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Five Mistakes Editors Make When Assigning A Story

Writers block For this week’s DogBlog post, we enlisted freelance writer Erin Peterson — with whom many of you have likely worked — to offer editors a few tips on getting the most out of your freelancers. (If you haven’t worked with Erin yet, you should totally hire, by the way. She’s great and has some fun story pitches.) Ms. Peterson, the DogBlog is all yours …

Years ago, when I was an editor at an alumni magazine, I dreaded assigning stories. With the time I spent crafting an assignment letter, pulling together sources, and hammering out details with a freelancer, I felt like I might as well have written the piece myself.

Now that I’ve spent 10 years on the other side of the table as a freelancer, there are few things I appreciate more than an editor who gives clear, smart story assignments. For me, a great assignment letter or discussion is the starting point of a great story. But a crummy story assignment? Well, there’s not a whole lot I can do to revive it.

I’ve learned both as a writer and an editor that assigning a story is harder than it looks. Here are five common ways that the process goes awry.

• Skimping on the details. In addition to a couple paragraphs about the topic and angle of the story, it’s helpful for writers to know any insider info that will help them do a good job. After all, during the reporting process, we’re not just gathering information, we’re serving as ambassadors for your school. You’ve heard the source is tight-lipped? No problem, we can make sure to have twice as many questions prepared. The topic’s been written about in the magazine before? Great. Send a link to the other stories so we don’t duplicate what’s already been written. Also, be sure to mention how prominently ye olde alma mater should figure in a profile, for example. A clause? A paragraph? The very lede itself? (Ugh, not the lede. Please not the lede.)

• Scoping the story incorrectly. It’d be great if a freelancer could magically wedge 12 administration-approved sources into the 500-word story, but realistically? Ain’t gonna happen. As a rule of thumb, I usually expect to have a different source for every 250-350 assigned words. For a 2,000-word story, that’s 6 to 8 sources.

• Failing to share relevant scheduling concerns. Most freelancers haven’t thought about the academic calendar since they graduated, so if you’ve got student sources who are likely to be in the midst of finals, professors who are heading out on sabbatical, or holiday breaks that might make it tough to get in touch with people quickly, let the writer know so he or she can plan accordingly.

• Not clarifying your story requirements. Some editors want just the story itself. But for other editors, the story is just a starting point. Some want fact-checking notes embedded as footnotes within the text, others want all the quotes vetted by the sources themselves. A good writer will always ask you what your preferences are, but laying out specific requirements upfront can prevent frustration on both sides. Oh, and if you require your writers to embed all the fact-checking documentation in footnotes, feel free to send a nice red wine that the writer can drink straight from the bottle as she re-learns how to use the footnotes feature.

• Assuming everything will go according to plan. Do I really need to say this? You probably know this better than anyone. But no news isn’t always good news. I let my editors know when I’ve completed my interviews for a story—and I get in touch with them sooner if I find out something during my reporting that requires a change to the story concept. I know that both my editors and I would rather have that conversation before I start writing, rather than having us both suffer through an extensive editing process. If you’ve got any potential concerns about a story, it’s worth checking in with a writer a week or so before the deadline just to make sure you’re likely to get what you expect.

Erin Peterson (erinpeterson.com) is an award-winning writer who has written hundreds of stories for top alumni magazines, including Denison Magazine, Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin, and the Carleton College Voice. To get a PDF on the perfect email script to get busy professors (and other sources) to respond quickly to your story interview requests, or to get on her quarterly newsletter list, email her at erin@erinpeterson.com

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One Comment

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  1. Renee #
    February 26, 2014

    Well said. As a former editor turned freelance writer turned editor, I have always felt compelled to give my writers more than they need. Sometimes I wondered to myself, “is this too much?” But, seeing that most of the articles come back from my writers exactly the way I’ve envisioned, I guess I’m giving them what they need. However, my problem lies in supervisors changing the direction of the story AFTER it is written — it happens sometimes. Not too often thankfully, but it does happen.
    I think I’ll give Erin a call.

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