Most freelance writers I know have some dream magazines they’d looove to write a freelance article for. I’m no different.
For years, I’ve wanted to move up from writing for Entrepreneur to writing for Forbes. When Forbes poached me to write for their blog, I hoped I was getting closer.
I’ve pitched them a few things for the magazine in the year I’ve blogged, and come close a couple times.
I imagined I’d find some great trend idea and be given a month or so to meticulously report and write it. I’d be sure to do an amazing job with that first article and make them want me back.
But nothing had panned out. That is, nothing until just a few weeks ago, when my editor called with a rush assignment they needed for an upcoming special section of the print magazine.
It’s a profile of a hot startup beauty company in Seattle, Julep. It requires an in-person interview — am I available? It was 1200 words and would pay $2,000.
Here was my opportunity to break into print with them. Didn’t look anything like what I’d hoped my first article for Forbes would be… but it was a print article for Forbes. And a chance to prove myself.
Drop what you’re doing…
I checked my schedule, spotted a couple other assignments I could shelve for a few days, and said “yes.”
Which was really crazy because I’m always super-busy, haven’t reported a story on a short deadline in years, have a ton of family responsibilities, too, and I was scheduled to leave town the day after I was to turn the piece in.
In other words, there was no safety net. No wiggle room. At all. The magazine would be laying out the article the day I turned it in, on an issue coming out in just a few weeks.
No pressure, right?
On the plus side, I did have practice at this — experience writing 3-4 stories a week for 12 years as a staff writer, all on deadline.
I knew deadlines.
I thought I could make this one happen, and that I should take the chance to be a hero and help out my editor. Could only lead to good things in future.
Writers are always asking me what it takes to move up and write at the national level, and tell me they worry about not being able to come through on short deadlines. I also get questions on what goes into a business profile — how to make it not come out sounding like an ad for the company.
Getting this piece done turned out to have a lot of twists and turns, and needed more than one assist from others. I thought it’d be instructive to give you a day-by-day rundown of how I put this profile together — including the mistakes I made along the way:
It’s Thursday. My editor calls and outlines the assignment. I agree and immediately begin making phone calls. The company confirms that they’re game to do the profile. I’m asking for an interview time with their CEO, and they’re looking into it.
Meanwhile, I check out their website and start learning what they do. I let their PR person know the other sources I’ll need — I need to hit one of their nail salons, interview an employee, a customer, and talk to their venture-capital funders. They tell me they’re on it.
I read what’s already been written about the company in national business magazines, the local newspaper, and local business journal.
The company has a nail salon I’ll be near on Sunday, so I make a plan to go visit it while my daughter is at Hebrew school.
Bad news: CEO is traveling and cannot do interview until Tuesday, which is the day my editor wanted the story turned in. I tell him it’s physically impossible to file when he wanted, but promise to write it that same night, so he has it first thing Wednesday New York time.
Try not to think about how intense that will be to get done.
For a major corporate customer, I think I should talk to Sephora (yikes — they’re based in France!), which was the first department store to stock their products. Julep’s marketing department says they will hook me up.
I check in again on Sephora and the VC interviews at the end of the day — company PR is still working on it. I try not to bite nails.
Regular readers will know that I never work on Saturday. Did I make an exception for this rush job? Nope.
I did not think about this assignment. I was not online. I took naps, played Farkle with the kids.
On Sunday, I hit the 8:45 a.m. boat, dropped my daughter at religious school, and hit the salon. Very nice, and busy, too.
I had never quite managed to confirm an appointment to talk to the manager, who turns out to be gone — attending a Seattle bridal show. The staff there are great, though, and hook me up with a great customer interview on the fly. Score!
This assignment may be going south on me, and there’s nothing I can do about it. My editor and their PR team battle it out over a disclosure Forbes wants that the company doesn’t want to make.
The upshot: we’re out of the special section…but are still going to do a profile for a regular section of the magazine. We’re off, then back on.
I try to stay focused. Type up my notes from Sunday’s trip and write interview questions for the next day.
In-person interview day!
All goes well — which for me means alarm goes off, kids go to school as normal, and I make my ferry. I arrive lugging my laptop to the Julep offices right on time, via a combination of bus and on foot with help from Siri on my phone.
