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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The McCaughey Septulets Rule

To successfully freelance for magazines, you must be able to write compelling query letters. You make yours stand out from the pack by researching the topic ahead of time—and letting the editor know you've done so.

Depending on the topic, this may mean including statistics, recent research, or "live" quotes from an expert or another source. So how much time and effort do you put into the query itself? Do you interview a source before you get the go-ahead to do the actual article? Or do you wait until you get the assignment? The answer depends on what I call the McCaughey Septuplets Rule.

With some articles, contacting a source to write the query ahead of time is a smart move. How do you know whether it's necessary? My rule of thumb is this: if the story turns on the person's participation (such as with a true-life feature or a profile), then I contact the person ahead of time to make sure he or she is willing to do the story if I get the assignment. This also gives me a chance to do a brief interview and drop some intriguing quotes into the piece.

When I was teaching magazine writing, I called this "The McCaughey Septuplet Rule." Long before Jon and Kate Plus Eight (post-divorce, now Kate Plus Eight) came along, the McCaughey Septuplets, born in November, 1997, were big news. Every few months, their beaming faces would grace a woman's magazine.

But here's the thing. If you want to write a profile on the McCaughey septuplets, you need the septuplets. You can't just grab three sets of twins and a singleton, smush 'em together, and call them septuplets.

That's why I confirm that any critical story source is willing to talk to me before I pitch the story—I don't want to be stuck with an assignment I can't deliver. Otherwise, I note a couple of people who I "plan to interview" (note my phrasing--these are the types of sources I plan to talk to--if one isn't available, I'll get someone similar), and contact them once I get the assignment.

Get the idea? If the story turns on someone's participation, I get their OK before I pitch it. Otherwise I pitch it and contact my sources afterwards. That's the McCaughey Septuplets Rule, in short.

What about you? How do you handle this?