My First Freelance Feature -- Help!
April 2, 2012 12:35 PM   Subscribe

So my freelance pitch to a magazine was accepted -- now what?

Hello all! I've been pitching stories to magazines for a few months now, and while I've had some shorter pieces assigned, I finally got a good response ("we're very interested") on a feature from what I call a Serious Magazine.

Now what? I have full faith I can write this story. But -- how, exactly? What I want to know is -- what goes into writing a feature story? (I've written long pieces before, but not serious reportage, and not commissioned.)

I know a bit about equipment -- reporters' notebooks, Evernote, Scrivener. But I don't know anything about: back and forth with editors, keeping track of notes, protecting myself against libel actions. Do I footnote my articles for editors, or what? What ethical problems am I not thinking of?

So -- anybody have any suggestions or resources for a newbie freelance feature writer? (I didn't go to J school.) I really want this to be good, and I want the editor to like me, too. I'm open to any suggestions on the reporting process as well -- so far, I've just been making it up as I go along.

(Btw, I know it's not assigned yet, and it may all fall through, so I'm also looking for suggestions on how to make it stick.)

posted by caoimhe to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
What I do is keep a separate document for the fact-checkers. So, last week I turned in this tiny magazine piece, and the document for the fact-checkers was twice as long. But it had EVERYTHING they could ever want.

Don't footnote, it's just annoying. Most editors hate facts. Heh.

Different magazines have different standards. At Rolling Stone, you get asked for like, the tapes and transcripts and all that jazz. At other places, it's more relaxed.

Be nice, be polite, don't be needy, don't be weird. Give them what they ask for and don't be a pest; editors' inboxes are ugly places, and they have to go out to four-hour lunches every day, so they don't have a lot of time. ;)

You could MeMail me and I could talk to you about the magazine in question privately.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 12:39 PM on April 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

RJ his the communication points. I would only add brevity. Keep it direct and professional. I do books, but even my editor complains of never having time for himself.

As for the reporting/writing, feel free to MeMail me. I'm also self-taught, but could be interesting to swap tips.

Oh, and this might help -- an old post with some book recs and a spew about structure.
posted by vecchio at 1:39 PM on April 2, 2012

RJ Reynolds' advice is, per usual, solid—do what he suggests and the fact-checkers will love you. To add to that:

You're writing for hire, and your story will be edited. (Unless you're writing for some editors I know, in which case, God help you—not being edited may sound like a blessing, but really, the editors are supposed to be there to make you and the publication look professional. If they aren't doing that, well...) Your editor may or may not run the changes to your story past you; most of the time, they aren't obligated to do so. So if they actually do you the courtesy of running changes past you, don't be a pain about it; if you fight them on every little edit, they probably won't hire you again (or if there are enough unanswered questions or other problems, maybe they'll can your story altogether). And if, after you've turned in your story and it's been edited, the editor or fact-checker or an intern emails you a list of questions, answer them promptly. And yeah, don't email your editor all the time—but if you do have a question, email rather than calling (unless they like that sort of thing).

Oh, and hit your word count. Otherwise your story really will get butchered, of necessity. And your due date—you did ask when it's due, right? Do they need a W-9 and/or contract and/or invoice to complete the specified payment? Get that stuff in writing upfront. Other bonus points: Ask what style guide and dictionary they prefer that you use, then use them. And fact-check your own stuff—you clearly have Internet access, so do what most writers don't bother to do and Google (or check against your notes and tapes) all the times, dates, proper nouns, etc. that are mentioned in your piece. Oh, and read through an issue of the magazine (or at very least some of its pieces online) to get a sense of the publication's voice, things your editors might want in the story (e.g., maybe earmark some material for a sidebar if they like sidebars), how stories the length yours will be usually are organized in that publication, etc.

As far as ethics go, just make sure to fully disclose any conflicts of interest you might have. Your editors will be pissed if they find out only later in the process that you are, say, a member of the religious group you're writing about, or that the subject of your profile was your best friend in high school.
posted by limeonaire at 7:02 PM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Something that I learned to do in J-school, which has saved my ass at least once, is to send JUST THE QUOTES to your source for verification prior to turning them over to fact checking. It helps to have tapes that you've transcribed, but a couple times I've ended up transcribing quotes literally where someone misspoke and needed to correct it in order for the story to be accurate. Don't send them your story, obviously, even though a surprising number of sources will ask to see it before you print it, but do send them the quotes. (Treating people honestly makes it so much more satisfying when you nail them.)

(Also, CONGRATS! Now write something for free for the MeFi Mag.)
posted by klangklangston at 8:42 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is all amazing advice -- I can't thank you all enough. ALL best answers!
posted by caoimhe at 1:39 AM on April 3, 2012

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