|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:
- Answering ads
- Getting an assignment directly from an editor.
- 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
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
Anything less than that she will probably eliminate. And
so a perfectly good idea by a good writer could go down
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.
* * * * * * * *
Be prepared: The editor could call you at home and discuss
your proposal. Know the article you plan to write in all
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.
* * * * * * * *
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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:
- Completed assignments on time.
- Wrote what the editor wanted you to write.
- Worked with the editor, not against her.
- 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
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
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
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.
* * * * * * * *
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
* * * * * * * *
R E S O U R C E S
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.