A few years ago, I was meeting with the new editor of Saveur in his New York City office discussing possible assignments. He had just moved up to the top position, and, although I was a regular contributor to the publication, I had never worked with him before. In discussing our mutual rural experiences, an idea popped up almost out of nowhere: a large Thanksgiving spread with photos about a modern farm family who still held on to many traditional practices.
It was a great assignment, but one that demanded a lot of attention by both of us. I quickly sought out and discovered an appropriate and game family in West Virginia, made a preliminary visit to check out everything, then choreographed the holiday weekend – a Thanksgiving Eve church service, an early-morning deer hunt, preparation of a big afternoon feast, family visits, the routines of cattle, hog and sheep farming. The assigned photographer and I spent three days on the farm making sure we had everything needed for publication a year later.
Such detailed planning is commonplace for publications specializing in seasonal covers and spreads which have to be reported and photographed a year in advance – food magazines, in particular, as well as regional general-interest publications. It’s a great market, but one many freelancers overlook. Such pieces require more advanced planning than the typical print-it-anytime article, plus they need monitoring while awaiting publication.
Seasonal articles have since become somewhat of a focus for me. The following are lessons I’ve learned about securing such assignments and successfully seeing them through to publication.
Pitch ideas at least 15 months in advance. Editors need time to consider your pitch, and, if interested, work with you to find the right subjects, locations and situations. Most magazines prefer hiring the photographer, so schedules must be checked. Even when you have already identified a subject, the editor may want to tweak the situation, requiring additional planning.
Get assignment details in writing – article brief, length, payment, delivery date, kill fee. Editors constantly change, and a new one may not be as enthralled with the subject as was the old one. Having everything in writing not only protects the writer if the project faces cancellation, but it also guides a new editor if publication proceeds as scheduled. Not long ago, an editor assigned me a major piece on a vineyard in Burgundy, then moved on. The new editor didn’t see it fitting his print mix, but because the assignment details were well-documented, the piece was published online for the full contracted fee.
Plan in advance everything you need to report. There can be no redos, especially photos,
after the holiday or event has passed. Sometimes in the middle of writing a piece I also photographed, I wish, too late, that I had shot additional situations or had explored them with the subject.
Expand your notes while everything is fresh. What is clear directly after an interview may seem vague when you sit down to write in a few weeks. Taping is an alternative, but that inhibits some subjects and demands additional transcribing time. In my case, I try to go through my notes at the end of the day or the next morning while on assignment or on the flight back.
Debrief with your photographer. An observant photographer will notice things you won’t, especially if he or she is shooting while you’re interviewing. Most photogs are happy to show you their prized shots which, along with their observations, may influence what you write. A couple of days after a photographer and I did a seasonal duck hunt in the marshes of Delaware for The Hunt magazine, he sent me possible cover and opening spread shots he would pitch the photo editor, sparking a couple of additional points for me to emphasize.
Write a draft or detailed outline as soon as possible. As with note-taking, the sooner you can commit the words to the page or screen, the fresher your observations about the people and their environment will be. You don’t have to finish or polish if you’re busy with another project. The first cut is for impressions; the second is for your reflections.
Compile a resources contact list. Some editors ask for one as a comfort check or to use in fact checking. Even if one isn’t requested, a list saves you from scrambling for numbers and emails when doing last-minute updates.
Do interim check-backs with your subjects. Don’t discover at the last minute your subject has moved, divorced, taken a new job or – the ultimate disaster for writer and subject alike – died. Check a few facts or perhaps follow up on some personal note, even if you have submitted the piece. You are the one responsible for getting things right, especially as dedicated fact checkers are a rarity these days.
Monitor the general environment. Has anything changed in the world in which the subject matter lives – major events or developments that can impact a theme or a new trend that needs to be noted? If so, send the editor an update or a new photo caption, such as, “Even though the Jacksons haven’t posted the kids’ Halloween costumes to Hallowwhat.com, an increasingly popular practice, they intend to this year.”
Be ready – and able – to revise. Don’t easily give up on a project when something changes dramatically between reporting and imminent publication. Foreshadowing the change in your text is one option. Another is an update at the end of the article. During pre-publication fact-checking of an article in Intermezzo on foraging, I found one principal in the piece had died a few weeks earlier. After discussing options with the editor, we let the piece go with minor changes, but added a postscript which gave the article an added poignancy. A piece for Town & Country on the Dad Vail Regatta had to be postponed for a year, but an updating kept it fresh. For a seasonal article for Santé about an innovative restaurant, I rewrote parts of it when the married owners went through a bitter separation while we were awaiting publication.
Having work-ahead seasonal assignments gives variety to your life as a freelancer. Managing them efficiently makes that life much easier.
Roger Morris is a full-time freelance writer with recent articles published in Town & Country, Details, Wine Enthusiast, Modern Farmer and The Daily Meal.