This past semester I took a course on news editing and at one point, I decided to share my experiences and best direct advice I could muster on freelance writing for my classmates:
The real first step is knowing where you want to send your pitches, and our professor covered that. To add to that, if you’re going for money you have to manage risk. Publications with broad guidelines and big payouts (GQ or Salon Magazine) will have tons and tons of people pitching them so don’t be a needle in a haystack if you want a chance. For me, a steady paycheck is preferable and specific pitching guidelines help big-time. I’m more comfortable expending time on a pitch with clear guidelines: “We’re currently taking stories on dogs” doesn’t give me as much confidence that I’ll hit the mark as “We’re looking for a story about mixed-breed 2nd hand dogs.”
I also said something a couple weeks ago that I’ll clarify: If it’s something abstract like humor, a short story, or a poetry contest, it’s generally up to the tastes of the editor, and that can be frustrating. When you pitch a humor piece, the rubric really boils down to one single thing: Did the editor laugh when he read it. If you have a concrete pitch with something to bring to the table, then experience of subjectivity matters less.
Jack mentioned going to the bookstore and that’s a good first step, but there’s A LOT out there (which is good news!) so get a copy of the book “writer’s market” and ask around.
From there, what you need to freelance write for money is generally three things:
1. About five or six clips that you will send along with your pitch letter. I don’t recommend leaving college with less than a dozen published clips with a good amount of variation. Write in different sections of the school newspaper and write for different publications if possible. If need be, blog. If not, you’re going to be stuck in unpaid internship land. Keep a file of everything you’ve published with links (and don’t be afraid to pester past publications about keeping their links current). If it’s print-only, than scan and download. From those, pick the five or six most relevant ones to whatever you’re applying to and put it in the bottom paragraph in an about me section of whatever pitch you send. And good news: You can recycle cover letters!
2. A good idea or two in the present. If it has a time-sensitive peg that’s a factor that works for you. BUT an awesome story also works. It doesn’t have to be time-sensitive but a) it can’t be something that sounded a lot better a while ago and b) it doesn’t hurt to throw out something that explains its relevance in the present. Where to get the ideas from is a whole other issue (hopefully, your classes have taught you that) but I generally work backwards: I just go about my life and if I pass along something interesting, I explore it and make a note of it. Example: Once I was on the metro, and a guy sitting a couple rows back was wearing a tuxedo on a Tuesday evening so I asked him why he was wearing a tuxedo and it turned out he get hired as a maître d for one of the most exclusive restaurants in DC and because they don’t take reservations, he has to do a lot of juggling on the job. Stuff like that. If I had to come up with an idea in two hours, I don’t think I would give you much, but I have a list of stuff like the guy who works at an exclusive restaurant banked up.
Also, I know it’s easy to be lazy and say to a publication, “I’d like to write, got anything for me?” but that’s generally gonna get you nowhere AND you can do that anyway. Send your pitch and then at the bottom, say I’m a freelance writer and open to writing about blank, blank, and blank. So play the game and throw out a pitch or two even if you secretly think they’re crap. They’ll appreciate you took the time to develop an idea.
3. Contact the editor and don’t stop until you reach them and find if they’ve read your pitch. I know that sounds like I’m a stalker out of a horror movie, but I constantly e-mail, re-email, look them up on twitter and engage them there, call up their office, call up their colleagues and I have pretty much never had an editor tell me this was a bad thing as far as I can remember. They have really busy in boxes and generally won’t know you exist and sometimes they’ll work with you for a year and a half and forget you. It also helps that I generally space these things out a week at a time to avoid bothering them too much.
A case in point:
This morning I just got a letter from a guy named Jesse who was listed as the editor of Vulture Magazine after writing him either two or three times and randomly tweeting him at various points “hey, I sent you an email” (sometimes after saying something insightful in response to his thing).
Your tweet reminded me to look at this. I don't really look at this email that often. I'll say this, I am not an editor, so I don't really assign anything.
But I don't think any of these pitches exactly work. It's hard to say why, but they don't. In general, your best bet is probably reaching out to Nate Jones, who is our movie editor, with a pitch that demands specific expertise.
A letter like this gives you clues as to what to work for if you write back. I just wrote back thanking him and he dropped another hint of advice:
“No problem. I understand it's hard to sort of breakthrough.
But, yeah, you have to think what is a story only I can do or at minimum a story the site doesn't have someone to do“
I asked a question for clarification with possible topics A, B, and C and he replied and said “yes, pitch something about topic C”
Keep gleaming clues like these and try to meet people for the publications you have written for. I generally talk to people on twitter or might fb them if we start to have a lot of back and forth.
If you do get an article greenlit, get terms beforehand, and realize it could be rocky writing for an editor for the first time. Each editor is different and has different demands, some are bat-s**t crazy, some are really demanding and some give no guidance at all. Your job is to figure out what kind of editor that person is and adapt to their style over the course of the editing and the next pitch. For many publications, the editor fact-checks the freelancers harder than staff and they will fact-check nearly everything in your article the first time you submit something, so double-check every proper noun and fact in addition to grammar (something I admittedly didn’t do when a friend got me a trial at zergnet where I had grammatical errors in the first sentence, they never read past that and I was finished there).
Other than lost time and the hits to your ego from the near-constant rejection from people telling you your ideas suck before meeting people who will eventually like them, there’s virtually nothing to lose by trying out the freelance market. You can form relationships that could lead to jobs, you can pick up interesting experiences, you can get money that could hold you over until a “job” comes in. On a larger level, freelancing is about redefining what you think a job is which is the best defense against Plan A not working out. It’s a wide world out there.