Hiring writers for alumni magazines can feel like a gamble.
“You just never know,” said one editor, talking about her skepticism of freelancers. “They might phone it in. They might not turn a story in on time. The work might be completely off target.”
But what if the opposite were true? What if hiring the right writer felt like the surest bet you could take on an important story?
Imagine sending your freelancer the germ of an idea and watching them expand on it in kaleidoscopic ways—ways that will make the story richer and more fun to read.
Think about what it would mean if, halfway into the project, you got an email that said “Everything’s on track! I have two new source suggestions that I plan to follow up on and a fun sidebar idea I think you’ll like…”
It’s not impossible.
Today I’m excited to tell you about Brendon Duffy, the new editor for Saint John’s Magazine. Last spring, shortly after taking the reins at the magazine, he had to take a challenging request from his boss and turn it into a cover story that readers (and his boss) would love.
After doing some preliminary work, he reached out to me and we worked out a plan for a great, creatively packaged story. The process, which I’ve honed over the course of nearly two decades, went off without a hitch.
Here’s the story, along with key takeaways about what you should expect from your writers.
1. Bring in a ringer
When Brendon emailed me last spring as he worked on his first issue as the magazine’s editor, he joked that he was “keeping [his] head above water (barely), but still swimming.” His boss had asked him to do a feature on sustainability at the university — a story he worried that, in the wrong hands, might be “a bit of a snooze.”
Fortunately, I’d worked on many sustainability stories for colleges—it’s been a buzzword for years—and I knew the exact pitfalls and opportunities that existed on this topic. Brendon had gathered some incredible data about the environmental improvements at the university during the previous decade, and he’d zeroed in on some of the student involvement in environmental efforts.
I agreed it was a great start. I also saw a few ways to make the story even better, and sent him an email about it:
We agreed to move forward with several of these ideas.
TAKEAWAY: Sometimes, a second set of experienced eyes to think of additional elements that can help bring a story to the next level.
2. Sidestep roadblocks
Colleges and universities are messy places. Sometimes the perfect professor is on sabbatical right when you need her. Sometimes a student source isn’t available for reasons that can seem dubious at best. Trust me, I’ve heard every excuse.
A good freelancer will keep you posted on any scheduling concerns—and even better, propose solutions.
When a source at Saint John’s proved elusive, for example, I let Brendon know right away. In the meantime, I had tracked down several additional sources so I could continue to move forward with reporting.
As I wrapped up my reporting, I wanted to make sure that my reporting and Brendon’s goals were in sync. I sent a few paragraphs to him just to confirm the overall direction of the story and make sure we were both on the same page.
The larger point? You should never feel blindsided at any point in the process. Your writers should be providing regular updates so that when you receive a draft, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting.
3. Think creatively about packaging
Features with a few engaging sidebars make reading fun, but it’s not always easy to come up with formats that work.
Brendon came to me with a great suggestion — a timeline — which is a perfect idea for a school with a long history of environmental conservation.
To add to that, I dug into the course catalog and collected several examples of sustainability-themed classes so readers could see that sustainability wasn’t simply a buzzword plunked into marketing materials — it was part of the university’s DNA.
Sidebars open up lots of options. To make sure I never miss any opportunity, I’ve created my very own “cheat sheet” with more than 30 different formats for great sidebars, from Q&As and timelines to charts and Venn diagrams. I review it before I finish any story to make sure that I’ve chosen options that convey ideas in interesting ways.
Get more than you hoped for
A good freelance writer should be more than just reliable and responsible. They should make your job easier. They should turn in stories that delight you. And they should allow you to do your most important job — connecting with alumni through your publications — more effectively.
For Brendon, this was the case:
Read the final story here.
Demand more from your freelancers to make your publication the best it can be.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve got a story that could benefit from an expert approach.