Assignment Letters, Here’s How to Get One…
I received this email from a fellow reader this week:
“Dear Lori, I don’t know how your readers are doing it. I’ve called 5 hotels wanting to trade a free room for an article in a travel magazine and I was turned down every time.”
Hmmm. It sounds like he’s missing a key piece of the puzzle.. Here’s my response:
“Dear Bill, What publication are you writing for? Send me your assignment letter or, if you don’t have one, send me the name of the publication that’s agreed to publish your article. And, also, send me a copy of the letter you sent to these hotels telling them about your trip. Maybe, once I’ve seen them, I can tell you why your approach isn’t working.”
The thing is — and Bill, forgive me if I am wrong — I doubt he has any of those items I asked for. It sounds to me like Bill’s vying for the privileges travel writers can enjoy… without doing any of the work to earn them.
If I knew the managers at those five hotels he approached, I’d buy each of them a drink and thank them for turning Bill down.
Why? Well, because you have to earn those perks. And the truth is: It’s NOT that hard. In fact, I can boil it down to five steps:
** STEP ONE: Come up with a story idea
Remember that the best story ideas are specific, unique, and targeted to a particular publication. Review our e-letter archives at www.thetravelwriterslife.com for “Uncovering the Best Story Ideas” and “The Simple Secret to Giving Editors What They Want” and “Count More, Sell More…How to Use Numbers to your Advantage“.
If you still can’t come up with an article idea, review “How to Turn a Profit on a Feel-Good Trend” and “How to Write a Real Travel “Story” on turning today’s hottest trends into fast-selling travel articles.
** STEP TWO: Find someone to publish your article. It all boils down to audience.
It may seem strange to talk about finding someone to buy your article before you actually sit down to write it. But the most successful travel writers know that narrowing your audience is key.
Figure out who you want your audience to be, and then target a few (that is, more than one — 3-5 is probably good) publications that serve that audience.
Go back to our eletter archives and review “The One Simple Truth Behind ALL Published Travel Articles and How, Specifically, You Can Master It.”
And since I just told you to target 3-5 publications that might be interested in such an article, also review issues “Can You Pitch Multiple Article Ideas in One Query Letter?” and “How One Never-Before-Published Travel Writer Landed a Bi-Weekly Travel Column” to find out whether you can query multiple article ideas in one query letter and/or approach multiple publications at the same time with the same article.
** STEP THREE: Get your targeted publication(s) to write you a letter of assignment.
We’ve talked about letters of assignment in this eletter before. But, rather than send you to an archived issue, I’ve asked Jen Stevens, author of our Ultimate Travel Writer’s Program to tell you about them, below. Jen sat for many years behind an editor’s desk — handing out assignment letters, among other things. So she knows just what it takes to get one. Read on below for her advice.
** STEP FOUR: Arrange for your travel (and if you’re looking for ways to save, politely approach hotels and other travel providers about discounts or comps).
With assignment letter in hand — even if it’s just an email from the editor agreeing to look at your article “on spec” — start making your travel plans. (“On spec” means: The editor has agreed that your article might work for his publication. You write it and he’ll read it. If he likes it, he’ll take it.)
If you need some guidance about the best ways to approach people who could deliver offers of hospitality (like hotel managers or tour operators, for instance), review the sample introduction letters in The Ultimate Travel Writer’s Program) and model your own after those.
** OK…EXCEPT I’M NOT TRAVELING ANYWHERE. So you’re stuck in town? Not a problem. You can still follow steps 1-4. The key? Begin to think of your hometown and the towns around you as destinations in and of themselves.
Is there something new that might appeal to locals? Or is there a tried-and-true activity or a place that would be of interest to others visiting your neck of the woods?
Get out there and take notes. Treat your own “back yard” just as you would any new place you visit.
See issue “Seven Habits of a Truly Observant Traveler” in our e-letter archives on how to be a more observant traveler. Bring your camera out with you and snap a few pictures.
** STEP FIVE: Following the writer’s guidelines closely, write your story.
Keep in mind: It’s easiest to break into publications you’ve not written for before by writing a short piece for a particular department. Point is: You don’t have to write thousands of words. Just a hundred or two will do.
Pledge to get a story written before Monday (ideally, with photos to illustrate it) and send it off to the publication you’ve targeted.
Make it happen, and you could well have your first clip before the end of the month.
If you do, I want to hear about it. I like to hear about all our travel-writing and/or photography successes. If you have a story to share, send me a quick note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a great weekend,
Director, Great Escape Publishing
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]
ASSIGNMENT LETTERS: WHY THEY OPENS DOORS… AND HOW YOU GET THEM
By freelance travel writer Jennifer Stevens in Colorado Springs, CO
Let’s begin at the beginning…
Question: What is a press trip?
