What can I do to get started as a journalist? Some people learn how to get careers in journalism at journalism school. Other people stumble into their first assignment via Twitter DM, and have no idea what they’re doing, and frantically figure everything out on the fly. That was what happened with me. I made an acquaintance, she was a magazine editor, and she turned out to like some of my personal writing. Thus, I fell ass- over-teakettle into the world of freelance journalism jobs.
Moving past that first article wasn’t easy. I flailed around trying to figure everything out But, eventually, I grew my freelance journalism into a great side business. Depending on the assignment, I could earn anywhere from $30-150/hour. Also, when, as I did, you land bylines in places like The New York Times Magazine, you greatly expand your personal network, which can lead directly to opportunities in media and publishing. In my case, I used this network to obtain a lot of profitable non-journalistic writing work, including a book deal.
If you have basic research and writing skills, you can accomplish the same thing. It takes some time to build, but once it gets going, you can make a solid income as a successful freelance journalist. The first step is finding an appropriate client.
Who Pays Writers?
Many people who want to break into the industry by wondering how to get freelance writing jobs. That’s the wrong question to start with. What you want to ask yourself is what publications would serve your freelance career best. This will require just a little bit of research.
The easiest way to locate paying sources of work is the site Who Pays Writers. On the left-hand side, you’ll see a smorgasbord of different venues. Examine the list, and use it to build your own list of any publication you could contribute to. For example, if you live in Boston and you’re a fan of the Pope, write down the Boston Globe and the Catholic Review. If what a publication does isn’t especially clear based on the title—I’d forgive you for not intuitively grasping what “Cassius” is all about—then just briefly Google it. Then, go back to Who Pays Writers, and click on the publication to check out reports of how much they pay and what the overall experience is like. Use these statistics to do a little back-of- the-envelope math. You’ll have to take into account both the subject matter and how much they pay. For example, if Example Magazine paid ten cents a word for personal pieces about pregnancy, and you could crank out a 500 word article about your experiences of the joy of childbirth in an hour, that’s $50/hr. Not bad!
Before we proceed, a brief note about rates: the range is huge. Big publications like Vogue can pay between $2-4 per word. Small newspapers and internet publications that are just glorified blogs can pay pennies per word. But, ultimately, what matters is your per-hour rate, which is a function of how easy it will be to write the story. Find the best hourly rate you can at a publication that seems approachable to you, and is congruent to your interests. This means, basically, stuff that isn’t The New Yorker or Rolling Stone.
Then, start to generate some story ideas. When you’re starting out, you can’t be too original. The publication will want content of the kind that their readers are already familiar with. Fortunately, this means that you can just go to their website, read a few things, and then generate an idea for a similar article. For example, if Bagel Magazine has an article about the merits of the rainbow bagel, you might then pitch an article about the ins and outs of Instagram bagel culture. Ideally, you want 2-3 story ideas for each publication, and you want them to be ideas for pieces on the briefer side. Editors are generally reluctant to assign longer, more ambitious pieces to newer writers.
Now, it’s time to pitch.
How to Cold Pitch Freelance Writing
How do you pitch articles to magazines or news outlets? There’s one big secret here that nobody tells you, which is the following: the submission emails that publications list on their websites are almost always a total waste of time. It’s a giant sludge pile and your email will usually not be found. What you want to do instead is email an editor at the site. First, poke around on the site to find the relevant person. The editor-in-chief is not the person to start with. You want a managing editor, or, for a larger publication, the editor who manages the specific section you’re trying to crack. A low-level editor is typically the person who hires writers at a newspaper or magazine.
Once you know who you’re intent on contacting, finding their email should be easy. Many editors have their email on their site, or on their Twitter profile (most people in media have a Twitter.) If you can’t find it there, this site will tell you what the format for their company email addresses is, and once you have that information, you can confidently email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re worried that this is a faux pas, don’t be. Editors receive emails from writers they haven’t worked with all the time. If they like your pitch, and they need content, you’re doing them a favor. If not, they’ll just ignore you. And, while it’s possible that the publication exclusively hires staff writers, most don’t. The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, media budgets are generally shrinking, and full time staff writers are more expensive than freelancers. Secondly, editors depend on having some diversity of content, and that means taking outside voices every now and again.
Okay. Now, it’s time to compose the pitch letter, a step that nearly everyone gets wrong.
Writing a Pitch Letter
When you write a pitch to potential clients, you’ve got to exercise that most important of sales skills: putting yourself in the mind of an editor, and asking what they want. So, what do they want? In short: they don’t want a hassle. They want writers to send them content that will be easy to edit and fit into their content schedule. Accordingly, your task is convincing them that you know what you’re going to be writing, and that you can accomplish this. Your pitch must be clear and confident- it’s all about the content marketing.
