Every day smart freelance writers answer the phone and hear those magical words: "I have an article in mind, and I think you're the person to write it; do you want the assignment?"
What would you rather write? Queries that may never go anywhere, or articles that you know have a home waiting for them?
Writers can work smarter by being creative in their approach to publications. Most editors have long lists of articles they'd like to publish. But none of the queries coming over the transom match those ideas. Where do editors find capable, competent writers willing to work on assignment?
Writers who emphasize their flexibility and willingness to write what the editors want written are far more likely to get assignments than writers who rely on queries alone.
As the editor of a local magazine for the last nine months, I've received at least a dozen queries -- and used two of them. I've also received several letters of introduction, accompanied by one or two clips, and now I have four writers getting regular work from me. They presented themselves on paper and said, "This is who I am, what I do, and what I've done. Now, what would you like to do with me?"
During the month of April, for example, I was thinking about the September issue and school lunches. I received several queries and reprints, but no one was pitching ideas about school lunches. I called a writer who had sent an introduction, and whose clips I had examined, and asked her to write about school lunches. She had indicated she was comfortable writing on health and nutrition topics, so I knew she was the person to ask.
Where and how do you send letters of introduction, and what information should they contain? While individual styles may vary, there are standards writers can follow.
National glossy magazines usually have at least a few staff writers working on assignment, and openings are rare. They are bombarded daily with hundreds of queries and submissions. Don't waste your letters of introduction here. You'll end up being the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Local or regional publications, including the local newspaper, offer more opportunities for assignments. These publications have small staffs and a need for freelancers. The pay rate is lower than national print magazines, but consider the work to profit ratio. It may take 30 queries to land one acceptance that pays 50 cents per word, while it may take only one letter of introduction to land a $75 article, with the promise of future assignments.
Writer's Market listings include information on how much of a publication is freelance written, but may also indicate how many unsolicited queries they accept each year. For example, the 2002 entry for Cleveland Magazine says it is 60% freelance written and "written mostly by assignment."
The smart writer will conclude that those assignments are going to freelancers. Look for markets that indicate different rates for unsolicited pieces and assigned pieces. That's your clue the publication works with writers on assignment.
With only one or two published clips, you have the basis for a letter of introduction. You know you are publishable -- often that's all an editor needs to know.
Simply tell the editor who you are, what you've done, and what you're willing to do. For example:
My name is Brilliant Writer, and I've been freelancing for more than two years. My articles have appeared in local, regional, and national publications, both in print and online.
I'd love the opportunity to write for Your Great Magazine. I'm enclosing two clips to give you an idea of my voice and style, as well as a resume detailing my writing experience. I'm more than willing to work on assignment, and look forward to discussing the possibilities with you.
To learn more about me, you can visit my web site at www.myname.com. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, or to discuss possible assignments.
Letters of introduction have worked well for Georgia writer Apryl Chapman Thomas. She targets her letters to publications unique to her area. One May, she sent out 5 letters of introduction, and received two assignments by June.
Pam Cook had ten articles published in a single year. Five of them came from assignments. In all she sent 22 queries; five received positive replies. As is often the case, one article led to three more assignments for the same publication. Queries are still necessary, but they're not the only route to steady work.
This method shows an editor that you are more interested in what he wants for his publication than what you want for your portfolio. You won't presume to know what's good for his publication -- you want him to tell you what he thinks is suitable. While it's great to write the things we want to write about, it's far more profitable to be writing what the editors want.
Letters of introduction are great marketing practice. Freelance writers quickly learn that writing is only half of their job; marketing and promotion are just as important. Your willingness to approach editors with confidence will come in handy later, when you find yourself searching for an agent or writing press releases to promote your book.
You may not completely replace your querying efforts, especially at first. You may be asked to write on spec, or write about obscure topics. My first assignment was local sports history, a topic that didn't interest me in the least. But if you embrace the challenge, work hard to sell your skills, and take the time to develop relationships with editors, you'll find that sending out those query letters becomes increasingly unnecessary to ensure regular work and income.
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