Tuesday, January 20, 2009

assignment letters past and present

When I was cleaning out my desk and trashing files from my computer as I prepared to leave Style at Home, I was faced with the decision of what to keep. Perhaps because I have aspirations to teach a magazine course or two one day, I like to keep copies of some of my better assignment and fix letters – they might come in handy as examples in the future. Or perhaps, after I become a world-famous ;) editor, they'll be published in a biography of me a la Harold Ross (read an excerpt of Letters From the Editor). (Grand aspirations, eh?)

There's another reason to keep a selection of your editing correspondence, though. On her blog, one-time Chatelaine editor Rona Maynard writes of how she's grateful to have had the chance to read an assignment letter she wrote to Antonia Zerbisias back in 1979.
I had taken great pride in the letters I composed back then. I used to see myself as the Max Perkins of fashion magazines for the under-35 set. Yet I hadn't thought to save even one of those letters. That Antonia had (along with the entire dossier) seemed almost too good to be true. And so, within hours, I was face-to-face again with my young self, and hers.

Rona also mentions how assignment letter writing has changed:
These days few editors bother with detailed assignment letters. Instead they send contracts designed by corporate masters to head off expensive copyright disputes. When I sit down to write a magazine piece and review the marching orders, they're just that: length, deadline, a few terse lines of summary. I rarely feel that I'm engaging with a sympathetic reader who understands the power of the word. We've entered an era in which many young writers have never experienced the surge of motivation that an editor's letter can unleash.

And I wonder, has it changed so much? I certainly have seen and even written these short, perfunctory assignment notes, but only when working with writers who I've worked with before, and on stories of the type they've written before, when writing it all out really just seems redundant. But in general, have we become lazy – do we dash off assignment letters with little care?

1 comment:

Jennifer Cockrall-King said...

Comment from a writer who has been freelancing for over 10 years: Detailed assignment letters still do exist. Yes, they are few and far between, but I write regularly for Unlimited & Alberta Venture, hq'd in Edmonton. It's not because they pay the best, or they're the most widely read magazines in the country. No, it's because they put a lot of thought into their features and collaborate with their writers to make each feature better that it might otherwise be if just "assigned" or based on a pitch. There are discussions by phone (I know, how antique!) and then THEY follow up with a really solid assignment letter based on the editor-writer discussion. It seems obvious but it streamlines the process (no major rewrites or surprises). A 15 minute e-chat or phone call before the assignment letter arrives in my inbox saves me time and makes me more money. I'm growing increasingly impatient with editors who don't have time to communicate with their writers but who come back to us with 11th hour tasks. I tend to work for those types of editors less and less now. Anyone else out there feel that way? Jennifer