Sure, you and the writer had a long talk when you commissioned that story idea. But two months later the manuscript is on your desk, and who can remember what the article was supposed to be? That’s where an assignment letter comes in handy. After you and a freelancer have agreed on a story, recap the discussion in writing and send your letter (or e-mail message) to the writer. It will help you get the piece you want.
Once you’ve read through the guidelines below, have a look at our sample letter (a downloadable PDF document).
WHY WRITE IT?
- To build an editorial foundation for the story: A clear assignment letter puts you and the writer on the same wavelength. If your written description differs from the writer’s recollection, you have a chance to resolve the discrepancy before the first draft comes in. And when the manuscript arrives, the letter allows you to judge whether the writer delivered the story as promised. You can also circulate the letter to higher-ups to make sure they buy into the assignment and recall it later. When you distribute the manuscript to other editors for review, attach the letter so they too know what the idea was.
- To build a relationship with a writer: Writers want clear instruction; an assignment letter provides that and gives the writer something to refer to while reporting and writing. A careful summary of the story idea assures the writer that you’re a careful editor who wants to prevent those nasty surprises that so often pop up between writer and editor. The letter also lets you address a writer’s weaknesses—get two sources for every fact, avoid clichés, and so on.
WHAT’S IN IT?
- A clear, specific statement of the story’s concept, content, and approach: Quickly and specifically outline what the article will cover and the depth of information you expect, including perhaps the types of sources you desire (personal interviews, scientific studies, etc.). Send research materials you have collected. Enclose a sample story from your magazine that could serve as a model. Confirm the approach you have agreed to and, if you two have discussed them, outline the lead and structure.
- Your worries: Is the reporting going to be difficult? Say so. Are you concerned about the structure? Ask to see an outline. Are there points that absolutely have to be covered? Make sure the writer knows.
- Logistical information: Describe the magazine’s payment procedures, editing process, fact-checking needs; tell the writer if you’re going to be out of town and whether you prefer to work by phone or e-mail. You can create some of this information ahead of time to cut-and-paste into your assignment letters.