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January 18, 2022

Navigating the journalism waiting game

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To know freelance journalism is to know that uncertainty is a part of the job description. But a more nuanced aspect we have to navigate is something that is rarely acknowledged in full: the waiting game. Whether you’ve been a freelancer for two months, two years, or two decades, there is a situation you are likely well-versed in. 

That is the hindrance of waiting. It’s a fundamental aspect of being a freelancer.

We wait for accepted pitches.

We wait for draft edits.

We wait for paychecks (sometimes for months).

We wait for client feedback (that sometimes never comes).

And the list goes on. 

But lately my freelance fear has been centered around waiting for my pieces to be published – an almost overwhelming emotion as soon as my final draft has been officially signed off by the editor. I’ve been feeling this so viscerally that I had to ask myself what is sitting underneath what could otherwise be classified as impatience or excitement. 

A few days ago, I tweeted that I wish I could see my pieces be published 2.5 seconds after I finish writing them. After all, the actively wild world of freelance Twitter is the perfect place to express grievances, small or large. Suddenly, my DMs and replies were filled with fellow freelancers expressing the same frustrations surrounding the waiting game. The discussions that ensued spoke to something much greater. There is a collective anxiousness surrounding freelancing, and awaiting publication is just one part of it. 

Why so? Well, I have personally worked with editors who are wonderfully open and communicative, from the beginning to the end of the process. These are the editors I continue to work with and would not hesitate to pitch to in the future. They are also a large component for why I continue to freelance: their support, encouragement and flow of advice on how to flourish. 

But in other instances, there have been major hiccups. I once poured my heart into a personal essay and did not hear back for weeks. Writing the piece was difficult enough – cathartic and painful in equal bouts – but not receiving any form of communication afterwards was far more frightening. I worried it wouldn’t be published. I feared the publication had lost interest. I scoured the internet to see if similar pieces had been written and rendered my experience null. The lack of communication I received exacerbated any existing restlessness. 

Patience is a virtue, but when livelihoods and careers depend on pieces sitting untouched on Google Drive for months, it’s unreasonable to expect it.

In the end, the piece was published and is one I continue to be proud of; yet, I still recall the few weeks I thought my efforts were futile. Similar experiences have followed suit, during which I receive edits months after writing a piece and lose contacts with essential sources. Other times, I’ve been on standby for edits over a period of weeks – and expected to return my changes within the hour once the editor(s) get back to me. 

And I’m not alone in this. Zinara Rathnayake, 26, says that delays can bring about unique challenges for a freelancer. 

“For me, waiting is extremely frustrating, especially when it’s being dragged for months. I’ve also been paid in full for a couple of stories that never got published. And both times, I was ghosted by the editors,” she says. “So when a story I submit doesn’t go live in 1-2 months, I have this fear and frustration that it might never go live, especially when there’s a timely hook to that story!” Like me, Zinara also spoke about how the waiting period can affect the piece itself: sources need to be chased (often with no results), and the urgency of timely pieces can dwindle. 

In a similar vein, Zinara says communicative and transparent editors are essential for her motivation as a freelancer. The “good working relationships” she has forged with editors are restorative. “I wouldn’t pitch the same publication again if they would take half a year to run my piece,” she tells me. “I think editors can ensure that edits are done within a few days or weeks after writers submit the first draft and assure us when it’s going live. I’ve worked with really great editors who do both.”

There is also the expectation of time. Sophia, whose name has been changed to ensure anonymity, is a 27-year-old journalist who says the lack of communication can lead to an imbalance in expectations and a subsequent tight turnaround. 

“I’ve often had someone drop me an email out of the blue wanting a turn-around within the hour (after they’ve been sitting on copy for weeks), but I have to take on other work to survive, so can’t just drop other work at the drop of the hat. There is a failure to recognise that freelance writers can’t just be on hold forever,” she says. 

The nervousness we feel as freelancers can be addressed with reasonable expectations of communication. Editors, undeniably, have busy lives too – but can support their freelancers in a number of ways. If I’m told of a tentative publication date, or even emailed a link to my piece after publication (a dream!), I feel exponentially more appreciated as a freelancer. 

Isabella Silvers, an Associate Editor at Hearst Studios, says, “Editors are massively busy, but I don’t think that’s any excuse for ghosting freelance writers for months on end. It’s important for editors to be transparent about those processes when they can.” 

Silvers says it’s all about compromise between both parties, and communication is the starting point on this journey. “As someone who lives with anxiety, I try and not exacerbate that in any freelancers I work with, even sending a note to say I’ve got their email and will reply properly later if I know I’m busy. I’m no angel, and I’ve definitely left people for a week or so without replying because of my own hectic workload, but a chaser email always pushes me to reply so don’t be afraid to send those.”

What I’ve learnt: Set reasonable expectations. Be transparent and ask for transparency in return. Forge a good working relationship with a n editor without undermining your value. Work with editors who see that value and understand the boundaries of your time.

Meera is a 23-year-old freelance writer and journalist, now based in London. She grew up between New York, Singapore, and India – all of which influence her work in their own ways.

She graduated with a degree in English Literature from Durham University and is now pursuing a degree in Digital Media at UCL. She writes about everything from identity, politics, business, culture, art, technology. Her personal essays have been published in The New York Times, Huffington Post India, and Slate Magazine. Her investigative and feature works have been seen across The Times, W Magazine, Vogue India, gal-dem, The Independent, and others.

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