Answer: A press trip (also called a “fam trip” (“fam” for familiarization) or media trip or media junket) is a trip organized and paid for by an organization (could be a hotel, resort, tourist board, tour operator, airline…) interested in having journalists write about what they have to offer. It is not a personal vacation for the writer… though it can be an enjoyable adventure.
On a press trip, however, you’re meant to work. So you’ll want to take notes, perhaps interview a few folks, and be thinking all the while about the article(s) you plan to write. And, if you can manage it, actually write while you’re on the trip.
I was on a press trip to Cancun some years back, and while I gathered plenty of information while there, I opted to spend the last afternoon on the beach rather than in my room typing. It seemed like a smart decision at the time.
But I have to say, when I met up with my fellow writers for our group dinner, I sat next to an older couple who’d forgone the sun and sand in favor of their laptop. They’d wrapped up their article already… and I felt terribly jealous. I simply report.
*** Writers on Assignment Luck Out ***
“Preference given to writers on assignment.” Scroll down to the bottom of a press-trip announcement and you’ll often see those words or something to that effect.
It means that the sponsoring organization wants to be as certain as it can that the trip will generate media coverage. The hosts are looking for the best odds they’ll “get press” in exchange for their hospitality.
You can hardly blame them. After all, if they’re going to fly you in, put you up, feed you, and make sure you’ve met all the folks you need to meet… then they want to be sure they’re getting some reasonable return on their investment.
*** When You Can Ask for an Assignment Letter ***
So how do you get one of these magical assignment letters that can land you a place on a press trip?
You need to write an editor and ask for one. And if you have a firm article assignment, then it’s perfectly natural for you to do so. You simply get in touch with your editor and say something like: “Hello, Jim, I’m working on that article we discussed — on non-Disney travel in Northern Florida — and I wonder if you might write me a quick letter of assignment to flash around to PR folks and whatnot? Thank you.”
Will an editor who has never heard from you before just dish out an assignment? Probably not. (That’s why it’s so important that you get those first few articles published… they not only give you some track record, but they give you editorial contacts, too.)
Once you have a few published articles under your belt, the chances are much greater that you’ll be able to land those firm assignments up-front.
If you have one, and you’ve asked the editor for a letter of assignment, that letter is likely to read something like this one I’ve just made up:
“To Whom it May Concern: Jane Doe is working on an article for me about non-Disney travel in Florida. I expect to publish it in the May issue of Historic Travel. We have a readership of 200,000 and publish 8 times a year. Our readers tend to be well-educated, affluent, and frequent travelers. Please extend to Ms. Doe any help you can as she completes this assignment. Thank you. Sincerely, JD Smith, Editor, Historic Travel”
*** Making “On Spec” Work to Your Advantage ***
Even if you have an editor who simply agrees to look at your article “on spec,” that may be good enough to satisfy a PR official looking to fill a press trip. You’ll need, however, to be up-front with that PR official in saying that you’ve got a “spec” assignment. You might increase your chances of garnering a spot on the trip if you’ve got two or three such jobs lined up.
Say you’ve pitched three “Northern Florida” articles to three different editors at three different publications, and each has come back with a “Sure, sounds good. Send it to me on spec, and if it’s something we really can use, then we’ll buy it.”
Now you can tell the PR official offering a tour to Northern Florida:
“I’m interested in participating in the Northern Florida trip you’re sponsoring from May X-Y. I’ve been in touch with editors at several publications and have lined up spec assignments as follows:
Parents Magazine — spec article accepted on the non-Disney Florida, a deep-south experience with history, beaches, and wildlife to keep the kids entertained.
Florida Today — spec article accepted on the “genteel south” part of the state, positions N. Florida as the state’s culturally rich, and best-kept travel secret.
Chicago Tribune — spec article accepted on the “genteel south” part of the state, also positions N. Florida as the state’s culturally rich, and best-kept travel secret with news peg being affordable flights in and out of Pensacola from O’Hare.
I’m a freelance travel writer based in Chicago. In the past, my work has appeared in International Living, Parents, and The Traveler.
Thank you for your consideration.”
One quick note on this front: If you’re in this situation and pitching an article to an editor, check the publication’s guidelines ahead of time to make sure the editors don’t have any rules against publishing articles written by writers who have received special rates or consideration while on the road.
Some publications make a point of publishing stories written only by people who have paid full-fare (this is often the case with big-market newspapers, for instance). You’ll just need to make sure you’re not stepping on anybody’s toes. Plenty of publications (many, if not most, magazines) don’t mind if an article is generated from a press trip.