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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Making the Call

Making the first phone call for a story is often the hardest part of writing for me. I refuse to psychoanalyze this; eventually I make myself place the call, and freelance life as I know it moves along.

I've heard a lot of people, journalists as well as new writers, stress about calling people for stories they want to do but don't have an assignment for, whether it's a piece they want to pitch to a slick magazine or a story that's likely to be submitted to literary journals.

What surprises new writers is how willing people are to talk, regardless. People are pleased to talk about what they care about or their lives/experience.

You don't want to give anyone the impression that by talking to you, she'll end up in a national feature. Nosirree. Simply introduce yourself as a freelance writer, interested in doing a story on X. Say what publication you plan to pitch the story to. If you can, drop the names of publications you've written for. If you're looking for background information, say so. Something along the lines of "I need some concrete information when I pitch this story to X magazine, and I hope you have a couple of minutes to talk with me."

For background for a query letter, plan on asking only a few questions. If a person is feeling chatty, great--but don't demand a lot of time and info before you get an assignment.

Most people simply ask that if your story runs and they're mentioned, you send a copy of the story. Get their contact info if you don't have a mailing address for them and make a note to do so. (Confession: I am extremely bad at mailing people copies of the finished story; therefore, I now merely say I'll try to.)

If you're calling to see if you can hang out and see if your idea for a story has legs, you might have to persuade people that it's No Big Deal. It's not like you're showing up with a camera crew for a reality TV show. You'll stay out of the way. You'll keep quiet. You just want to see what it's like. (And for pete's sake, when you go there, keep out of the way and keep quiet!) If someone demurs, ask what happens in a typical day. Ask to be around for the part that interests you most.

If you're a student, have some chutzpah, assume that you are going to publish the article (eventually, in one form or another), and don't feel obligated to say you're working on a class assignment. Even if you are a student, you're in exactly the same position as a freelancer trying to put together a query or story. In my experience, people are put at ease by the "I need this for a class" line when you're asking to hang out with them, but experts won't return calls just for a school assignment.


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