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Monday, June 19, 2006

Writers' House of Horrors

Here in the UK a TV series called House of Horrors has just ended. In this show the TV company buys or borrows a house with some problem or other, then invites a few suspected "dodgy" builders to perform the necessary repairs. The house is fitted with lots of hidden cameras, which of course catch the builders indulging in all sorts of unprofessional practices (one classic clip showed a plumber urinating in the cold water tank in the attic).

The show is good entertainment, and also serves a useful purpose in alerting the public to the activities of these cowboys. However, some builders have complained that shows like this give their entire industry a bad reputation, when in fact it is only a small minority who are guilty of this sort of thing.

I think they have a point. There are cowboys in every walk of life - writing included!

I know what I'm talking about here. I regularly hire writers myself, either in my role as an editor or to subcontract some of my writing work. Usually it works out fine, but over the years I've collected enough horror stories to fill at least a short TV series. Here are a few examples.

* I hired a writer to research an article about the Italian social security system (not the most riveting topic, I know). It duly arrived and at first glance looked pretty good, but something about it rang alarm bells in the back of my mind. I checked on the Internet, and discovered that the article had been copied word for word from a website (spelling mistakes included!).

* For a book on Germany I hired another writer to research the chapter about transport. It was actually pretty good, but there were a few points that needed clarifying. So I sent her a short query list. "Sorry," she told me, "I've done what you asked for. I'm much too busy to answer any questions about it."

* A regular writer for a newsletter I edit was due to submit a lengthy article to me. The deadline approached but no article appeared. I tried e-mailing and phoning but got no reply, so eventually I had to research and write a substitute article at very short notice myself. Eventually the writer got back to me: "Oh, I've been on holiday in Australia. Sorry I didn't mention it to you..."

* I agreed to co-write a book with another author. We divided the chapters between us. I wrote the first one, and arranged to meet my co-author in a local coffee bar to discuss progress. He never arrived, so after an hour I gave up and went home. I contacted the writer concerned, who came up with a rather lame excuse, but we agreed to meet at the same place the following week. Again, I sat there nursing a coffee for an hour, but it was another "no show". A few days later I ran into the writer concerned, who at least had the grace to look a bit shame-faced: "I realised I didn't really want to do the book after all, but I didn't know how to tell you. So I thought that if I just didn't turn up to meetings, eventually you'd get the idea."

Those are just a few examples - I have plenty more. Of course, anyone can call themselves a writer and there is no regulator to set standards, so I suppose it shouldn't be any great surprise that there are cowboys in this business as well!

The anonymity of the Internet has made it even easier for writers to do a vanishing act when the going gets sticky. But ultimately I still think it's their loss. I never hired any of the writers mentioned above again, while with others who have proved reliable I have been able to put a steady stream of work their way.

So before you're too quick to condemn "cowboy builders", do take a careful look at your own writing, and be sure that you're not guilty of any unprofessional practices yourself. And watch out for my series Publishing House of Horrors - coming to a cable TV channel near you soon...



Blogger SandyM said...

Hi Nick,

How I would love to get my hands on the guy who felt he 'couldn't tell you' he didn't want to do the work. He needs therapy!

Great blog.:)

9:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is interesting. How unprofessional of them. I never thought something like these could happen.

7:47 PM  

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