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Thursday, April 5, 2012
Freelance Toolbox

Getting fired without a boss

By Crai S. Bower

The email subject line reads: “Wrapping Up.” It could be a quick editor’s note letting me know my most recent article is ready to publish, but I know better. This particular heading won’t flow through the “Good job; next up?” vein. I know it’s over with this editor, this decent word rate, this direct deposit, this lengthy contract that still promises thousands of dollars in work. “Wrapping Up” equals “You’re fired!”

One of the great myths of freelancing is that we never have to suffer the indignity of getting fired. Sure, we may lose a client occasionally (easily rationalized: “We didn’t see eye-to-eye”) or an editor may go cold. But isn’t a big perk of freelance life that we avoid the chilling call into an office to get “let go”? Not so.

In reality, we freelancers encounter more confidence-challenging changes in our work patterns than just about any profession. Like NFL players, we get paid to play. If we don’t play or, according to our editor-general manager, play well enough, we get waived.

Losing this contract engenders inevitable ambivalence, a cauldron of conflicts that includes self-loathing for screwing up as well as renewed frustration with the salaried editor-freelance writer hierarchy. First, it was my fault. I’d overcommitted, allowing a soft deadline to languish. I’d also made a couple of careless errors, misspelling a subject’s common name (Who spells his name that way anyway?!) and misplacing major cities, the latter inexcusable.

But I’d also expected more going into the agreement than I got. Like every writer, I take pride in turning in clean content, and like every writer who produces scores of pieces each year, I appreciate fact checkers and editors for catching those occasional gaffes. But no fact checker existed. I don’t mind typing without a net, but I like to know this ahead of time even if it shouldn’t make any difference.

I’d also expected a travel blog I would control, an opportunity to add some editorial voice to the standard round-ups and topical fare. I’d resigned from a couple of other blogs as part of my no-compete in my contract, but the new blog never materialized.

I certainly don’t blame my former editor for my mistakes (though I did send off one acrimonious email about never getting the chance to blog). We on the freelance circuit all know just how inequitable the freelance writer-editor relationship remains. Last year, just two weeks after being taken to lunch by my editor and publisher to celebrate a travel writing award, I was upbraided for a slightly sloppy piece and warned that I could lose future assignments if I stayed slipshod.

Getting fired sucks, whether from across the table or via email. Our freelance gigs are unpredictable enough without screwing up the opportunities for ourselves. A month has passed since “Wrapping Up.” Though I miss those direct deposits, I know I must take this experience and channel the lousy, lingering feelings to become a better employee, even if my only real boss is myself.

Crai S. Bower contributes scores of stories to more than 30 publications and online sources. He appears regularly on NPR member station KUOW, American Forces Radio and KCPQ-TV (Tribune Broadcasting Syndicate). Contact him via his website at FlowingStreamWriting.net or Twitter: @craisbower

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