Breaking It Down
If you receive your assignment letter via e-mail, then the date will be time-stamped on the file and the working title will likely be in the subject line. Again, a more formal approach is better for your purposes, but even this most basic kind of written information will be helpful to you should a problem arise later.
Most editors consider a story's requested word count to be a guideline, not an exact number that you are expected to hit. If your assignment is, for example, supposed to be a 1,200-word story, you should do as most successful magazine writers do and file anywhere from 1,200 to 1,300 words, thus giving the editor a bit extra to work with but not so much extra that the editor has to spend hours editing your piece to fit the allotted space.
It is common practice among magazine writers to file about 10 percent more copy than an assignment letter requests. Editors typically appreciate the “room to edit,” and adding 100 words to a 1,000-word piece is usually not very time consuming for the writer. Do note, though, that filing less than a requested word count is frowned upon.
The Content Section
The section of the assignment letter that outlines the actual story will be key to your records if your editor begins to request rewrites that are far more complex than standard revisions. If you have any questions at all about what the story should contain, or about the tone or structure it should take, then you should ask those questions in writing and then staple your editor's written response (i.e., a printed-out e-mail) to your assignment letter for clarification purposes.
A typical content section of an assignment letter for a parenting magazine might read something like this: “As we discussed on the telephone, your profile feature will be about Donald Trump, one of the most successful real-estate moguls in American history. You will interview Mr. Trump and his wife at their Florida residence and focus your interview not on Mr. Trump's business practices, but instead on the couple's experience as new parents. Your feature should include details about their day-to-day schedules as they relate to the new baby, and should offer insights that other parents might find helpful for balancing their own work and home-life needs.”
Note how this description clearly states that you should
You can change the focus of your story after receiving an assignment letter, but only with permission from your editor. If you stumble upon something that you think will make a better angle, then you should contact your editor and ask whether changing the story's focus is warranted. If possible, get a revised assignment letter.
Your deadline is just that, a deadline. Not a guideline, not a sort-of-when-it's-due date, but a deadline. If you miss it and the editor wants to hold you to it, then you can be paid a kill fee with no questions asked about the content of your story itself.
Most successful magazine writers don't just make their deadlines; they beat them. Filing a story a few days in advance is an excellent way to get on an editor's good side, especially if you send your story with a note that reads, “I know this piece isn't due until Friday, but it's a holiday weekend coming up, and I thought you might enjoy having a few extra days to consider any revisions you might want.”
Whether you meet or beat your deadlines, be sure you note them the day that you receive your assignment letter. For longer assignments or cover features, you may have several deadlines, including one for a first draft and another for a final draft. These simply allow the editor to see that you are making progress on your reporting and writing, so that the magazine is not left in the lurch when expecting a major centerpiece feature from you.
Also be sure to look closely at the section of your assignment letter that tells you how and where to file your story after you complete your assignment. Of course you will need to send a copy to your editor, usually via email. In some cases, though, you also will need to send a copy of your story to a managing editor or an executive editor.
Most magazine editors want writers to submit their articles via e-mail as Microsoft Word documents. However, some magazines request special formatting, including margins and spacing that are different from the software's default settings. Pay close attention to these requests in your assignment letter, and ask for help if you need it.
When you are instructed to send your story to a second editor, it usually means that your assigning editor handles the words that go into the magazine, and a managing editor or executive editor processes invoices and works with the accounts payable department. That second editor likely needs a copy of your story to trigger the payment system so that you can get paid. If you fail to send the copy, your story may appear in print before your payment request even gets put into the accounting system.
Your payment amount is just what it sounds like, and it should be written as a dollar figure in your assignment letter. In the same section of the letter, you should find the payment terms, which include notations about whether you will be paid for your work on acceptance or on publication.
As previously stated, “on acceptance” is a better deal for you as a writer because you will be paid as soon as you complete the job. If you agree to be paid “upon publication,” the magazine can hold your story as long as it chooses, sometimes more than a year, without advancing you a single penny.
If your assignment letter does not include your editor's contact information, then be sure to ask for it at the time the assignment is made. That way, you will have no problems down the line if you are filing close to deadline and have last-minute questions.