?
Because all but the most desperate writers will bail off the wave when the pain of doing the work exceeds the reward. By pain, I don’t mean physical pain, and by reward, I don’t only mean the money. Working for money is a fact of life, but money isn’t the primary motivation, and certainly not in this line of work. If a project offers an acceptable rate of pay, what are the other factors that might cause freelancers to balk?
Here are some possibilities:
- the feeling that their work is unappreciated, which we’ve discussed elsewhere
- absence of strong leadership
- poor communication and lack of necessary information
- uncertainty or unpredictability
When deciding whether to get on board with a project, I do a cost/benefits analysis that includes these categories:
- pay rate: This is self-explanatory, isn’t it?
- duration and stability of project: Generally speaking, it’s much more pleasant to work on a longterm project than one of short duration. Unless I’m desperate for work, I don’t like to take on small projects of, let’s say, two passages or 24 items, because the amount of work doesn’t compensate for the ramping up and admin time. That’s duration. By stability, I mean that in my experience, is it likely that this project will go steady? Or will the scope of work increase or decrease suddenly and unpredictably? Will the client shorten deadlines at the last minute? Or can I assume that what I sign on for is what I’m going to get?
- administrative ease: There are clients who pay like clockwork and those who require several reminders. There are those who pay immediately following the submission of the work, and those who employ a 30-, 45-, or even 60-day cycle. There are even some for which writers can’t submit invoices until the project is complete, which means that if the project is one of long duration, the writers may work for several months before they get paid after the conclusion of the project. This is not at all unusual.
- pain: This requires prior knowledge of the client and/or project, if it’s one that occurs annually or semi-annually. Pain to me is not necessarily pain to you; we all have our different tolerances and aggravations. For me, pain may be not receiving the information I need to do my job, or it may be lack of appreciation, or it may be those little remarks that people make sometimes that they may not intend as barbs still for whatever reason drive us crazy, or it may be a lack of freedom to experiment with new formats and item types. Micromanagement often bothers people, and so does a lack of strong leadership. What has in the past been a common pain point for me is working with inexperienced editors who don’t have enough experience to know how inexperienced they are. Another problem is not having direct access to a client; while this is rarely necessary (or even advisable) for newer item writers, who may very well benefit from a buffer, experienced item writers and their clients greatly benefit from open lines of communication. Experienced item writers bring a wealth of knowledge. They work for states and districts throughout the country and at companies throughout the industry. They often know from experience what works and what doesn’t. They may have ideas for solutions to problems that clients lack the experience to solve on their own. When experienced item writers don’t have an opportunity to talk directly with clients, everyone loses.
- pleasure: This may or may not require prior knowledge. Sometimes it’s a gamble. A few times I signed on to projects because they sounded like so much fun, and they ended up being uphill trudges. In the snow. Barefoot. At the moment, the pleasure of my work is such that I’m so happy working that it’s difficult to put it aside at the end of the day.
- client likability: This is so important. I find that the more likable the client, the happier I am. As with pain and pleasure, client likability is subjective. One who holds the reins lightly works best for me, but this may not be true for every writer. That isn’t the only contributing factor; it helps so much when we work with people whose company we enjoy, whose humor amuses us, whose news interests us, and when we work with people who demonstrate interest in our well-being where it intersects with their responsibilities. I find that I cannot help liking someone whose words and actions show concern for me, while I cannot help chafing when I notice that a vendor or client has no interest in the well-being of the writers.
When deciding whether to undertake a project, I assign that project a number from a scale of 0 to 5 for each category. Needless to say, the higher the score, the more likely I am to accept the work.
If you are a freelancer item writer, and you don’t perform a cost/benefits analysis in deciding whether to accept work, you should. I adopted this strategy after years of haphazard decisions about which work to take, decisions that had more to do with my schedule and whether I had time or how insecure I felt about my income than whether I had the inclination and stamina. We freelancers often make the mistake of accepting all work that comes our way, because we know we need to make hay while the sun shines, but then we pay for that mistake. We overcommit, and then we make mistakes or we miss deadlines, or we pay a high cost in terms of our mental and physical health. Approaching the decision thoughtfully helps us do the best work we can do. Working on a project that’s a bad fit for us turns out badly for everyone involved.
On the other side of the fence, when we as editors and vendors find that it’s difficult to staff a project, we may need to consider what we can do to adjust how we lead and manage. Yes, this industry has serious flaws in its foundation. Yes, the trajectory of pay rates has been in decline for the last few years. But! There remain specific steps we can take to increase the reward and decrease the pain:
- demonstrate appreciation: We need to do this frequently and authentically.
- be strong leaders: When a writer has a question, we need to know or find the answer. We should avoid saying, “I don’t know.” When we lead projects, we need to provide sufficient specific information upfront–pay rates, scope of work, schedule, project duration–so that writers will have the information they need in order to make a decision whether to get on board, and then once the boat is in motion, we need to continue to provide information so that writers have the information they in order to keep rowing. It’s a bit disheartening to be told to plunge ahead without specifications, submit the work, and then be told that one needs to redo one’s work because it doesn’t meet the needs of the project. A detailed feedback loop is a necessary element of strong leadership. Writers need to be told what they are doing right (this may be private or public) and what they need to fix (this should be private) as quickly as possible so that they can use the information to guide ongoing work. Swift feedback may not always be possible, but this is a goal to aspire to. And experienced writers need less feedback and less frequent feedback than inexperienced writers; for them, it may be simply a matter of asking for occasional revisions or corrections, which is fine.
- communicate effectively: Too much communication can be as annoying as too little. We want to strike a balance and always consider what the writers need in order to do the best job possible. If the project is of long duration, it’s a good idea to check in once in a while and ask writers how work is going, if they have any questions, if there is anything that they find overly burdensome. It’s helpful for editors and vendors to get to know their writers and what works for the writers. This step doesn’t take a lot of work but goes a long way in building loyalty. And we should feel free to be ourselves. Not one of us is a robot. We all have lives beyond this work we do. Professionalism doesn’t require that we compartmentalize and treat everyone with cold distance; only that we treat everyone with courtesy and respect. A little warmth also goes a long way. We shouldn’t be afraid of getting to know each other. Usually, the more we know each other, the more we like each other, which only means the better we work together and the more we enjoy the work. Basically, we need to stay human. In a good way.
- be steady and reliable: As much as we can. This work depends so much on factors beyond any of our control. The internal funding might disappear overnight. The parent company might decide to veer in a different direction for marketing purposes. Change happens. If there is anything we can do to lay a solid foundation for writers, we should do it.
Ultimately, we have to stop viewing freelancers as if a necessary annoyance–truthfully, how often have we described our job as project lead as nothing but babysitting?–and think of them as humans. When we treat them more like humans and less like resources to exploit, they’ll come back for more. Freelancers need the work, and this work that we do is fun work. We can (I think; I hope) make it less degrading and less painful.