Chicken, meet egg

A reader writes in with a classic conundrum that we’ve all faced.  Say you’d like to profile Peter Moskos, the renowned author and thinker on policing issues, for Esquire Magazine, but you have no connection to either Moskos or Esquire. You may not want to pitch Esquire until you’re sure Moskos will cooperate and you’ve done a preliminary interview to get enough material to bait the hook. But at the same time, you don’t want to ask Moskos for his time until you’re sure you have the assignment from Esquire. Chicken, meet egg. The solution is staring you right in the face. It is, as it so often is, abject honesty.

Approach Moskos first. Tell him, “I am preparing a memo about you for the editors of Esquire in the hopes that they will assign me to write a profile of you. May I please have a preliminary interview to gather some material for that memo?” Note that you haven’t said that you have such an assignment. You haven’t implied that you’re a staff writer or that this is a sure thing. You’ve told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: You’re preparing a memo for the editors of Esquire. That should be enough to get you that preliminary interview, during which you can ask Moskos whom else you should interview to write the memo. (His will be self-serving suggestions, but if he’s found himself on the opposite side of an issue with anyone, that name should come up in the preliminary interview, too, and you can decide whether he or she should be interviewed for the proposal.) Once you’ve done the preliminary interview with Moskos and anybody else that seems necessary, and you’ve gathered the documents you’ll need fully to understand Moskos, you can write the proposal, being careful, as discussed here, to write it in Esquire style.

This may seem like a lot of unpaid work with no guarantees. It is. Writing a successful magazine proposal can take as long as it takes to write the story itself. Once you get the assignment, writing the piece is easy because you’ve already done all the hard work — conceiving the story, deciding on a structure, finding the sources and the documents, even doing some interviews. This is how you make money and keep from going broke as a freelancer; you do this pre-proposal work quickly and with great concentration, and you write a truly stellar proposal. This is when you really work hard. Even though the assignment, once you get it, will come with a deadline, you can actually rest on your oars a little as the post-assignment research and writing begin. You’re over the big hurdle. As Hunter Thompson used to tell his impatient editors at Rolling Stone, “the piece is finished; all I have to do is write it down.”

Got a problem with any of this? Let me hear from you.

6 thoughts on “Chicken, meet egg

  1. This is terrific. Do you ever think about teaching? You’d be great at it. I spoke with a few sharp journalism student yesterday and it really strengthened my faith in our future. I read this last night and thought how much you have to offer our next generation. Just a thought. Everything else good your way?

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  2. What happens if Esquire rejects the proposal? Must the writer inform Mr. Moskos that he/she will be pitching the piece elsewhere? What if the political slant of the outlet that accepts the piece — say, Mother Jones or National Review — is unacceptable to Mr. Moskos, who only agreed to cooperate with a piece aimed at Esquire? What then? Many, many thanks.

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    1. Again, abject honesty. Yes, you tell Moskos the Esquire turned down the proposal and tell him where else your pitching it. You may even have to do a little more interviewing to get the material that will make it right for second magazine. (See this: https://danbaum.com/proposals/)
      If Moskos doesn’t want to be profiled for magazine #2, that’s that. Try to talk him out of that position, but if he doesn’t want to be profiled for that second magazine, there isn’t much you can do. Drop him like a hot rock and move on.

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      1. Once again, heartfelt thanks. I can’t overstate how helpful this is. If I may impose once more and then promise to cease and desist —

        In the Mr. Moskos example, he is the subject of the proposed piece, so it makes sense that he should have veto power over the outlet in which it appears. But what if you hope to interview several individuals about an issue or event, each of whom can contribute a perspective, but none of whom is the subject? Assuming that you are querying only more-or-less mainstream publications, and you expect some rejections, is it necessary to specify the target publications in the request for a pre-interview?

        Again, most sincere thanks. Wishing you a happy holiday and the blessings of health.

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      2. Nobody has veto power. People can choose not to be interviewed, but it’s powerful to make it clear that the story is being written whether they like it or not, and their only decision is whether they want to add their perspective or not.

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