When I started freelancing, I had a “never say no” philosophy about assignments.
Taking every assignment that was offered helped me build my career. It also established a bad habit – one that has taken me years to break.
The default “Yes” response when an editor called or emailed to offer an assignment meant that I never considered whether I had time to squeeze in more work (leading to a “no sleep, no problem” philosophy that defined the first several years of my freelance career) or whether taking the assignment was the best career move. As it turned out, cranking out articles about a local puppet theater and the opening of a new restaurant meant that I didn’t have time to pitch stories I was excited to write.
Since I’m a girl who loves a list, I came up with three questions to help me evaluate whether to accept an assignment.
1. Will it help me meet my income goal?
You could argue that every paying assignment puts me one step closer to my income goal. I know from experience that attempting to cobble together a living wage by cranking out articles that pay $50 is impossible. Before accepting an assignment, I consider the fee that is offered and estimate the time it will take for research, interviews, writing and revisions.
In asking this question, it’s become clear to me that an impressive-sounding fee is not a sure path to meeting my income goal; I often earn more per hour for assignments that pay a modest rate than those that pay $2/word because of the amount of work and number of revisions involved.
2. Is it a magazine I want to write for?
If I want to break into a new magazine, I’ll take an assignment even if it’s not a topic I’m super excited about or the article is a quick turnaround FOB. (BTW, I know some writers shun short assignments but I never balk at writing them, especially for magazine or editor I haven’t worked with before. I believe it gives us a chance to see if we work well together).
3. Is it a story I want to write?
You know my three-legged stool analogy includes writing articles for the sheer love of the topic or organization, right? If I am offered an assignment on a topic I’m passionate about, I’ll make time in my schedule to take it on. A caveat: Every story can’t be a story you really want to write.
I know some writers will try to convince themselves that they really want to write an article/accept an assignment because they want/need the check that will arrive in the mail when the assignment is complete. Been there, done that. Now, I do a gut check: “Is it worth it to take on this assignment when I’m not excited about the topic?”
I’ll accept if it’s a magazine I want to write for or the fee is too good to pass up. If the topic is boring, the magazine is ho hum and the fee is abysmal, I pass. I’d rather focus my energy on pursuing assignments that meet at least two of my criteria.
My track record isn’t perfect.
In 2013, I accepted a few assignments that met ZERO of three criteria. I felt like the wallflower at the high school dance when the editors offered work: so flattered to be asked that I couldn’t say no. Suffice to say, neither experience was a good one. So, I started the New Year by taping the questions to my computer monitor. Now, they are front and center when an email comes in or an editor calls.