Early on in my career, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with a senior editor at TIME magazine. He’s written hundreds of articles and features, is profile frequently, and has lived and reported from several countries.
Here’s what he told me about getting your queries assigned.
1. “If I’m paying you for two days, work only two days.”
It’s awesome when an editor says this because it shows he has an understanding of the freelance life (and my obsessiveness). Freelancers, including me, regularly over-research, over-report, and over-write. Getting paid for two days? Work only two days.
2. “I don’t always want breaking news.”
New-ish works. New angles to old stories work. New research questioning old theories work. There are a million ways to make a story new and it’s not always breaking news. In fact, most news magazines like TIME want analysis. Give them that and you’re gold.
3. “You don’t have to be very detailed in your queries.”
If you’ve worked with an editor long enough (I’d been communicating with him for about three months), one-line ideas, story leads and what-do-you-think proposals work just fine. My editor did, in fact, discourage me from putting in too much work up-front.
4. “Match your story ideas to what’s happening in the news.”
Best advice I’ve ever received. He gave me examples and taught me how to match news to evergreen ideas. It’s easier to sell a story about safe tourism in India when a British teenager is murdered in Goa. Your article on residencies offered to exiled writers will be all the more interesting if the work of an exiled author is being debated on every television channel in the country. That tourism in Africa pitch? Sell it when the American President is visiting.
5. “Don’t over-research to the point where you lose focus.”
This is a specific problem of mine, but other writers have expressed feeling frustrated about it as well. Focus on the core of your story and build around that. If you keep adding more additional and equally interesting layers, it will become chaotic.
Case in point: I pitched a very timely story about Tibetan exiles in India and a trend I’d observed within the community. I over-researched, of course, and discovered through my contacts that the changes I’d observed in India were even more pronounced in Tibet itself. The project scope soon multiplied and instead of exiles in India, we were discussing Tibetan life in China, of which I had no first-hand experience. Soon enough, there was a committee of editors involved, and since neither they, nor I, could confirm our (new) findings, we had to let that story idea rest. Oh, and my initial idea? It’s still relevant, timely, and has adequate proof.
When you have two equally interesting findings about the same topic, my editor suggested, write two articles.
Want to know how I managed to sit down with an editor at TIME and get personalized one-on-one advice from him before I’d ever even written a word for him? I have that story– and four others– in a free series of case studies I’ve put together that detail how I landed top assignments, made money, and broke into these big-name publications. Read them here.