NEW YORK, Unites States – So you’ve been researching on a topic for your Masters thesis for while and have developed an interesting angle. Or, maybe you’re attending a conference and would like a unique way to connect with thoughtleaders or key figures in your field by hunting down interesting stories. Either way, pitching and publishing as a contributor in a newspaper or magazine is a great way to publicize and establish a voice and expertise in your respective field.
Here are some tips from those in the field for aspiring freelance writers – also known as, disciplined, hustling idea generators.
Build your digital profile.
Use the Internet and social media as important branding opportunities and build your online presence. It’s common knowledge today that job recruiters will Google your name, check your Facebook profile, your LinkedIn profile, Tumblr, Twitter… the list goes on. The same goes for editors as well. Your digital profile should demonstrate two things: the ability to have original ideas and a sustained commitment to an issue or topic using words, images and other digital media.
Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia University School of Journalism’s chief digital officer, offers some useful tips on how freelancers can use social media to their advantage. If you have enough work to build a portfolio, Contently, a NYC-based content strategy startup, allows freelance writers to build one online for free. (For example, check out Contently’s cofounder Shane Snow.)
Time it right, develop your story.
Timing is obviously important in the news and journalism world. Besides being conscious of the life span of your story, pay attention to the cycle of the publication to which you are pitching. How does the publication manage their pipeline? When do issues come out?
More importantly, editors too often receive pitches before the stories are fully developed. Premature ideas can be mistaken as topics. Will Bourne, editor of The Village Voice (and previously at Inc. magazine, Fast Company, and Fortune), explains: “A pitch is not a topic – there are stories and there are topics. Understand the distinction. A story has a person, narrative arc, and tension. You need to make me feel it.”
Need more sources to develop your story? If you work for a media outlet, you can try HARO (Help a Reporter Out) and submit a query to find additional sources.
Make the connection – woo the editor.
A pitch is much more effective if you’ve established a personal connection to the editor, so scour your network and look for any contacts who could make you an introduction. Send a pitch (or a pre-pitch) with the goal of eliciting an affirmative and positive response. For example, you could establish a connection by first asking the editor, “Are you the right person to pitch my story to?” But, of course, don’t turn it into an inefficient string of emails – if you’ve got the perfect story, don’t blow your shot.
Make your perfect pitch. Really, make your perfect pitch.
Content-wise, a full pitch should include materials, sources, main characters, give a preview of what the structure will look like, and how the narrative will play out. It should be roughly structured in the following: 1) this is who I am, 2) this is the story I want to write, 3) this is why I’m qualified to write it, 4) here are some clips, and 5) here is my portfolio (links to your digital profile). Just like any good final piece, create components of the piece that can be lifted out to capture the attention of the reader.
Don’t forget your voice, even if the convenience of email has degraded the letter-writing to be an esoteric process for some. Bourne insisted, “Make it sound like you have something unique to say. Find your unique voice – write it beautifully.” Spend a day or two on the letter alone. After all, this is your first chance (and possibly the only chance) you have to show that you are capable of executing the idea. Don’t make mistakes and groom it to the inch of its life.
On a side note, it is normally ill advised to send full stories. Editors tend to be suspicious of stories already written without an assignment. They may ask, “Where did this come from? Why is this available? Who’s rejected it already?”
The relationship you will have with your editor after your pitch gets accepted is variable. Some publications will accept more than they will publish, some will talk through your pre-draft until both of you are on the same page. Either way, fewer the number of drafts it takes you to complete an assignment, the more likely the editor will hire you again. However, once the story is killed during the process, he or she will likely not work with you again.
Lastly, just do it! Editors want your stories. As Bourne puts it: “We are desperate for new meat. We grow our new reputation on the basis of finding new talent. That is really, really important to know because that is the only leverage that you have, basically. Your leverage is I’ve got a great story that no one else has. And I’m a young, new writer and I can prove it.”