Deadly sins of freelancing

by Lesley Evans Ogden


Relationships. Every successful freelancer knows that healthy professional relationships are everything. So if things aren’t going so well, perhaps it’s time to take a close look at whether you might be doing something that is annoying your editor/producer/client.

To dive into the pet peeves that drive these people nuts, I contacted a few editors – a completely non-random sample of people I know – and asked them to tell me what most annoys them when working with freelancers.

Remember, these individuals represent the people that give you contracts, skillfully improve your work, and send you a paycheque, so finding out what really gets under their skin could be really valuable. Maybe even lucrative. So read on…


Laura Helmuth, Science and health editor at Slate magazine

One of my main peeves is unclear subject lines. Editors get a tremendous number of emails every day (just like everybody does) and it’s really tough to tell what is a pitch from a legitimate freelancer and what is junk that we can ignore. Freelancers should always put “pitch” or “story idea” in their subject line or, to be even more clear, “freelance pitch” to specify that you’re not a PR firm pitching some idiotic new energy drink.

Relatedly, if you have a back-and-forth email exchange with an editor, be sure to put a fresh subject line when you get in touch with the next story idea. So many freelancers just continue an unrelated conversation from a month ago—which I understand; they were just looking for my email and hit “reply” once they found it. But I can’t tell that it’s a new idea.

Also relatedly, one pitch idea per message. That makes it much easier to reply to each rather than having to make a decision on all the ideas at once.

Other than subject lines, this is not exactly a peeve or deadly sin but an encouragement: It’s OK to pitch. I get a lot of people apologizing for pitching again soon after they pitch an initial story, or apologizing for sending a few pitches within a short period of time. If you have a story idea you think would be a good fit for me, please pitch anytime. Each pitch gets evaluated independently. No need to apologize for thinking of me when you have a good story, really! Again, this isn’t a peeve—I overapologize, too, just like a lot of people. I just want freelancers to know that they’re not bugging us. (And if some editor does feel bugged, tough! It’s all part of the job.)

The truly deadly sin is to be mean to your editor. You may disagree with the edits and think your editor is a ignorant jerk, and you may be right! But listening to you complain about your editor is what your friends and pets are for. Get it out of your system before you reply to your editor. This is not to say it’s a deadly sin to edit an editor’s edits—that’s usually fine, at least if you don’t just restore the original language or otherwise ignore the initial edit. But if you disagree with where a story is going, do so without being insulting, and with the knowledge that the editor is trying to help.

Generally, editors hate surprises. If you propose a story and then do the reporting and the story turns out to be different than you thought, don’t despair—that happens often. Just let your editor know. The story may still work, or maybe the editor can find a third way that will still work for her publication. Don’t try to fake the original story or turn in, unannounced, a story you two hadn’t agreed on. If you need more time for a story or if any other problems come up, like conflicts of interest or difficult subjects, let your editor know. They can almost always give you extra time if necessary or other support. And whatever the problem is, an experienced editor will have seen it all before.




Jude Isabella, Editor, Hakai Magazine.

The most obvious: freelancers who don’t read the magazine. Or, freelancers who don’t snoop around and look to see if anyone else has published the same story as the one the freelancer is pitching.

Freelancers who are assigned a story based on the fact that they will be there, in the field, and then give no indication in their copy that they’ve been in the field. Write down smells, sounds, etc!




Eagranie Yuh, Senior Editor, Edible Vancouver and Wine Country.




Beth Baker, Editor, BioScience.

I feel lucky to have had good relationships with the freelancers here at BioSci.  That said, a couple things that come to mind:

People who are consistently late with their stories–and REALLY late–so that it feels like no matter how many weeks I build into the schedule, they seem to have a reason they can’t come even close to the agreed-upon deadline.  My wish is that freelancers would be realistic about their own schedules and not agree to a deadline they can’t meet–or that makes them rush thru my story to complete.

Writers who are lazy about getting the story, who don’t do the obvious reporting they need to do, who are timid about interviewing people.  For example, someone was writing about new social media outlets for scientists, but they hadn’t bothered to actually go on the sites and give real-life examples.

The last one: writers who are needy and send me about a zillion emails that I don’t really need to get.

As I say, these don’t happen often, but they are annoying when they do!




Richard Fisher, Editor, BBC Future.

In general, I think it would be unfair for me to gripe too much about freelancers, because when it comes to frustrations they probably get the raw end of the deal by having to always be on call, waiting weeks for pitches to be answered, and being part of an industry that struggles to pay them well or on time. I understand how difficult it can be at times.

Having said that, a few bugbears!

– Reversing changes in an edit. It was changed for a reason; if there’s disagreement, it should be the start of a conversation to reach compromise.

– Lack of curiosity. The worst writers are the ones who aren’t interested in what they’re reporting. It shows.

– Email interviews. It’s lazy, and editors can tell. People don’t speak like that. Phone or face-to-face conversation builds rapport and allows you to ask questions and get information you wouldn’t get otherwise. Your piece is less good if you use email.

[Disclosure: all of these pet peeves were obtained via email, with apologies to Richard ;]

– One line pitches. “saw this paper, would you like something on X?”

– Double spaces 🙂




So there you have it. Did you learn something valuable? Do you have other suggestions? Your ideas are welcome.




Based in Vancouver’s burbs to the east, Lesley Evans Ogden is a former nerdy bird scientist turned (equally nerdy) journalist-producer. The columnist of Deception at BBC Earth, she also contributes at BBC Future, New Scientist, Earth Touch, and Natural History, and aspires to write and produce more for radio and TV. Say hi on Twitter @ljevanso.


Posted on August 5, 2015 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Frederic Hore
    on February 28, 2016 at 1:34 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Thank you for this superb inside look at what editors say, and their tips to get above the crowd. I rarely hear from editors about declined stories, unless I ask pointed questions, and even then, I know they are harried and have a lot of other things to do than answer my queries.

    Especially liked the tip to put in subject line: “Freelancer Pitch” + subject.

    Frederic Hore,

  2. Written by Louise
    on June 8, 2016 at 7:16 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Very helpful! Thanks for posting.
    Your blog is great overall!

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