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Landing long-term assignments

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BY PJ DELHOMME
I need to make a confession; I live a double-life. I’ve been an editor for 10 years and all the while squeezed in freelancing for other publications. Editing is easier, hands down. I don’t have to constantly hustle like a freelancer. My deadlines are the same every year. And the job is made infinitely easier by having a handful of writers I can rely on every issue. It’s a win-win for both of us. Writers get consistent paychecks; I get dependable writers. So how do you get your foot in the door with an editor, and once you do, how do you keep the checks coming?
1. Show up
For my job, I go to the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show every year, which is basically the world’s largest gun show. After my fourth SHOT Show, I realized walking the floor looking at Kevlar police-dog vests or programmable deer feeders wasn’t the best use of my time. After I took care of all my editorial duties, I made a list of all the potential media events at the show I missed in years past. When it came time for my fifth SHOT Show, I was on every list and attended every event I could squeeze in. I made a point to meet one new editor or writer at each event. Media events, conferences, hunts, trade shows and impromptu gatherings are fabulous places to get face time with an editor. But you can’t meet anyone if you don’t go.
2. Networking isn’t just for IT
When I went to those press events at SHOT Show, it wasn’t solely to learn about this gadget or that. I sat next to a magazine editor who happened to have been through my hometown a number of times. The next year, I saw him in the press room and asked how his son was doing in college. It was a chance to catch-up, albeit briefly. No shop talk was spoken — just an exchange of pleasantries. But you need to make money, so when do you make the sell?
3. The follow-up
If you’re a writer who just met an editor at an event, hopefully you kept it brief, informal and friendly. Follow up with an email a week or so later. Enough time has passed for them to catch up with family and work, but not so much that they forget meeting you. Add a line about how it was nice to meet them. Then ask about their upcoming needs, tell what strengths you might bring to the magazine, etc. If it doesn’t work out for the next issue, at least you’re on the list with them so when the time comes, they might shoot you an assignment. This happens to me both as a freelancer and an editor.
4. Ease into it
Remember the couple whose first date was a 10-day float trip with just each other? Me neither. Think of a writing relationship as an actual relationship. Start things slow, maybe with a sidebar or one-page department assignment. You can always swing for the fences and pitch a feature story idea once you’ve hit a couple of doubles.
5. You’re unique … just like everyone else
I love that line. I like it because it reminds me that a lot of people can be an editor, just like a lot of people can freelance. In the publishing world, just about everyone can be replaced. Don’t take rejection personally. Your pitch is likely not something the publication needs at the moment. Ask the editor what their needs are. Are there any departments for which they have trouble getting content? Are they planning any special sections for which they need submissions?
6. Are you a tree or a reed?
The ancient Greeks and Confucius both agree that when the wind blows, it is better to bend like a reed than break like an oak. An editor’s needs change on a weekly basis. You want to be the writer an editor calls when he needs an article on a random topic on a stupid tight deadline. So if you need to shuffle a couple projects around, stay up until 2 a.m. and learn about something completely new, do it and do it well. Then chances are you’ll be the one he calls next time when the lead times (and per word rate) are more generous.
7. Have a presence on the Internet
The first thing I do to find out about a potential writer is Google their name. Have you ever Googled yourself? That sounds silly if you say it out loud, but still, you might be surprised what the Internet is saying about you. Make sure it says what you want it to say. A good way to do this is to create your own website, even if it’s just an assortment of past articles. WordPress, and most recently Squarespace, makes building a website accessible. You have the content, why not showcase it on your terms?
8. Use lots of crayons, but stay in the lines
With a 2- and 5-year old at home, I do a fair bit of coloring. The other night, my son colored a horse using just about every color in a 24-pack, a nice Andy Warhol. My daughter used mulberry to fill an entire page of what was a barn, real abstract stuff. I took a cue from American Gothic and colored my farmer blue overalls tan. The multi-colored horse was the best. My point? Be creative and not afraid to put a new spin on an old topic. But work within the bounds of a magazine.
9.Why are they called deadlines?
During the Civil War, the line that marked how far a prisoner could go before he was shot was called the deadline. In other words, stay in front of the deadline and don’t get shot. Impress your editor; get your stuff in ahead of time — even just a day or two. Say deadline is Friday. You submit your assignment on Tuesday. When Friday comes, the editor receives 11 other assignments due that same day, but your piece has been edited and the check is in the mail. Who knows when those other guys will get paid?
Keep in mind, building relationships takes time. Both parties need to prove themselves and remember, editors are looking for hard-working writers who can help us do our jobs better, and we get to write about what most people do in their off-time for fun. That’s a pretty sweet gig. ♦
— PJ DelHomme is the hunting editor for Bugle magazine of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
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