It was my very first assignment, and, as far as first assignments go, I was spoiled. This was a good, national market—Link Magazine, to be precise. Link was a free magazine distributed in college dorms all across America. They also had their own television station. It was an impressive outfit.
So, I got the call one fine afternoon.
“Hi, Jenna. This is Torey at Link Magazine, and I wanted to talk about your query.”
Of course I knew what he was talking about. I only had one query. It was the only idea I’d ever had for a magazine article; a profile of three of my college buddies who had started their own Internet Service Provider. This was many years ago, when web-based businesses were still novel and interesting things to talk about.
Anyway, he called to tell me I got the assignment, but it would only be a very short piece—around 300 words. They could pay 50 cents a word, he said in an apologetic tone. I pretended to be cool, but I didn’t even think about negotiating. I was just waiting for him to glance over my query again, notice I didn’t mention anything about my experience, and realize I was an amateur. A creditless loser. I rushed him off the phone, really, just hoping I’d get through the conversation without him ever asking anything about my background. I succeeded.
Although I had two weeks to submit the article, I thought it would look very professional if I could show that I was the World’s Fastest Writer. He had told me he would send me a sample copy of the magazine, but I didn’t have time to wait for that. This was my first real assignment, for goodness sake! I had to work on it NOW.
I called my friends, and conducted about 6 hours worth of long distance phone interviews, jotting down every word in longhand. (I thought it would have been rude of me to mention my expenses, so I sucked up the phone bill.) I summoned all my knowledge about journalists, which I’d derived from watching movies, of course. Journalists were thorough, and detailed, and they got the scoop behind the scoop. So I dug deep; I asked really obscure questions about their parents and their childhood dreams, in addition to all the relevant ones about college and work.
Then I ran straight to the computer and wrote my first draft. It clocked in around 2,000 words. I had to cut only 1,700 of them.
And cut them, I did. I only kept the very big, fancy words. I made sure every word was impressive and collegiate and writerly. I tried to cram everything I ever knew about these three guys into four paragraphs. I stayed up all night with a thesaurus, editing and tweaking until I was sure this was the most intelligent 300-word profile ever written. And I emailed it straight to the editor.
“Hi,” he said on the phone the next day. “Um, there’s a little problem with what you’ve submitted. It sounds like a press release, and it’s not funny. Link is funny. And irreverent. And… you’ve never read the magazine, have you?”
“Well, no,” I admitted.
“Why don’t you just wait until you see the sample issue, and then see if you can pick up the style”
“Okay,” I agreed, down but not beaten.
It was absolute torture waiting the next three days, my typing fingers paralyzed while I waited for the magazine to appear in the mailbox. When it finally did arrive, I read it cover to cover, studying it like the Bible. It was the first time I’d ever really learned anything about the business I’d just entered.
I had assumed I’d be a great writer in any form, mostly because I’d aced all of my English courses in college. People paid me to help them with their term papers. Surely, that’s the kind of writer who editors would want to hire… right?
I couldn’t have been more wrong. This magazine was informal, quirky, entertaining. It read like a conversation among friends, rather than a Shakespearean analysis. I had just assumed I must know how to write for magazines after reading them for so many years. I knew Link was a college magazine, and I had read college magazines (they were fruity and talked about goofy things like studying and glee clubs and “just saying no”). So I figured I knew what this market was about. When I got their magazine, I started thinking about how much variation there is within any market. In women’s mags, there’s matronly Good Housekeeping, and there’s skin-deep Vogue. In smut, there’s classy Playboy, and then there’s anything involving the letters “DD.”
This wake-up call made me realize I had just been a passive reader; I’d never studied my craft. I never paid any attention to the styles, structure, and tone of magazine articles.
I rewrote that piece; gave it a wacky title, a clever hook, and short, punchy sentences. The editor absolutely loved it. He loved it enough to stay in touch with me, even when he left the magazine and moved on to other markets. He loved it enough to recommend me to the publisher of the magazine when they needed an editor-in-chief for an off-shoot magazine several years later. In penance, I learned how to study a market before I submitted queries, let alone finished assignment.
I don’t think he ever knew that was my first assignment, and I don’t think he remembers that awful first draft I submitted. But today, I’m so thankful that my first experience was with an editor who was patient and kind enough to give an overeager amateur a second chance to make her first impression.
Jenna Glatzer is the editor-in-chief of Absolute Write (www.absolutewrite.com), where writers can get a free list of more than 180 agents who are open to new writers! She is also the author of OUTWITTING WRITER’S BLOCK AND OTHER PROBLEMS OF THE PEN and other books for writers, which you can read about at http://www.absolutewrite.com/jenna/books.htm if you want to make her day.