At first, I didn’t understand this. I sent emails to editors proclaiming that I “wanted to explore” a topic, or that I was “interested in writing about” something. These phrases are editor poison. They make you sound like a wavering artiste who doesn’t yet have a firm understanding of what product they’d like to deliver. What you should do is the opposite of this. The bulk of your pitch should just be the first paragraph of the story you’re trying to write. For example, here’s what the body of a pitch for a great story about Instagram bagel culture might look like:
“Nobody expected bagels to be the new hot food on Instagram. They’re not shiny and bright like frozen yogurt, or glamorously healthy like avocado toast. However, that’s all changing, as part of a shift in Instagram influencer culture. Whereas a few years ago, Instagram models looked to present a totally aspirational lifestyle, it’s becoming more common to go after authenticity. Today’s influencers know they need to display carefully cultivated signs of normalcy. Hence the unlikely hashtag #bagelday, sparked by Kim Kardashian.”
That’s the guts of the email. Also, dear reader, you can have that incredible idea for free. Here’s another little secret of pitching: if what you’re pitching isn’t an epic, always pitch two stories if you’ve got them. This advice is based on a weird quirk about human psychology people tend to choose between the options available. If the implied options are “this story or nothing,” then it’s easier to choose nothing. If the implied options are “story A or story B,” you’re more likely to place a piece.
Then, just begin the email with a short intro sentence: “Hi, [editor name], here’s [a pitch/some pitches] for [section]. I’m thinking that the story/stories will be roughly [x] words long.” As for the subject, line, “Pitch: [descriptive title of article]” will do. Then, end the email with an introduction to yourself, and, if you have one, a link to some writing samples, even if just a blog post or guest post. If you have any relevant qualifications or experience that make you well-positioned to write about the subject, mention them briefly. Keep in mind, though, that the most important writing sample, and the most important qualification, is the pitch itself. Make sure it’s engaging.
What Happens Next
You could hear absolutely nothing back. In that case, simply fire off a brief follow-up email in a week, something along the lines of “hi, just checking in, I wanted to see whether you’d read the pitch, and, if so, whether you’d like to discuss.” If you follow up twice and there’s no response, move on, and wait for a few months to pitch the same editor again. Don’t take it personally—pitches can get ignored for a huge number of reasons, most having nothing to do with you.
You could get a straightforward rejection. In this case, thank the editor for considering your story. Also, I’d recommend asking a follow-up question: “if you have a moment, I’d love to get your input on why this story idea wasn’t a great fit; any thoughts?” At worst, they’ll ignore this, and, at best, you’ll get great advice. You could get questions back, asking you things like, “do you have sources for this story?” This is a good sign. It means that an editor is inclined towards buying your story, but wants to make sure that you have all the tools in place to deliver the product they’re looking for. Answer promptly, as comprehensively as you can. Most of the time, this process will culminate in an assignment.
Or, best-case scenario, you could get the go-ahead instantly. What then?
Once You Get Your Assignment
The first time you get feedback from an editor on a first draft, it can be a little shocking. You’ll find things crossed out and rewritten, and the editor will probably ask you to fill in some blanks. It’s easy to see all that red text and assume you’ve done something wrong. Don’t! Writing for publication is more collaborative than most people imagine, and having a third to a half of a first draft marked up is par for the course, especially at publications with a strongly fixed house style.
Once the piece is finished, most publications will not simply ask for your PayPal and immediately get you the money. Instead, you’ll have to write an invoice yourself and send it over. It doesn’t have to be fancy—if it looks somewhat like any of these, it will probably do. Unfortunately, it’s standard for invoices to take up to a month to process, due to the fact of monthly accounting.
If, after you’ve placed your first piece, you decide that you’d like to keep going, there are two things you need to think about. First, expanding vertically, which is to say writing more for the same publication. If you had a pleasant experience with the editor, send them an email asking if they’d like more pitches, or if they have any story ideas they’re looking to assign.
Ultimately, long-term relationships with editors are the way you’ll make money as a freelancer because when you start getting assigned stories and/or your pitches are cleared more quickly, less of your time will be spent doing free work like writing pitch letters for ideas that may or may not work out. As with most professional relationships, if you can have a call with someone or meet them in person, the relationship will progress faster.
Expanding horizontally, on the other hand, just involves repeating the pitching process with another publication, and including your credit in the bio. You can also ask the first editor you worked with whether they know any other editors who are looking for the kind of thing you do. This is a great source of connections, and it’s how I made the leap from web publications and social media blurbs to legacy print magazines.
This line of work can build surprisingly quickly, for the following reason: most writers are completely unprofessional. A huge number of employed freelance journalists flub deadlines, submit sloppy first drafts, or even fail to deliver stories they’ve promised. And I’m not talking about random yahoos or high school interns, I’m talking about writers at big deal magazines. If you regularly submit drafts on time, write the stories you said you would, and give editors clean copy to work with, you’ll soon have a solid variety of regular gigs. In my case, within three years of my first published story, I was getting paid two bucks a word by a national magazine of repute.
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