​The quarterback, the quiet friend, and “effortless” assignments

​The quarterback, the quiet friend, and “effortless” assignments

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Recently I got an email from a new-to-me editor who works at a publication I’d never heard of. If magazines were high school archetypes in a teen movie, and the New York Times was the football quarterback who also does toothpaste commercials and builds houses for the homeless, this mag would be one of the quiet, smart friends.

The editor asked if I was available for a freelance assignment on a topic I cover. Although he offered a good rate, I asked if he could increase it (easiest way to make $50 with a two-sentence reply); accepted; set up my interviews; got to my research; wrote the story; and then got a text message from my bank when the payment was received.

On the particular day that this assignment showed up, the only effort I made was to open my email inbox.

Here’s the thing: I’d put in plenty of effort beforehand to set up the conditions that could make this so-called effortless assignment happen. I’d previously pitched and sold stories on similar topics. I chose the best clips and put them on my website, using keywords so that an editor like this one could find me.

But more often than not, at least as far as really good assignments go (not just some chancer emailing with a measly assignment that’s easy to say no to), the ones that come my way “effortlessly” are from clients I’ve already worked with. And in my case–as somebody who didn’t go to j-school or otherwise have all the right connections–the majority of those relationships started with me sending a single cold pitch.

I know a lot of freelancers who say pitching is a waste of time. They’re usually in one of two groups (or possibly both):

1-They haven’t learned how to write effective pitches. They don’t know how to spot or develop story ideas, or don’t know how much or which details to include, or how to structure a pitch.

Often pitches fail when they’re not written specifically for one publication or section. In that teen movie, this is like your secret admirer writing a valentine’s day card with somebody else’s name on the envelope and then putting it in the wrong person’s locker. You are so not going to prom together.

Riverdale kids

2-They do write a decent pitch and get an assignment. But that section or publication isn’t a good long-term fit, and so there’s not much possibility of more work. Landing and completing the first assignment at any new-to-you publication often takes more time and effort than subsequent pieces do. There may well be a place for some once-off pieces in your freelance mix, but too many of them skew your ability to use time efficiently.

Note that the problem is almost never that the freelancer isn’t a good writer (being able to write an article well is a distinct skill from being able to write a query that an editor commissions) or that they aren’t working hard enough.
Putting in long, hard hours on marketing that doesn’t yield good results is exhausting and isn’t sustainable. You want to spend your time writing pieces that matter to you, that inform or delight readers, and that pay well.

>> Want to learn how to write pitches that sell, break into your dream markets, and get paid well to cover stories you’re passionate about? Register now for Freelance Writer Bootcamp.

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