How to Head Off Freelance Assignment Disasters

Your key source is AWOL. Deadline day is tomorrow and you hate what you’ve written. You get a source on the line and he can’t answer any of your questions. The good news is that you can avoid freelance writing disasters like these. Here’s how.

The disaster: A key source blows off the interview.

How to head it off: Check in.

After being ditched by one too many sources come interview time, I started sending confirmation e-mails a day before the interview. I write something like:

Hello! I’m writing to confirm our phone interview tomorrow, October 15 at 1 pm ET. The article is for Writer’s Digest magazine and is on how to use online forums to boost your writing career. If you need to reschedule, please call me at 555-867-5309. Thanks, and I look forward to talking with you!

This is especially helpful when there are more than a few days between first contact and the interview itself. When you schedule an interview for three weeks from now, the source is more likely to forget about it.

The disaster: It’s a few days before deadline, and you managed to get only two interviews for your 2,000-word piece.

How to head it off: Start early.

Nothing sucks more than having to ask for a deadline extension because you weren’t able to nail down sources for interviews, so I typically start searching for sources the very day I get an assignment. I might put out a request on Help a Reporter Out, search Amazon for new books on the topic of my article, write to the appropriate organizations and universities, and post to related forums if I’m looking for “real people.” Remember, sources don’t schedule their lives around your deadlines, so contacting them early can help you work around sources’ vacations, work schedules, etc.

The disaster: Your article is due today and it somehow manages to both suck and blow.

How to head it off: Ask for help.

Sometimes an article just doesn’t work out. Your lede is clunky, the body is disorganized, and you can’t think of a conclusion. First, I have to say that this is another case where starting early helps. If you wait until deadline day to start writing an article and you have trouble with it, you’re S.O.L. So give yourself at least a few days to write.

Whenever I have problems with an article, I ask a writing friend to critique my piece. For example, I was recently working on an essay for a parenting magazine and was unhappy with the way it was turning out; because of the word count the editor gave me, each section of the essay was too short to get any real information in there. So I asked my essay writing friend Jennifer Lawler to take a look at it. She did, and she gave me some very helpful suggestions. In another case, I was working on my first narrative piece ever and wasn’t sure if I was doing a good job. My friend Elaine Grant, narrative journalist extraordinaire, read it for me and taught me how to weave scenes together for the biggest impact.

Of course, if you ask your friends for help you have to be willing to critique their work when they need it!

Another possibility is to ask your editor, well ahead of the deadline, if she would mind taking a look at your outline or first draft because you’re having trouble with X, Y, and Z. Your editor wants you to succeed as much as you do. Just be sure the draft you turn in is not too rough; you don’t want to scare your editor with numerous typos and too many organizational issues.

The disaster: The source you spent so much time lining up is a dolt.

How to head it off: Prep them.

I recently had an interview with a source — who approached me asking to be interviewed, might I add — who answered every question with, ” I don’t know anything about that” and “Well, that’s obvious.” Then I had to go and find another source before my deadline. Ugh and double ugh. Avoid such snafus by making sure the source really understands what your article is about. For example, you can paste your editor’s article description into an e-mail to your source, provide your own detailed description, or even send along some interview questions. I wouldn’t send questions if I were writing a profile or an investigative piece, but since most of my articles are service pieces, this is fine. And you don’t need to stick to the questions you wrote; other questions are sure to pop up during the interview. This is just to help the source get an idea of what you need from him.

The disaster: Your deadline is three days away, and you realize you have no story.

How to head it off: Do your research.

It happens: You come up with a great idea about how yoga causes high blood pressure, based on something you read in an online forum, and an editor bites. But when you start to line up sources, all of them agree that the claim is bogus. In short, you have no story.

That’s why I always recommend doing research before you write your query — and not save it for when you have the assignment. You’ll want to contact a few expert sources and find good studies and stats, which will not only impress an editor, but will also let you know before you send the query whether your idea will really fly. The even better news is that if you research your query, (1) you’re more likely to get an assignment, and (2) you’ll have part of your article done before you even start writing it.

What disasters have you headed off in your writing career through smart planning? Please post about your experiences in the Comments below! [lf]

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2 comments… add one
  • ReadyMom

    I definitely agree that prepping an interviewee is important (I usually send questions beforehand). But despite all your best efforts, you’re right sometimes the expert ends up being a dolt. I always try to line up at least two good experts if it’s key to my story. Even if it’s the perfect expert sometimes the person falls through at the last minute. Not good.

  • Thanks for your comment, ReadyMom! Good point…sometimes you just can’t head off a dolt so it’s good to have backups.

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