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The Ways and Means of Writing Assignments

The wise man says, "We are here to learn." Fine. One of the better lessons I learned when I started freelance writing was, "be prepared." I was asked to chair a session of a large trade show and convention by the editor of the magazine I was writing for. I got the bright idea to query the editor of Popular Science because new technology would be on display at the trade show. Would he be interested?

I sent the query and got prepared for the convention. The query slipped my mind. And a day before I left to go, the editor from Popular Science called me. I didn't have a list on my desk, I was caught off-guard. I stammered through a few minutes trying to convince him that I could get something interesting for his magazine. "What sort of new technology is going to be featured?" "Well, um, they'll probably have the new O-rings for big turbines. Energy efficiency you know?"

Nothing was produced from that exchange and the whole thing nagged at me days on end.

Since that time I have always kept a list on my desk of any questions or answers that may come at me by way of the telephone.

I'm reminded of these things every time a young person or, even, a middle-aged person writes me and asks, "I just want to make some money writing....how do I get assignments?"

Ultimately your success in getting an assignment comes down to your relation to the editor, clips, timing, and luck.

A professional writer should look at her writing and write down three or four key words that mark that writing. Out of those key words come valuable hints for searching possible markets. For instance, in looking over my own writing I come up with these keywords, "writing resource" "solar power" "literary" "political opinion" "media employment." I now have some context to further search for writing markets.

There are five basic ways to get an assignment:

  1. Query
  2. Referral
  3. Answering ads
  4. Getting an assignment directly from an editor.
  5. Online auctions


What would a writer do without the query? It is a simple, effective way to put an idea in front of an editor and convince him that you are the person for the job. And before you start to write a query consult the vast amount of material that exists for writing one. I have some links in the resource box below so make sure you look at those.

There are all kinds of reasons why to send a query rather than a finished piece of writing. For one thing, an editor wants to "work with a writer." What if the editor wants something changed or done differently? The query makes that a more flexible option.

A finished piece can also communicate something bad to the editor. "Hmm, this piece is being shopped around. It's been rejected somewhere and now coming to me." Not a good impression.

Look at it from the editor's point of view. She's inundated with paper on her desk or e-mails on her screen. She develops this strong instinct to eliminate as much as she can. And so she looks at the queries very quickly. Does something jump out and grab her? Does something connect to a subject that is suddenly hot in her coverage area? Is the query professional?

Anything less than that she will probably eliminate. And so a perfectly good idea by a good writer could go down the tubes.

Don't be the amateur who begs for attention. Ball your idea up into a fist and hit the editor's mind with it.

The query is a kind of controlled mayhem. You are trying to dazzle the editor in a very short space so take some poetic skills with you when you begin one.

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Be prepared: The editor could call you at home and discuss your proposal. Know the article you plan to write in all its possibilities.

Remember that editors are hungry for new and interesting content. Hungry? More like ravenous. A writer needs to believe that the story he is proposing is that new and scintillating content. Time will tell but the psychological game involved is important.

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Let's focus on one of several factors that go into making a good query: the slant.

I imagine the slant to be a line that intersects between an idea and a series of possibilities that puts the idea into motion. The idea of writing about the war in Iraq is one thing. Why? What? It must be met with another line; Iraqi soldiers who have split loyalties, for instance. Or, the impact on the price of oil. Every idea must meet with this intersecting line. Any idea I put down on a piece of paper has several lines through it, indicating a structure for the idea that will exclude something but include other things. These intersecting lines can land in fascinating places.

If you draw this on a piece of paper you will notice that two intersecting lines create four co-ordinates; space that can be filled with more ideas.

Are electronic queries any different? Not really. What may be different is whether the publication is digital or print. The digital publication is going to want a faster-paced writing, with bulleted lists, chunked paragraphs and the other de rigeour of online writing.

Make sure you look at the ways editors accept queries.

Training in journalism is very helpful. What is newsworthy? What is the story behind the story? Why is that person not talking to the press? Is that a hint of bribery I smell over there?

We say it again and again, "editors want fresh ideas! Get them and support the idea with research and excellent writing and you will have a freelance writing career."

As writer Lisa Cool puts it, "...a good pitch letter sells an editor on you- not just this one article."

The query tells the editor that you've looked at his magazine, that you know your topic, you are familiar with the territory and you will approach it like a pro.

It's important to understand that editors judge manuscripts using different criteria. These can be summarized as: Content, the readability of the piece, and its possible impacts. Keep these in mind as you read back issues of a magazine and formulate ideas to submit.

I do recommend looking at the article I wrote last year on trendspotting.


Writing is a lonely, singular activity. But publishing is a contact sport. Editors and writers network. Editors, especially, worry that the person they are dealing with is unreliable and feel good if someone they trust has recommended the new writer.

This happens a lot in trade publications and in business writing. Editors like to believe they are on top of what is going on in the publishing industry and will come across all the talented, savvy writers out there ready to provide wonderful copy.

Make yourself available. It's no different from networking when you are looking for a normal job. Let people know what you can do.

One of the best ways to get an assignment is to know a writer who has been published and have him or her put a good word in for you with the editor. Believe it or not this works. In fact, I've heard editors say they prefer this because they trust writers who do good work for them and know they won't jeopardize the relationship.

Internet forums, mailing lists, and message boards are places where editors will troll for talent. Remember to be prepared and to be resourceful on the Net. You never know who is watching.

