Eight thoughts on what makes a great project manager (or, how to make your freelancer love you)
In my previous post I gave some tips for freelance editors, proofreaders and indexers on how to keep getting rehired by clients. A contact subsequently suggested a mirror article on how those clients could improve in their dealings with freelancers.
Given that client relations are a perennial bugbear of freelancers, this seemed an interesting topic to tackle. So, here are my thoughts on what editorial project managers (PMs) – including me – can do to stop their freelancers jumping ship and swimming off towards more appealing prospects, and also how PMs can support the freelance community more generally.
For brevity I’ll shape my thoughts around a traditional publishing scenario, but my aim is for these points to be relevant to all sorts of contexts in which clients send text out to freelancers for them to work their magic.
1. Look at the manuscript
The first step in project management is to actually look at the manuscript, in detail, for at least the amount of time it takes to drink a cup of tea.
Read random chunks (not just sentences – whole paragraphs and pages). Ensure each chapter contains all mandatory elements (abstract, notes, references …). Check whether mentions of artwork match up with the images that have been supplied. Find examples of where the manuscript needs to be changed to conform to house or series style. Examine whether the referencing style is consistent. Look for clues as to whether the spellings and use of terminology are consistent and appropriate.
Granted, you won’t get to know the manuscript anything like as well as your freelancers (and you shouldn’t try). However, by carrying out these checks you’ll achieve five things:
- If anything major is missing, you’ll be able to chase it immediately.
- You’ll be able to write better briefs, and warn your freelancers of idiosyncrasies they might not have thought of (e.g. if they’re not as familiar with the series style as you are).
- You’ll gain a decent overview of the project and begin to learn what details you’ll need to keep an eye on as the manuscript passes from copy-editor to designer to typesetter to proofreader to indexer to printer (and perhaps others).
- You’ll be able to make reasonably sure the budget offered for the job is proportionate to the level of work that needs to be done.
- If there are any later wrangles over the budget, you’ll be in a better position to arbitrate fairly.
By doing all this, you’ll set yourself up to help your freelancers by being a true project manager, not an emailer-of-files-and-chaser-of-deadlines.
(I should insert a caveat here – that it’s possible for a PM to become too involved in a project; but that’s a subject for another post.)
2. Choose the right tools for the job
You might be more comfortable with your existing freelancers, but will they really do the best job with this particular subject matter? Your list of freelancers should include people who are competent in each of the subject areas you handle, especially if you deal with specialist material.
Trying to coerce a good result out of a group of people who don’t fully know what they’re doing sets everybody up for a bumpy ride and can only end in a poorer-quality product.
3. Tell your freelancers what you need from them
A good brief should be an essential part of the process of commissioning a freelancer, yet it’s one of the things freelancers most frequently bemoan the lack of.
Don’t be tempted to try to spell out too much in your brief – you’ll just tie yourself in knots, and a good freelancer should understand the basics of what’s required of them anyway. (That being said, if your publisher or institution doesn’t have a house style guide or a specification of freelancers’ responsibilities, you might want to go into a bit more detail about what the job entails than you otherwise would.)
Just remember that the point of a brief is to convey all the information specific to the particular book (or project) that the freelancer needs know to produce the result you want.
4. Treat your freelancers respectfully
In my previous post I commented on how freelancers should observe basic standards of polite communication. Naturally, the same is true of PMs.
Keep your freelancers informed whenever there are delays or changes of circumstances, and don’t assume that your project takes priority over everything else. Don’t be blasé about deadlines and expect the freelancer to move their workload around to catch up the time that’s been lost.
Many freelancers pull off extraordinary feats to help a client catch up a lagging schedule, but never assume that they will or can do so. Always request, as far in advance as you can, and always say thank you.
5. Be the hub of the wheel
Even if they don’t directly communicate, your freelancers and the author will need to convey information to each other. The PM’s role to sit in the middle of that process, acquiring information and dishing it out as appropriate.
So, if the author voices concerns about the manuscript when you email to introduce yourself, pass them on to the copy-editor. If issues come up during copy-editing that might affect later stages, make a note to include them in the proofreader’s and indexer’s briefs later. Make sure everyone receives the copy-editor’s style sheet. If an illustration is substituted, tell everybody. Make sure any queries that are passed on to the author (and vice versa) are clear and that they don’t come back unanswered. And anticipate problems wherever possible – don’t wait for things to crash to a halt.
If your freelancers are promptly given everything they need, they will be able to concentrate on the bit of the job they excel at: engaging with the manuscript.
