How to Evaluate Regular Freelancers
When many aspiring writers imagine becoming a published author, few picture having employees. In fact, most see writing as an escape from the business world. They envision walks in the countryside, scribbling notes in coffee shops and tapping away at a keyboard in their home office. If they do consider colleagues, they only envision two: their agent and editor. The truth, though, is that many full-time authors excel by starting their own imprints and project managing the publishing process, from the editing to the marketing. They don’t have full-time employees but do run businesses complete with freelance designers, editors and virtual assistants (VAs).
Freelancers generally charge per project. We benefit as authors because the arrangement means we don’t have to pay a regular salary or employee perks. Our freelancers, meanwhile, get to work when and how they choose. We act more like collaborators than employers and, for most, the flexibility is fine. It’s important to manage your businesses well, however, to ensure you produce high-quality books on a reasonable timescale. Cutting ties and starting afresh with every new book impacts quality control, timescales and stress levels. In short, it’s bad for business, so identifying talent, nurturing it and keeping great people on your team is a skill that helps everyone.
Building a dream team requires time, feedback and tough decisions, but frontloading the work ultimately creates happier relationships. Technically, freelancers are self-employed and don’t have to listen to you, but evaluating yours can help you minimise headaches and ensure everyone’s goals align. It’s important. More than that, it’s vital for you and them to thrive. Acting like a leader can be challenging at first. However, establishing standards and providing feedback will make it easier. Over time, evaluations will help you provide better guidance, develop world-class collaborators and improve fulfilment in your author business. It just takes a few tricks to begin.
For the sake of clarity before we start, know it’s inadvisable to evaluate a non-salaried member of your team without letting them know in advance that this is your plan. Springing feedback on a freelancer who isn’t expecting it, particularly if it’s unfavourable, can cause offence. Some will call you out for unwarranted criticism. Others will end your relationship. A few may be open to it and will even take your feedback onboard. Just don’t expect amicability as a default response. It’s understandable from their perspective; they’re self-employed and offer a service you can take or leave. Giving feedback is fine. Just tell them it’s coming when you offer the work.
If you’re going to do this, set expectations early, preferably in writing. Then establish how and when you plan to meet and assess them to reassure them that the evaluation will be fair. Give them briefs, make your preferred timescales clear and outline how you plan to measure their results. Thinking up key performance indicators (KPIs) and timescales takes time, particularly if a freelancer has a vague job, like a VA whose work varies, and you run a small business that changes constantly. That said, getting clear on your expectations will help you set better tasks and help them meet your expectations. Communication is key from day one.
Feedback and Iterate
Setting expectations does not alone guarantee a great working relationship. Yes, offering clear, initial guidance from the first email will help your working relationship get off on the right foot. Without offering feedback, though, you will never maximise efficiency and fulfilment. But how do you offer clear, actionable feedback? As the prominent business theorist Peter Drucker is credited for saying, “What gets measured gets managed.” It’s true; whether it’s for marathon training, a calorie-controlled diet, or a return on investment from ads, measuring your progress will make you far more likely to manage day-to-day activities and improve outcomes.
The challenge is figuring out which aspects of a freelancer’s work are worth measuring. After all, you can only track so many metrics, and some freelancer qualities are unmeasurable. While you could keep tabs on project turnaround times, for example, you couldn’t measure how much you like a designer’s style or how accurately a VA understands your vision. To prepare good feedback, regard collecting information as both a science and an art. Be flexible. Record key metrics, by all means, but also note any comments you have that fall outside your system to help you identify not only whether a freelancer is missing targets but also possible reasons why.
Don’t Project Mistakes
It’s easy to get frustrated when working with others, particularly if you value control. Nobody works the same way and tempers rise in small businesses when mistakes impact budgets. Motivated by anger, authors often decide they don’t like collaborators. But sometimes the criticism is misplaced. Yes, a freelancer has a responsibility to make happy clients and mistakes cause setbacks, but sometimes the client isn’t the issue; it’s the author who’s inexperienced, disorganised and constantly moves the goal posts. If you suspect you’re a troublesome manager then try not to let your self-focused frustrations skew a freelancer evaluation.
Indeed, projecting our own shortcomings is a problem we must all face. According to a 2019 psychology paper published by Pennsylvania State and University of Illinois professors:
“To save face when things go wrong, people will sometimes shift blame away from themselves by bringing attention to external causes, attempting to obscure their role in causing misfortune.”
Many authors aren’t natural managers, and shifting the blame is easy when you’re paying the bills. However, it’s important to be self-aware in these situations. Ask yourself questions like:
“When we missed a deadline, was it because the freelancer messed up?”
“Did I cause a holdup and delay them?”
“Were my instructions clear?”
Evaluating ourselves is hard, but doing so is crucial if you want to set a good example as a leader and keep valuable team members.
Avoid Recency Bias
Ask most people what they think of a friend and their answer will change depending on recent events. If they’ve shared a fun experience, they will likely make complimentary remarks. If they’ve argued, on the other hand, the person’s judgement of their character will likely be far more critical. Due to recency bias, they’ll give an extreme opinion rather than a middle ground one that more accurately depicts their entire friendship. This is a way we all act, even in our author businesses. It doesn’t matter if you’ve worked with someone without a hiccup for years; you can’t help but call their professionalism into question if they mess up three projects in a row.
In reality, none of us can rely on our emotions to make professional calls. Our brains demonstrate recency bias in most situations, which can lead us to make unwise decisions. Stoicism helps form a more balanced view but forming anything close to it requires a process. To form an opinion that’s less polluted by recency bias, keep a freelancer performance record and update it on a regular basis, with timestamps, both when you have a complaint and when a collaborator overdelivers. Doing so will help you remember the bad and the good. Not only that, the facts will also help you tease out biases you carry, like how much you like their personality.
Tailor Your Expectations
Considering a freelancer’s cost-to-expectations ratio will also help you judge their performance more fairly. For instance, can you really expect a $15-per-hour VA to deliver the same level of proficiency as one that charges double that rate without training them? Oppositely, if you’re paying premium rates, are you getting premium results? If not, why? Is it because they’re underperforming or because your business is not developed enough to utilise their full range of expertise? In some cases, you must tailor your expectations to the experience of the freelancer, the cost of their service relative to industry standards, and the context in which they work.
Is the person you’re evaluating new to their role? Are they new to your business? Even faceless corporations don’t hold new employees to the same standards as veteran executives. Are you judging a designer using the same checklist you’d use to judge your editor? Remember, one is trained to be an adept communicator while another is valued for their artistic flair. Hence, you should change how harshly to criticise them based on the skills you hired them for in the first place. Forgetting context is like running a circus that holds a day-one acrobat to the same standards as an expert, and criticising the lions for their inability to use the trapeze.
Freelancers have a part to play in almost every author business. Improving a collaborator that shows promise is often easier and cheaper than churning new talent. Remember, however, that an evaluation is a tool designed not just to dish out corrective feedback but also to recognise good work and justify a pay increase. The goal isn’t to catch someone out; it’s to nurture high performance, deepen relationships, and retain talented individuals to ensure they enjoy working with you and want to continue.
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