Taking the Initiative
What can you do if you run into an editor who just refuses to write you an assignment letter?
The easiest and least-confrontational path is to send the editor an e-mail in which
Wait for your editor to reply with his agreement of your assessment, or with notes about any changes he would like to see in your description of the story, and then print out your original e-mail attached to his reply. You've got your written assignment letter for your files, albeit with an extra step on your part.
If the editor refuses to reply to your e-mail, then you can send a follow-up note a few days later. Do not call, which invites a verbal instruction instead of a written one. Rely on e-mail instead, telling the editor that you would like to get to work on the story assignment immediately but that you are awaiting his reply to your e-mail just to make sure you are doing everything the way he wants it done. Usually, this will be enough of a nudge to get even the most anti-assignment–letter editor out there to reply to you in kind.
While it is important that you get the written information you need before beginning a magazine-writing assignment, it is paramount that you ask for it politely. Be honest with your editor about your desire to have a proper assignment letter, but do not take a hostile tone. Your relationship with the editor is key to getting future assignments.
Assessing Your Risk
Sadly, there will be times when an editor simply will not reply. For whatever reason, the editor will not want the assignment's details to be in writing. If you find yourself in this situation, then you must decide whether you want to risk doing all the work of the assignment without even a basic written promise of compensation.
Should this situation arise with an editor you know well and have worked with many times before — say, a last-minute piece she calls you about and needs first thing the next morning — then you may want to go ahead and do the work. After all, you will have a good history of working with the editor and, hopefully, a good record of being paid on time.
However, if you end up in this situation with an editor or a magazine that is new to you, then you definitely should think twice about taking the assignment at all. More than a few writers tell horror stories about completing 2,000- or 3,000-word articles for magazines that later refuse to pay them, and it can be a long, frustrating battle to get a magazine to make good when you don't have a written assignment letter as legal proof of your deal. These kinds of problems can occur with startup magazines and long-standing titles alike. If you're working with an editor or a magazine for the first time, be especially wary about working without an assignment letter.
The same thing goes for dealing with contracts, which are more complex today than they have ever before been in the history of magazine writing. Chapter 8 continues this discussion of protecting your legal and financial rights. There you'll take a look at some of the clauses you are likely to find in the contracts that accompany your assignment letters, and you'll find some suggestions for modifying typical clauses to make the contracts you sign more writer-friendly in general.