For any freelancer writing for magazines, the Holy Grail is having the editor call you with an assignment you didn’t even have to pitch. No more query letters, SASEs and trying to read the editor’s mind. Out of the blue, the call or e-mail comes, trying to talk you into taking an assignmentinstead of the other way around! It’s the freelancer’s equivalent of Sally Field at the Oscars: “You like me. You really, really like me.”
It’s not just the ego reward. When the editor starts to call you, your income from that publication becomes less of a hit-or-miss proposition. When you’re part of the magazine’s stable of writers, you start to get assignmentsand checkson a semiregular basis. You’re also more likely to get the publication’s top freelance rate, not what it pays newcomers to its pages.
Not that there aren’t small perks, too. You start to become part of the publication’s “family.” Maybe you’ll get listed on the masthead as a contributing writer or editor (even though you’re writing, not editinggo figure). That in turn helps validate you to other magazines you’d like to crack, and might get you on the list for review copies of books, press passes to events in the publication’s field and other goodies. Once you’re a regular, an editor is more likely to pay at least minor out-of-pocket expenses you incur in researching stories for her. And, while the power equation doesn’t shift entirely (the editor still is the one writing the checks while you write the stories), the editor may actually begin to take an interest in keeping you happy.
So how do you reach this nonfiction nirvana? How do you get editors to start asking you instead of vice versa?
Unfortunately, other than perhaps blackmail and compromising photos of the editor, there’s no snap-your-fingers secret. Like most other rewards of the writing life, getting on the editor’s good side requires discipline and hard work (and often a dose of good luck or timing).
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some rules to keep in mind that can make it easier to win your way into editorial Eden.
First, of course, you have to get your foot in the door. That’s a whole ‘nother column. So let’s assume you’ve cracked a sought-after market and gotten your first assignment. How do you make sure it’s only the first of many?
1. Deliver on your deadline.
Seems obvious, I know, but you’d be amazed at how many writers, after sweating to get an assignment, blow the delivery date for that crucial first article. You know the old saying about how you never get a second chance to make a first impression? Most editors are constantly under the deadline gun, and making their lives even more difficultespecially before you’ve earned any Brownie points with themis an unforgivable sin.
This has implications for every query you send out. Even if you’re firing off a long shot, never promise an article that you can’t deliver. You don’t have to have six nuclear physicists lined up to interview for that piece on “How to Build a Nuclear Reactor in Your Basement,” but you’d better have some solid ideas on where to find them before you lick the stamp on your query.
2. Fulfill the assignmentexactly.
Now is not the time (if there ever is such a time) to turn in a story that’s not quite what the editor asked for, that fails to touch all the bases outlined in the assignment letter, or that runs way short or way long. Once you and the editor are pals, and he’s buying you drinks at the Algonquin, you can probably err a few hundred words on length and not get blacklisted. But on your first date, submitting 4,000 words when the editor asked for 2,500 is a sure way not to get asked out again.
3. Go above and beyond.
While a few thousand extra words that have to be trimmed isn’t the sort of bonus an editor appreciates, there are ways to show you’re the sort of writer who goes the extra mile. (And who would excel at future assignments, hint-hint.) Depending on the story and the publication, you can submit photos with your copy (with captions!), or a list of sources for artwork; you could save the editor the trouble of calling for publicity photos and do it yourself, having art sent straight to the magazine. If your article might require fact-checking, attach a list of sources and phone numbers.
And “extra” content is indeed appreciatedas long as it’s truly extra, not just padding in the main piece. Editors and readers alike respond to helpful sidebars, info boxes, resource lists, timelines and tips. If the publication has a Web site that features original content, you might tack on a Web-only snippet that goes with your article.
How to drop hints
After you’ve turned in that crucial first assignment, of course you’ll want to avoid any editor-aggravating faux pas during the editing and production phase:
Then it’s time to turn your attention to a follow-up query. As I discussed in my December 2001 column, it’s even OK to include that follow up with the successful submission of the first assignment, or when returning your author’s galleys.
But since you’re really looking to get out of the query rat raceand have the editor start doing the hard work of coming up with ideasyou should start planting the thought in the editor’s mind that you’d be perfect for some aspects of the publication’s regular coverage.
This strategy depends on the publication and the editor. Look for ways, without becoming a pest, to let the editor know the extent of your expertise in her subject area. You could try dropping a list of topics into your correspondence about an assignment just as an FYI to the editor: “I really enjoyed writing this piece on nuclear reactors for Popular Physics magazine. By the way, I’m also conversant with quantum mechanics, astrophysics and black holes, if you’re ever looking for somebody to tackle any of those topics.” Plant the seed in the editor’s brain; it might be months before it’ll sprout, but you never know.
If there’s a geographic sweep to the publication’s subject matter, you might mention in passing that you’re planning a trip, and if the editor happens to need any articles from that place, well, of course you’re happy to help. Do you have an “in” with any celebrities the editor might want to feature? Drop some names. Keep opening doorseventually the editor may walk through and give you an assignment.
These aren’t full-blown queriesthough of course you should keep doing those, too. You’re just letting the editor know the full range of ways you could be helpful. Don’t become the editor’s penpal or constant phone buddy to accomplish this, either. Be subtle. Be casual, not pushy. Be nice.
Yes, you can even suck upjust don’t overdo it or be too obvious: “Just got back from a research trip to Los Alamos and found the new issue waiting for me. I loved the way you presented my article, and the headline made me chuckle.” (That manages to combine a light touch of brown-nosing with a hint that if the editor happens to need anything from Los Alamos, you’re the writer to call.)
Eventually, if you play your cards right and continue to deliver, the editor will be sucking up to you.
From the August 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.