Earlier this year, I faced a situation that’s increasingly common among freelance journalists.
I had filed a story of about 1,700 words. And then I received a slew of questions, requests, and queries from my editor. By the time I had answered them all, across eight rounds of edits, it was close to 2,500 words.
Of course, going back and forth with an editor on a story is a vital part of what we do. But as budgets have gotten tighter, and the calculations we have to make as freelancers more complex, I and many other reporters have adopted a term for projects that demand more — more words, more reporting, more interviews, picture research, and even sidebars — without any mention of additional pay: scope creep.
“I’ve had instances where someone wanted a 500-word story, and when you give them the 500-word story, they say, ‘There’s so much more I want to know. Can you add in three more quotes? Can you add in a sidebar?” says freelancer Adrienne Samuels Gibbs, who has written for Forbes, Essence and Ebony. “Now your 500-word story is 1,500 words. That’s a different assignment.”
Wudan Yan, a Seattle-based independent journalist was working on a story about free universal healthcare for undocumented migrants in Thailand in 2016. During the edits, she was asked to compare that policy against nations like Germany or Sweden. It was a simple question but created 10 to 15 hours of extra work, calling up organizations and sources across continents. The fee remained $300.
As a young freelancer, hungry for bylines, Yan went with it. But now she has realized that demanding endless extra work is a pattern among certain outlets and editors. “You can’t expect magazine or investigative-style reporting for a story that at most you’re only paying $500 for,” she says.
Editors, of course, are usually well-intentioned. “In some cases,” says Amanda Mascarelli, managing editor of Sapiens, a publication focusing on anthropology for a broad audience, “we thought a story would fit into 2,400 words but actually to do justice to it, it balloons.” Or, a story may turn into something that goes beyond a pitch because that’s where the real story is, and an editor may not know this until after a draft comes back.
But this can put freelancers especially in a tough position. “Staff writers are salaried, after all, so they can take time discovering where a story should go,” says Jill Neimark, a freelance writer of several decades. “There’s a pressure even among editors to stick with tight budgets and produce the same quality material, and the editor ends up with no apparent choice except to exploit the writer,” Neimark says.
Minneapolis-based writer Tyler Newman has refrained from negotiating pay or pushing back if a story goes beyond the original scope because he feared editors would not want to work with him again. “Just the fact that the power is shifted to editors, it’s hard to push back,” he says.
In the best cases, editors acknowledge the additional work and are willing to pay more for it—and this is a godsend for freelancers. “It’s a gesture of good faith,” Neimark says.
In February, freelancer Suzanne Zuppello managed to re-negotiate pay for what was supposed to be a 2,000-word piece about Instagram influencers selling drugs and medical devices. Word count had doubled, and along with follow-up interviews with her original sources, Zuppello had to add two interviews with government agencies and go over the story with the outlet’s lawyers.
After seeking guidance from other writers in an online freelancers’ group, Zuppello asked for $1,800—double the fee she originally accepted. She got an extra $300, but it felt like a win. “The editor did acknowledge the extra work, that it’s gone beyond the scope of the original story,” she says.
It’s why Sapiens changed their freelance contract in 2017 to reflect payment for published word, rather than assigned word count. “We realized we were going over word count, and in some cases, significantly over the assigned word count,” Mascarelli, a former freelancer herself, says. “Because we are paying per word, it didn’t feel right to have an arbitrary number dictate the final payment.”
Neimark says outlets that pay per published word bring freelancers relief. “It’s like, thank God, I can write my best piece now,” she tells me.
And freelancers themselves are finding ways to work better with editors. Gibbs adds a research fee if it feels like an assignment might involve scope creep. Yan protects herself by negotiating, for stories paid by the word, that she’ll either be paid for the assigned word count or the final word count, whichever is higher. (That was partly a response to the opposite problem—when stories got cut, she’d get paid less than the agreed rate.)
As Yan put it: “Editors should always come back with a way to increase the rate. If you can’t do that rate increase, then change your standards.”
Correction: A previous version of this piece misspelled Amanda Mascarelli’s name.