Make sure no one lies on your behalf and tells an editor you can do something you really can't.

It makes sense to go on message boards and schmooze a bit. Certainly take in local writing conferences and anywhere editors may congregate.

Get into local writer's groups and make sure they are listed in Chamber of Commerce directories.

Get yourself known by reference librarians because business will often call them and ask for local writers.

>>>>>>>>>>>>Answering Ads<<<<<<<<<<<<<

I like to tell the tale of my first freelance writing assignment. I noticed a small ad in the local newspaper. It had a phone number, I called it, and for one year wrote articles for a large book project. The book was a national bestseller, the people were eccentric, the money was good. That small, obscure ad opened doors and windows without question.

Even though this is a popular way to find writing jobs our experience is that the pickings are slim. Read the ad carefully and make sure it sounds right to you, that it spells out what you will do and has an actual address rather than a P.O. Box.

Usually, companies or individuals who submit ads are not experienced with writers. They have not developed a vigorous network to pluck out writers when the need arises.

My advice to writers is to always go after an assignment with vigor but ask questions and be skeptical of who you are dealing with. Get everything in writing. Go online and check out the reputation of the publication or organization you are dealing with.

The most questionable ads want ten or fifteen examples of your writing. I can remember one incident in the late 90's when an "editor" simply took a bunch of submitted material and sold it to the market under her name. Another thing to understand is that some of the businesses looking for freelance writers have little experience in hiring them. So, be prepared to make them understand all the work that goes into a project.

What's shocking to me is how people believe that the internet job notices will bring them the best freelance opportunities. I've been running a job board for some years now and while I have posted freelance jobs it represents only a fraction of the assignments available.

Certainly, if you run into an ad that looks appealing to you check it out and so on. But, the best way to get assignments is to cold call on editors through email or regular mail and offer up a letter and query. Get into the network by demonstrating your talent and reliability.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Getting called for assignments<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Ah, this is the moment when you know you've done some good in the world. This is the moment when you have crossed the threshold and made a mark. You will eventually get phone calls from editors and offered assignments if you have followed these simple rules:

  1. Completed assignments on time.
  2. Wrote what the editor wanted you to write.
  3. Worked with the editor, not against her.
  4. Did original work with interesting slants and resourceful facts to back everything up.

The editor of a trade publication is more likely to call a writer for an assignment.

By the time you get to this point you need to have developed criteria of whether you take the assignment or not. Experienced writers turn down assignments if they are going to spend time writing for less than they know they can make if they hustle the assignment themselves.

Editors like to call on the phone when they are ready to assign an article to a writer. In this conversation with the editor be prepared to discuss the angle of attack you are going to take, the length, the tone of the piece, and so on. These are all items you should list out and place on your desk for easy reference. Be prepared.

When the editor is calling you for assignments it means that the magazine will probably, not always, pick up legitimate expenses, and guarantees some form of payment even if it's a "kill fee."

A deadline is then set. Depending on the experience of the editor she will either have an absolute deadline when all the pieces of the magazine need to be collected, or will set a deadline with a few weeks wiggle room. The editor who does this is smart and realizes things can happen in the making of an article, especially if it demands complex research.

Once you agree to the terms she will usually send you a letter of agreement or, even, a formal contract and appended to these items is an outline of what you talked about over the phone. Make sure you stay within the parameters of the outline.

Keep the editor informed if there is a problem with the piece. Don't just disappear and let the deadline pass hoping she won't notice. She will notice. And she will put the word out that you are unreliable.

     >>>>>>>>>>>>>>Online Auctions<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

These are competitors to the ad marketplace. The problem is that there will always be writers willing to work for less than yourself. And, on the other end, you have people who don't know anything about writing and can't judge the quality of this writer or that writer and simply hire someone who will work for less.

Bid to the level of your expertise. There is no reason to take a job below the price you can get elsewhere.

There seems to be two common complaints about online auctions like guru.com or elance.com. One is that it's difficult developing relationships with clients since the jobs are usually short in duration. The jobs, too, are usually put on there by people who have budget problems and figure writers will bid down on projects to get them. Nonetheless, there are contract jobs available and people do use them quite a bit.

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The bottom-line is to work every angle you can. By doing so you will eliminate some techniques that don't work for you and focus on the ones that do.

I've heard of writers developing a list of articles or links to articles they've written. In fact, I've had these sent to me as an editor of C/Oasis. If you have articles that can be re-printed develop a list and send it to editors with a cover letter and order form. It works primarily in the trade magazines. The key in this racket is to justify long periods of research with many articles that can be resold to multiple markets.

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Query Letters:
Writing a Bulletproof Article Query by Laura Backes
21 Rules for Writing Stellar Query Letters by Paul Lima
Carolyn Dekat has an extensive article on and ins and outs of preparing non-fiction article writing. Recommended.
Sample query for a book.
Advice in preparing a query to agents.
Sample and good advice about the query letter.

Check out the Sunoasis Research page. It's been upgraded and designed for writers and journalists.

If you have any questions about careers in freelance writing don't hesitate to ask!

Back to the Freelance Resource Page

For those new to the Net or overwhelmed by the nature of the online job market I suggest you look at the Cyber Search Tutorial.There are more job boards and classifieds from metro newspapers.

Have a question about careers in writing? Click here to get some answers!

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