Stories

How I Learned the Hard Truth About Kill Fees

By Danielle Elliot November 7th, 2014

I like to think I can do anything, but a recent experience reminded me surviving as a freelancer often means swallowing that pride.

In late August, an editor offered me an assignment: He wanted to know if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other organizations were modeling the spread of Ebola; did this outbreak confirm what we thought we knew about the underlying mathematics of the disease? I was drawn to the publication and wanted to work with him, so I accepted the job without taking much time to consider the complexities of writing about computational models, and we set a deadline.

Had I taken longer to think it over, I would’ve recognized the editor wasn’t even sure if there was a full story. He’d suggested calling the CDC first, and I should’ve done so before accepting the assignment (instead of waiting until I was committed), but I also should have put in a few initial calls to see if there was enough for a narrative.

He had given me a subject, not a story. There’s a big difference. 

I also should’ve stopped to think about my upcoming schedule, which would’ve made it clear there really wasn’t going to be enough time to craft the piece. I was on vacation during that exchange, and two days after getting home, I had already agreed to cover the U.S. Open. I also had another longform story in the works, my sister’s engagement party, and a few Labor Day Weekend commitments. The best thing would’ve been to politely decline the opportunity, but my pride got in the way. I wanted to write for his publication.

As soon as I started interviewing sources, it was obvious the detail and data the editor wanted just weren’t available. What we were seeing with Ebola cases was not changing what we know about the underlying mathematics of the disease. It was consistent with previous outbreak, which minimized most of the narrative tension.

Then, another problem emerged. Most of the CDC’s data was embargoed for another two weeks. At that point, I should’ve immediately asked for an extension, but as you’ve probably figured out by now, pride cometh before the kill fee. Every outlet was covering Ebola, so I figured the editor wanted the story as soon as possible.

Had it been a less timely feature, I would’ve been okay asking for the extension. Instead, I submitted a draft, seriously stretching the limited information I had to work with. The editor responded with an edit memo—not an actual edit—saying the story had interesting bits but was missing the mark: It was too introductory for their audience, needed a buzzier lede, and required a bit of restructuring.

That’s when I realized I hadn’t completely understood the assignment. We both should have verified we were on the same page beforehand. I focused heavily on the development of the models and why they were so important. He felt their readers already understood the importance and that I could’ve skip those sections.

The next draft came closer, but still not close enough. He wanted a tighter focus and more details, and didn’t think he’d have enough time to help get it where he wanted. He then offered a kill fee, graciously attaching the edits he had made thus far.

Once again, my pride kicked in. I couldn’t let it go. Like an ex desperately trying to get the relationship back, I made the edits and told him they were in the Google document in case he was still interested. Additionally, I brought up the embargo. It was not my finest moment—and definitely didn’t leave me feeling proud.

Don’t. Ever. Do. This. Begging for an editor to take you back is just sad. Be confident someone else will want your skills and your story.

This was my first brush with kill fees. Based on conversations with friends and colleagues, I know they’re more common in the print world, and they can be demoralizing. One friend basically said kill fees are the reason she went back to a full-time job. But no matter how much they all hate kill fees, they agreed you have to accept them. Otherwise, you risk jeopardizing your relationship with the editor.

And remember, when you get a kill fee, all is not lost. After moving on, I pitched the edited draft to the Atlantic, along with a note explaining the CDC would be releasing the relevant numbers the next week. They accepted on the condition we wait to see if the story would change after the embargo passed. I updated the draft as soon as the numbers came out, and it was published later that day.

Image by Mark Higgins
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