Immediately wonder why I agreed to take an assignment about beauty when I rarely even wear lipstick…everyone is so young and stylish here! As are their products. And their sleek, red-and-white office. And their millions of fab-colored nail polish bottles.
At least I am wearing my favorite burgundy-and-black burnout swing jacket, so I don’t feel like a complete fashion failure. (Fortunately, I won’t realize until later that one of my earrings has fallen out during the walk over. Dork!)
First up, I do a quick scheduled phone interview with a manager at one of the VC firms that’s invested in Julep. Goes well. Sigh of relief, I’ve got a VC in the story.
Then I get to talk with CEO Jane Park, who is really fun to get to know and has a fascinating company story. I apologize for typing straight on my laptop due to the deadline — usually I’d take handwritten notes because it’s less intrusive. I’ve got maybe 40 minutes with her, then she has to go to the photo shoot setup in the lobby and work with Forbes’ photographer.
The day’s disappointment — still no word from Sephora. Seems like that isn’t going to happen.
The boat timing is off and I can’t catch one for about 90 minutes, so I walk all the way back to the dock down the waterfront from the north end of downtown Seattle. Helps me think and organize the article in my head.
Plus, it means I get to pass the cool, giant Claes Oldenburg typewriter eraser sculpture in the Olympic Sculpture Park. Totally gets me in the mood to get home and file!
Back home around 4 p.m., my hubby has mercy on me and decides to take both kids out to dinner and a movie to clear quiet time for me to crank out the draft.
Writing a fast, final draft
I rack my brain for what I can do to quickly create an amazing first draft that will need to be close to my final draft, too.
One shortcut: Instead of printing out, rereading, and highlighting my notes, I just scan through the notes online and bold the best parts.
This saves me at least an hour of reading and pondering. I’m able to grind out my draft. I write to length, so I don’t have to cut and boil down.
It’s done by about 8 p.m. I press ‘send.’
I’m happy with it, but have a nagging feeling in my gut.
I’m sorry I didn’t have more time with it. It would be stronger if it had a major customer and their biggest VC quoted in it, but we ran out of time.
I begin the day as all writers do who’ve just turned in an article — hopeful that my editor will love my draft and I’m done working on it.
No such luck.
Like me, he feels it doesn’t work without talking to one of their big corporate customers and the key Silicon Valley tech firm that didn’t talk. Tells me we must get them today. On the plus side, he says he’ll ask around the Forbes staff to see if anyone who covers tech can assist with the balky VC.
My major mistake: I know better than to trust the company to give me up all the sources! Should have done more of my own legwork on Thursday. But it’s time to take a deep breath and make it happen.
Here is where I have a major brainwave. Duh! One of their other major customers is Nordstrom, and I covered them for years back at the business journal.
I should have been more flexible in thinking about other companies that could be a good interview for this, and hedged my bets by making more calls. Kicking myself.
When I’m done kicking myself, I check Nordstrom’s PR contacts and incredibly, the same person I knew is still there, 8 years later.
I’ve hit them on a tough day, because they just announced a new store opening. But they come through and hook me up with a buyer for cosmetics. A 10-minute chat and I’ve got that source by lunchtime.
Miracle: A Forbes staffer gets an email quote out of the elusive key VC firm. We’re fully sourced! I send staffer my thanks.
Midday, the whole disclosure issue rears its ugly head again. It takes an assist from Forbes’ research department to come up with a publicly available figure both the magazine and company will agree on.
I’ve been sending small adds to my editor all day, who finally reveals he’s been too busy to look at it yet — could I rewrite and resend the whole thing? Sigh. I do.
Travel day. On the way to the airport, I answer a couple last-minute editor questions via email on my phone. When I land, the PDF is waiting for me to review. I make a couple suggestions, and we’re done.
Except for a few days later, when I’m asked to write a new headline for the online version of my story, which they put out a couple weeks ahead of the print issue. I write another headline, and it gets pretty decent traffic, too.
Now, time to get back to pitching those trend ideas. It was an intense week, but I got in the door.
What was your toughest rush job assignment? Leave a comment and tell us about it.