When I tell people that I’m a freelance writer, I usually get one of two responses. The first is a vague “How nice!” accompanied by a probing glance, as if my slouchy posture will somehow confirm that, yes, freelance is code for “makes very little money.” But the other response is one that is clearly wistful. As in, “Who cares if it “makes very little money”! I want in!” The latter group is the one that I’m writing this post for.
When I first decided that I wanted to write for publications/profit, I felt like it was almost impossible to find useful information about how to sell articles. I spent ages on google, trying to find an answer (ok, so I spent ages hopping down rabbit trails on google. On the plus side, I now know how processed cheese is made; how to label every person in my life through the wonders of personality testing; and the names of all of Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister’s lovers). It wasn’t until I took a course in freelance writing at the Alexandra Centre (check it out if you’re a writer!) that I realized I had been making a bunch of boneheaded mistakes. So I thought I’d share a few tips for any would-be writers out there. I’m certainly no expert on this, and I’m still figuring it out as I go. These are just some of the things that have helped me.
- Know the publication you want to write for. As in, have an idea of the sorts of stories they run, the length of the stories, and whether they’ve recently published the story you want to write.
- Contact the right person. Generally, this is the editor or the features editor, and generally, email is the way to go. You can find this information on the editorial page at the beginning of a magazine, usually. Their email address is often included, or you can find it on the magazine’s website (sometimes this takes quite a bit of poking around – I’ve often found that the “write for us” link is in a menu that’s initially hidden).
- Have an idea! One of my big problems when I first tried to write for newspapers/magazines was that I would contact editors saying “I’ll write for you! Anything!” Besides being slightly pathetic, it doesn’t help editors. They don’t know if you’re capable, and they really want you to give them fresh ideas, not take ideas from them.
- Send a pitch, not an article. It’s pretty unusual for a magazine to buy an article that’s already been written. They want an idea of what you are going to write, not what you’ve already written. Often, even if editors want your story, they will want to change it in terms of the length, angle, etc., so save yourself a huge hassle, and don’t write the article until they’ve bought it!
In terms of writing a pitch, here are a few more tips:
- Grab the editor’s attention. Start with a salutation and a very brief explanation of what you want to do (ie: “I’m a freelance writer, and I’d like to pitch you an article idea for your magazine.”) And then present your topic in an interesting way. Don’t merely outline it if you can help it. Imagine the editor as a reader, and catch their attention. Explain why your article would be a good fit for the magazine, and why you are the right person to write it. I don’t know if there are any rules about the length of a pitch, but I’ve found that a couple of paragraphs is usually adequate.
- Give pertinent details. How many words do you expect this article to be? (flip through old issues to get an idea of the magazine’s preferred length) What section of the magazine would be a good fit? What issue would it work well in? (eg: “This cakemaking article would be a good fit for your Christmas issue” or something like that)
- Introduce yourself. After all of that, you can briefly explain who you are (eg: “I am a Calgary-based freelance writer with a passion for the stock market.” Not.). This is where you want to sell yourself. List any publications you might have, and offer to send them clips or links to your stuff. If you haven’t been published yet, list any writing experience you’ve had – blogs, school newspaper, community newsletter, etc.
And a word of encouragement: I think editors of local publications (yeah, not talking about Time here) are really happy to receive good pitches. If you can find an interesting topic and put together a good pitch, I think they’ll be open to giving you a shot. There are also free magazines out there that usually can’t pay their writers much/anything, and they are generally VERY open to receiving content (I know this because I worked for one in Thailand). These can be a good place to start if you’re trying to build a portfolio.
Let’s finish this post with a lesson on how not to get a writing job:
It was four months after I moved to Thailand, and I had decided that I wanted to write for a living. Not even for a living – I was willing to write for nothing. So being a good introvert, I started firing emails into the great abyss of the internet. I wrote to every newspaper and magazine editor I could find, and said “I’m a good writer! I’ll write anything! Please let me write for you! I’ll do it for free!” Predictably, I got no responses. So I decided to up my game, and spent the afternoon lounging by the pool with my friend Therese.
This proved to be my downfall. I pride myself on being an independent thinker, but Therese had the ability to talk me into anything. On this particular day, she was slowly treading water, and the murkiness of the pool made her look like a mystical, brainy, disembodied head. I was mesmerized as she calmly but commandingly said
“Stop emailing. Get off the internet. You need to go to these newspapers in person.”
“In person… Really?!”
“Yes. You march in there, and you tell them what you want.”
“Are you sure….?”
“Yes. Repeat after me: I will go tomorrow”
“I will go tomorrow.”
So I went tomorrow. I put on what I thought was an attractive cotton shirt and skirt, printed off a few copies of my favourite blog entries, and caught a bus to the building where Bangkok’s second largest paper was published. By the time I arrived, I was drenched in sweat, and my clothes were rumpled. Not a promising start in a country where no one wears cotton, and no one sweats, but I could hear Therese’s lilting voice in my head, urging me on. The fact that every head in the lobby swiveled in my direction should have warned me that this wasn’t a good idea, but I was on a mission. I stepped on to the escalator, and rode up to a floor that was filled with non-sweating, non-cotton wearing, definitely non-five-foot-nine-with-frizzy-hair Thais. They were all chatting, and looking at their computer screens, no doubt proofreading stories about how many crocodiles escaped from the local crocodile farm during the last flood. And then I entered. And suddenly, to the tune of deafening silence, all those eyes were on me. I awkwardly approached a group of proofreaders, and asked to speak to the editor.
All eyes were still on me, but the deafening silence had turned to a chorus of titters. As the office watched, the editor hustled over, with a look of extreme irritation on his face.
“I’d like to write for your newspaper. Please.”
(irritation replaced by a look of total disbelief) “Oh. You can apply over there.”
He gestured to a desktop computer that must have been at least ten years old. It looked like the 1995 Apple that my dad used to bring home from school so that we could play Number Munchers on the weekends. I don’t think the mouse worked, but I wasn’t about to ask for assistance. The screen showed a basic employment questionnaire. I think I had already failed by the time I hit question two (are you between 19 and 24? No? You are too old for our office). So I gathered my folder of blog clips that would never be read, smoothed my rumpled shirt, and prayed that the elevator would come quickly, if only to stop all those eyes from observing the bizarre foreign apparition that had interrupted their day. Needless to say, I didn’t end up writing for the paper.