A Labor Day tribute to remote bosses

After years as a freelance writer and working other jobs, I believe the editors I never met were as effective as the bosses I knew.

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A lone pedestrian walks past a public service sign reminding Chicagoans of the return to a stricter COVID-19 protocol along the usually busy Magnificent Mile Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020,

Millions of Americans have been working from home since the pandemic started. I believe the editors I never met were as effective as the bosses I knew, David McGrath writes.

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While millions of Americans have stayed away from the office and worked from home since 2020 because of COVID-19, I have been laboring remotely for decades.

I am referring to my occupation as a freelance writer, one of143,200in the U.S. workforce represented on Labor Day.

The job requires a special set of skills for which you are paid “on spec,” or when you find an editor who likes what you’ve written. Which is why I, along with an estimated 97% of freelance writers,rely on a second job.

Oddly, after toiling elsewhere — whether digging ditches, driving a truck, or teaching English — I believe the editors I never met were as effective as the bosses I knew.

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Among the earliest was Kitry Krause of the Chicago Reader, who provided on-the-job training in what it meant to write for an audience.

I was under the illusion that a freelancer’s work was done once they received an acceptance email with a contract and a W-9 attached.

But Krause phoned days later, commencing the first of several lengthy editing sessions for my essay about violence in Chicago’s schools.

She had earmarked dozens of sentences, and then asked, one by one,how each might be rephrased for clarity or impact.Not quick on my feet, I required additional calls with revising time in between.

In fact, in the middle of one of her calls,I asked if I should drive to her office to speed things along:

“God, no!” said Krause.

For two years, I learned a lot through the persnickety lens of her magnifying glass, before she left the Reader for The Atlantic.

I also never met Joey Kennedy, my editor for three years at the Birmingham News, who won a Pulitzer for editorial writing (1991) and oversaw my stories on education, immigration, Alabama’s suspect insurance industry and on the propensity of its drivers to never signal a turn.Quick to reject any clunkers, Joey, a motivator, was not stingy with praise or payment when you got it right.

Marcia Lythcott felt like family.My editor at the Chicago Tribune for two decades, she said she felt she knew Marianne and my kids, though none had ever met. Lythcott went by the book, never hesitating to scold if I got a fact wrong or neglected to provide a citation.

But she was the warmest human being I never knew in person, to whom family meant everything.Once she left a tearful voicemail after reading my story about Frank, our yellow lab.And I won’t forget her phone call of alarm when a hurricane was headed our way in Florida.

Lara Weber, as fine a writer as she was an editor, who worked with and succeeded Marcia, had the same personal touch.One weekend she went through the trouble of forwarding a story she had declined to another newspaper that would print it, since I was on a camping trip and off the grid.

While many other editors don’t even respond to queries by freelancers, Tom McNamee of the Chicago Sun-Timesgave invaluable feedback.Once, for example, after rejecting a piece, he schooled me in how newspaper readers routinely misconstrue satire.

Yet McNamee, a fellow South Sider,often found time to chat, sharing stories about family, schools and neighborhoods, enhancing our collaboration.

Most courageous was Paul Mitchell.The openly gay editor of a tiny weekly in Hayward, Wisconsin, he withstood threats and subscription cancellations over my commentaries on the character of the former president, in the very red district of Donald Trump sycophant, former U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy.

Karen Sorensen, previous metro editor for the Daily Southtown, and currently for the Naperville Sun and Elgin Courier, has been the freelancer’s best friend, doing everything possible to assure we were paid fairly.If I whiffed on a story, Karen explained why — and when I made the fix, Karen signed the invoice.

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The only editor I did meet in person was Chuck Frederick of the Duluth News Tribune.In 2012, several years after he started publishing my work, I visited his city, steeply situated on the banks of Lake Superior.Chuck stepped out of a meeting to shake hands and chat, after which Marianne and I went down the street toFitger’s Brewery for dinner (smoked trout, wild rice, Duluth-brewed IPA).

My previous, remote-only impression of Chuck had been of a fair-minded man, passionate about social justice and particularly fond of classic rules of grammar and punctuation. Meeting him confirmed that impression and seemed to validate my judgments of the others.

All of which affirms the argument that little is lost when working from home.

David McGrath is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage and the author of “South Siders.”

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