My full-time freelancing career started after I was fired from a staff writing job at a teen entertainment magazine. I deserved it. I had been phoning it in at the magazine for awhile, as I was more interested in my growing freelance writing career. And that night, reeling from having lost my job, I was both terrified and exhilarated by the idea of freelancing full time.
So I emailed an editor I liked at a well-paying magazine that I enjoyed writing for.
I wrote what was probably a 3,000-word email, treating this editor as someone in between a career counselor and one of my old college buddies. I talked about how I’d appreciate as many new assignments as he could give me, but for some reason, I felt like I couldn’t possibly lie and say I quit my job. So I discussed my firing in vivid detail, vowed to persevere, and may have ended the email with the words, “truth, justice and the American way.” I wouldn’t be surprised if I mentioned my fourth grade crush on Ann Jasper and my fear of ducks. And when I sent off the email, I was confident my editor would give me a lot of sympathy assignments. Perhaps even a regular column.
Instead, he sent back a succinct reply: “Geoff, I don’t care.”
It was a harsh lesson, but an important one nonetheless. Sometimes you can overshare.
Unfortunately, most advice for interacting with clients often boils down to that old adage: Just be yourself. It’s mostly sound advice, but when you’re a freelance writer engaging with a client, you often can’t help but wonder: Just how much of myself should I be?
How much personality is too much?
Ellen Cannon has been a top editor at publications like Bloomberg, Bankrate.com, and QuinStreet, Inc., and, most recently, has been freelancing for NerdWallet.com. Cannon believes it’s a good idea for writers and editors to get to know each other—at least a little.
“I usually get to know my writers personally. It helps me to know what they do well,” Cannon said.
For instance, Cannon said that one writer she worked with had parents who were diagnosed with Alzheimers and who was, as a result, knowledgeable about the minutiae of health care for senior citizens. So when Cannon needed someone to cover elder care issues, she turned to that writer.
Cannon also recalls a freelance writer whose husband passed away from cancer. “She had two or three small children and was pregnant with their next,” Cannon said. “She needed the money and wanted to work. We threw every bit of work we could at her.”
But while most freelancers are comfortable disclosing certain information, such as personal knowledge of a topic or special medical circumstances, others are more hesitant to reveal much more than their name and work.
Cable Neuhaus is another long-time editor turned freelance writer: He used to be an editor for Entertainment Weekly, the creative director for Newsmax Media, and was the editor-in-chief at Folio. Now, he freelances for publications like The Saturday Evening Post, where he is a columnist. Neuhaus said that when he was starting out as a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh, he would get the occasional invitation to have dinner with an editor in New York, and he was often reluctant to accept.
“My feeling was that nothing good could happen if I met an editor in person if I was already writing for them,” Neuhaus said. “I could order the wrong kind of food, or say something that somehow they find offensive, and then you’ve undermined your relationship, which was predicated purely on the writing.”
Cannon also acknowledged that some editors may not be all that interested in knowing much about their writers: “I know plenty of editors where I would mention that a writer lives in Alaska, and they would say, ‘Oh, really?’ And I’d think, ‘You were working with this writer for six years, and you never asked where they’re from?'”
Make no mistake: As my story demonstrates, putting your personality out there can backfire. Lisa Tabachnick, a Toronto-based freelancer who has written for over a decade, has heard plenty of cases where revealing personal circumstances have met with little more than a shrug.
She explains that she’s known fellow freelance writers who have mentioned that they couldn’t make a certain meeting or fulfill some duty due to a parenting commitment, only to have their explanation poorly received. “I never let childcare or school functions be the reason I can’t take a call or submit work. I simply say I have an appointment,” Tabachnick said.
If you feel that it’s best not to get personal, you may want to check the way you use social media. You may be showcasing your personality or personal life to clients, whether you intend to or not.
Monica Bhide, a freelance writer based out of Washington, D.C., recalls that she once posted on Twitter that she was very busy. That tweet had some unintended consequences.
“A regular editor who assigns me work told me she pulled away because she did not want to overwhelm me,” Bhide said. “I think overall it pays to be personable and polite, but there is fine line between making sure the client is informed versus sharing too much information.”
Compromise and adapt
Despite her Twitter experience, Bhide still believes that that it’s smart to reveal that there’s a human being behind the byline. She says that revealing at least some of your personality “is critical.” It doesn’t have to be much, either: “A little goes a long way,” Bhide explained.
Neuhaus confirms that in his editing career, this was often the case. When it came to cold pitches in particular, a writer’s personality was often the deciding factor to them getting an assignment over someone who pitched like a robot.
When interacting with a client, knowing what to say and what not to say comes down to doing a quick study on the person, says Anne Dullaghan, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who specializes in corporate writing.
“If somebody I’m working with is a little frosty or more formal than usual, l tailor how I talk and what I talk about to the person,” she said. “Like all writers, we tailor our pitches to the needs of the job, so it’s really the same thing with interacting with clients.”
She offers up the example of a recent interview with someone who apologized for the noise her two-year-old was making in the background. “So we got into what it’s like to work and have a toddler, and I mentioned how I have a 19-year-old now,” Dullaghan said. “So you can share certain things and develop a rapport.”
But there’s really no one way to approach a client, Dullaghan said. Whatever the small talk, if there is any, “is custom-made every time.”
Don’t overthink it
If you worry about every word you’re going to say to a client, you aren’t going to present yourself well. Even if you do end up cringing and wondering if you’ve come off as less than professional, it isn’t the end of the world. Several days after I received the “I don’t care” email, I sent the same editor several pitches. He gave me an assignment, and I wrote for him several times for the next several months.
Almost twenty years later, having not spoken to him since, I contacted him to see if he remembered my 3,000-word email and his response.
“I wrote that?” asked Neuhaus, who, yes, was the editor at Entertainment Weekly lucky enough to receive my treatise. “That doesn’t sound like me.”
It doesn’t, but Neuhaus had no time to play therapist. Or maybe he was just trying to teach me a lesson. If so, it was a good one. Just be yourself. But be careful doing it.