Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Assignment letters past and present

When I was cleaning out my desk and trashing files from my computer as I prepared to leave Style at Home, I was faced with the decision of what to keep. Perhaps because I have aspirations to teach a magazine course or two one day, I like to keep copies of some of my better assignment and fix letters – they might come in handy as examples in the future. Or perhaps, after I become a world-famous ;) editor, they'll be published in a biography of me a la Harold Ross (read an excerpt of Letters From the Editor). (Grand aspirations, eh?)

There's another reason to keep a selection of your editing correspondence, though. On her blog, one-time Chatelaine editor Rona Maynard writes of how she's grateful to have had the chance to read an assignment letter she wrote to Antonia Zerbisias back in 1979.

I had taken great pride in the letters I composed back then. I used to see myself as the Max Perkins of fashion magazines for the under-35 set. Yet I hadn't thought to save even one of those letters. That Antonia had (along with the entire dossier) seemed almost too good to be true. And so, within hours, I was face-to-face again with my young self, and hers.

Rona also mentions how assignment letter writing has changed:

These days few editors bother with detailed assignment letters. Instead they send contracts designed by corporate masters to head off expensive copyright disputes. When I sit down to write a magazine piece and review the marching orders, they're just that: length, deadline, a few terse lines of summary. I rarely feel that I'm engaging with a sympathetic reader who understands the power of the word. We've entered an era in which many young writers have never experienced the surge of motivation that an editor's letter can unleash.

And I wonder, has it changed so much? I certainly have seen and even written these short, perfunctory assignment notes, but only when working with writers who I've worked with before, and on stories of the type they've written before, when writing it all out really just seems redundant. But in general, have we become lazy – do we dash off assignment letters with little care?

- Corinna vanGerwen
About Me
Corinna vanGerwen


Corinna vanGerwen is a freelance editor and writer. She has worked as senior editor at Style at Home, senior design editor at Cottage Life and is the former Canadian Director of Ed2010. She has also held the position of operations manager at a boutique PR agency, where she handled strategic planning and daily operations.

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Thank you, Alicia!...
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