Unique Story Ideas = Assignments By Kristine Hansen

I am a 27 year-old woman who has always enjoyed the buzz of print journalism. My freelance writing career started two-and-a-half years ago with a chatty e-mail to a former colleague, an editor of two trade magazines. I asked how her recent wedding went. We swapped gossip about our colleagues at the trade publishing company where I had once worked as an assistant editor on a transportation magazine. I mentioned I had just started a part-time job at an organic farm and environmental education center in California and was considering freelancing. She wished me luck.

The next week she e-mailed asking if I could fill in for a writer. The catch: it was due in less than two weeks. I said no problem and got to work dialing up sources and doing Internet research. That assignment led to a 1,500- to 2,500-word story due each month for one of the company’s four magazines for the next two years.

With my previous experience interning for a daily newspaper, editing my college’s newspaper, and planning stories at the transportation magazine, I figured I could make a go of it. While the road was mostly smooth – but required a lot of burning of midnight oil – there were also a few bumps. One dot-com I had a steady writing gig with filed Chapter 11. Another publisher always took more than the contracted 30 days to pay me, requiring many harassing calls from myself. Then there was the publisher who eagerly assigned a 2,000-word story about a new subway system, using only a three-sentence e-mail to do so, but then flat out rejected my submitted story saying I did not follow the detailed assignment.

Today I support myself as a freelance writer, getting to know two parts of the industry: the markets and those story ideas not yet written. I craft a story headline with my query that employs the “numbers” idea (i.e., Five Ways to Impress Your Client), a general how-to approach, or my favorite, the narrative style. I make sure I have a contract in hand before I call my first source, and if the check has not come by the day it is scheduled, I phone the editor or publisher.

Story ideas usually come to me while in transit – sandwiched into a bus seat during rush hour, during a long bike ride, or as the plane is lifting off. My curiosity about my city’s happy hour drink specials led to an expenses-paid assignment from a local magazine. The week I spent camping and restoring trails at Channel Islands National Park turned into a glossy spread, with my narrative prose, in a travel magazine. The ages-old question, at least to myself, of where my soda can went (into the recycling bin or not) during an airline flight led to an investigative story about U.S. airlines recycling bottles, cans and newspapers in the cabin. I’ve also learned to scour the employment classifieds, flyers posted around town, and association newsletters for story ideas.

While I’m more turned on by magazine writing, I occasionally write city government stories for regional newspapers. The pay is less but the payment arrives in my mailbox much quicker. There’s also satisfaction in being able to drop the witty, often long-winded magazine-style writing and instead type sentences stuffed with facts into a story and then file it five hours after I’ve exited the government meeting.

I also joined the Society of Environmental Journalists and traveled to the annual convention in Portland last fall. There I networked with other freelance writers and rediscovered the beauty of working independently and covering environmental topics that are truly of interest. A few online writer’s discussion groups have kept me on my toes, too. It’s nice to have a community to go to when you need to confirm a publisher’s existence, ask whether a contract was violated, and generally feel like you aren’t alone.

Kristine Hansen is a freelance writer in Madison, Wisconsin. Her stories have been published in Milwaukee Magazine, Madison Magazine, E/The Environmental Magazine, Cerca Magazine, Wisconsin Beverage Guide, and a variety of alternative and community news-weeklies. She can be reached at khansen@kristine-hansen.com