Some years ago, a friend invited me to join a freelance workshop at her house. Just a couple months before hosting this workshop she started her career as a fulltime freelance writer — with great success. This friend offered me industry knowledge — on how to pitch — that I still use today. While I loved my time in journalism school, it didn’t teach me how to develop freelance story ideas, find publications, write pitches, send follow-ups, deal with rejections, and negotiate rates (honestly, I’m still working on this one).
Hopefully, I too can share some of this industry knowledge and open up doors for other writers.
1. Identify story ideas
This can be the trickiest part when you start freelancing. It took me a while to learn that my story about grieving a friend, having a toxic friendship, or being depressed just isn’t worth publishing. Not because these stories aren’t worth telling but because they’ve been told a thousand times before. Selling a pitch often means finding a unique spin to an otherwise unoriginal story idea. For instance, instead of just writing about my bad mental health, I linked it to the birth control pill I was taking for an essay I wrote for HelloGiggles in 2017. At the time, no personal essays I’d come across had explored this topic. Whether you’re writing personal narratives, hard news, or culture pieces — the same rules apply.
A great way to start thinking like a freelancer is to study the publications you’re interested in writing for. Do they use freelancers? (Check author bios). What kind of stories do they publish? What’s their style? Has your story idea been published before? Do your market research!
2. Research everything
I would say you can never do too much research but, if you’re anything like me, you could spend eight straight hours reading about how to pitch without actually writing any pitches. Still, I stick to my word that industry knowledge is everything.
My first piece of advice is to identify what a good freelance pitch looks like (check out this Successful Pitches Database). Next, think of where you could place your story (Where To Pitch is a handy site). Once you’ve identified a potential home, do more research. Questions to ask yourself: do they take freelance pitches? Would your idea work? Do you have a good grasp of their style and editorial needs? Can you find their editor’s email? (Try Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook). If you’re all sorted, your next step is pre-researching your story idea. This could mean reaching out to potential sources and asking if they’re open to interviews. It also means getting a broader understanding of your story idea.
3. Write your pitch
This is your make or break. Sadly, editors don’t owe freelancers their time. If your story idea and writing style doesn’t grab an editor’s attention immediately — they probably won’t bother to read it.
Try not to overthink this process and get straight into writing (yes, this is very rich coming from a massive overthinker). But trust me, you can always edit your pitch later! Your pitch should succinctly (ideally in under 150 words) cover your story idea, why you’re the one to write it, your reporting plan and, where possible, an element of timeliness. For instance, tying a feminist article to Women’s Month or a piece on dating to Valentine’s Day will make it easier to sell your article.
Done? Read it out loud. Maybe ask a friend (if that friend is also a writer, even better!) to proofread the pitch or give you feedback. Next up is… hitting the send button!
Rule 1 of journalism: always follow up! With freelance pitches, if you haven’t heard back in a week, I suggest sending a follow-up. For timely articles, like breaking news, you should follow up sooner. I like to include a date with this follow-up. For example: “If you are interested in this piece, could you please let me know by Wednesday (06/08)? Thank you!” That way, you’ve set clear guidelines on both ends and if an editor doesn’t respond, you can move on (and pitch elsewhere).
5. Rework your rejections
If you build a freelance career with no rejections — amazing! But please (I’m begging you) tell me how. Personally, I don’t know any freelancer who hasn’t accepted rejections as part of the job. If an editor takes the time to email me a rejection, I take this as an invitation to keep pitching (editors inboxes are, almost always, overflowing). Once a story is rejected, start shopping around for new places to pitch. You will also need to tweak your pitch. No publication is the same as another. Edit your pitch to fit their editorial demands.
A lot of things come after a pitch acceptance like negotiating rates and writing the actual story. In upcoming blog posts, I will touch on this. But hopefully, there’s enough here to get you started! If you have any specific questions about pitching or freelancing that you’d like me to talk about, let me know.