6. Learn the lingo
I will cover the giving of feedback below, but even worse than a PM who doesn’t give decent feedback is a PM who doesn’t know whether a freelancer has done a good job (until, perhaps, a reader or the author complains). PMs come from all sorts of backgrounds, and some may be less familiar with the nitty-gritty of what copy-editors, proofreaders and indexers actually do.
Consider getting yourself some basic training in copy-editing, proofreading and indexing. Read freelancers’ blogs (some of the best are listed on the blogroll of Louise Harnby’s excellent Proofreader’s Parlour). Get into the habit of frequenting freelancers’ online haunts (e.g. forum boards, LinkedIn groups, Twitter).
Investing just a little time in these things will enable you to make better connections between what you want as a client and what freelancers are trying to bring to the job (these should be the same thing but they’re frequently not, and each side can learn from the other).
This will help you to (a) more effectively communicate the result you want from freelancers, (b) assess freelancers’ work better and (c) give feedback that engages with freelancers’ concerns.
7. Never, ever use a freelancer (or other supplier) as a scapegoat
If the worst happens and the author (or someone else) accuses one of your freelancers of interfering with or neglecting the manuscript, don’t automatically go on the offensive against the freelancer. It’s easy to do this almost without realising.
Instead, step back and avoid taking a side at all. Ask for some time to review the issue and speak to the freelancer. Ask for her take on the author’s complaints (supported by her examples from the manuscript, if appropriate). Consider whether responsibility for the problem might partly or wholly lie elsewhere. Rarely will you find that it’s an open-and-closed case of freelancer negligence.
If, as is likely, it turns out that the picture is more balanced than the author originally presented it, politely say so. Naturally, the publisher will be concerned not to get on the wrong side of the freelancer, but this must be balanced with a concern for the freelancer’s interests. The freelancer should not lose out because of ill-founded accusations, and in this kind of situation (in which the freelancer usually has very little power or voice) it’s your responsibility to politely but firmly advocate for them. Doing anything else is unprofessional and unfair, when the freelancer’s reputation and career are potentially at stake.
8. Recognise that you’re nurturing the freelancers of tomorrow
Naturally, all freelancers have a responsibility to get themselves trained and keep their skills up to date. And there’s a minimum standard of competence that a PM will accept. However, the attitude that the freelancer must bring everything to the table while the PM brings very little is only productive up to a point. There are certain expectations and details that freelancers can only learn from interaction with and feedback from PMs – essentially, from learning on the job.
If you treat freelancers as disposable commodities, and don’t offer them the support or remuneration they need to progress in their careers, they will go elsewhere, or else fail to reach their potential and drop out of the business altogether. This can lead to a culture of high turnover with few freelancers going on to become true experts.
In addition, there’s a whole other non-traditional market for editors out there (among self-publishers and businesses), and more and more editors are realising that this group can offer great rates of pay and, in many cases, a closer and more rewarding working relationship. At its most extreme, this could create a dearth of talent for the more traditional forms of publishing.
- Always give feedback. Whether it’s good or bad (probably a bit of both), feedback is a gift and enables the freelancer to improve her own skills and do a better job for you next time. I’m as guilty as anyone of failing to make time to send proper feedback, but it’s something we should all be doing.
- Whenever you can, keep hiring the same freelancers. If one does a less-than-brilliant job, don’t dismiss her out of hand. Offer constructive feedback and work a little more closely with her in the next project than you usually would. The step up from theory-based qualifications to understanding what real-life publishers and PMs need is huge, and who’s going to give the freelancer a helping hand if not for those very publishers and PMs?
- Whenever you have any influence over the budget, use it to ensure that the freelancer gets a fair rate for the work. If the freelancer finds herself having to do more work than originally anticipated, advocate for her with the powers that be and try to get her rewarded for that work. You’ll gain a loyal freelancer who feels that it’s worth going the extra mile in future.
It’s been interesting to consider what I’ve seen work and not work, and what I could do better in my own working practices. However, there will certainly be aspects that I’ve missed, so please do add your thoughts on what makes a good PM in the comments.
Last updated 15 November 2022
I enjoyed reading your advice from the other side of the desk. Sometimes it feels like only copy editors exist online; I’m grateful that you are providing this kind of “professional development.” It’s good to know that we are all in there together.
Thank you. I know what you mean – it’s rare to come across PMs online. If there are any out there reading, I’d love to know whether they agree with my list. Glad you enjoyed the article, Adrienne.