The Gangrenous Limb

I once had a rather appalling and disappointing thing happen to me that you might find instructive.

After months of little or no work, I was able to sell a story proposal to a major national magazine. It would have been an excellent assignment in the best of times, and those weren’t. I was thrilled to be back in the game.

When I got to the town where the story was supposedly taking place, though, it took about a day of reporting to discover that the story wasn’t what we thought it was. Some of the news accounts on which I’d based my proposal got several key facts wrong. My editor and I had thought we could hang a great national and social trend on what was happening in this little town, when it fact it appeared that all that was going on was a pissing match between this town and its state’s governor. It was still a great story, but it was plain pretty quickly that it wasn’t a great story for this national magazine.

At this point, I had the choice of trying to bang this square peg into a round hole in the hopes of salvaging this very good assignment, or pulling the plug. I did what all writers should do when faced with a reporting problem: I considered my editor a friend and ally — instead of an enemy and a problem — and called him. I explained what was going on. I said one more day of reporting might turn up the information we’d hoped to find, but at the moment it was looking like I’d oversold the the story and the storywe thought we had wasn’t, in fact, the case.

He told me to abandon ship. He agreed to reimburse the expenses I’d incurred and, being a total gentleman, offered to pay me $750 for the time I’d put into the piece thus far.

Here’s the point: Sometimes things don’t pan out as planned. The writer then faces a choice. Giving up a great assignment is a hard thing to do, especially in these lean times. But it’s often the better path — like cutting off a gangrenous limb. Had I kept my mouth shut, and tried to build the promised story out of the inadequate material I was finding, a disaster for all most likely would have ensued. The magazine would likely have rejected the piece and been forced to pay more in expenses plus a kill fee. My reputation at the magazine would have been destroyed. Instead, the editors there now think of me as a pro who can recognize unfortunate circumstances and bail early to save them money. They say they’re eager to work with me again.


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