When I tell people I’m a freelance writer, the first question they ask me is “Do the magazines tell you what to write?” My response: I wish.
The next question is: “Where do you get your ideas?” I think that’s the wrong question. It should be: “How do you sell your ideas?”
Being a successful (and I define successful as “working regularly, not having to sell your children on eBay”) freelance writer is not so much about crafting words in the most artistic way – although this can help – but more about taking a commercial approach to words.
If you are a writer, you have ideas. It’s how you get those ideas to your potential market that makes the difference to how much work you get. There are many factors at play – a professional attitude, diligence, reliable delivery – but the single most important is the pitch. Get the pitch right, and chances are you’ll get the job.
Get the pitch right
There are a couple of things to bear in mind when it comes to pitching:
1) You have to pitch all the time. If you don’t like the idea of pitching, or your ideas being rejected, it might be time to consider another field. A 95 per cent rejection rate is normal, particularly when you’re starting out. Heck, any time. I remember patches where it seemed that every single idea I sent out was rejected. It drove me nuts. It depressed me. But it also made me think long and hard about where I was going wrong with my pitches.
2) Email is excellent. Most editors prefer this form of pitching. But you have to grab their attention up front – and leave them wanting to see more.
3) There is no point in sending your pitch to the editorial assistant. Find the right person for your pitch. Larger publications have different editors for different sections, smaller publications will have one, but you need to find out if it’s the features editor, the deputy editor or the editor who makes the decisions. Ring up and find out.
The actual pitch for a story idea should be precise. If you can’t explain it in a paragraph or two**, you haven’t refined your angle enough. Tell them:
•What the story is about (snappy one-liners work well here – think about what kind of heading the publication would put on the story and try to write it)
•Who you will interview for the story, or where the source will be
•What the ‘hook’ is
•If you’re planning to have case studies, have an idea of who these will be – there’s nothing worse than being asked to turn a story around in two weeks and realising you need to find four couples willing to discuss their sex lives in detail (with photographs) to make it happen.
•If you haven’t written for the publication before, tell them who you are and why you’re the best person to write this particular story.
What happens next
So far, so good. Before you press Send and start fretting about whether your pitch is successful, however, there’s one more consideration. Have you pitched the story to this particular publication? It’s not enough to have a great story idea, it has to be tailored for the publication you’re targeting. Think about the audience the editorial team is targeting. Think about the ‘voice’ of the magazine, newspaper or website – the words they use, the attitude they convey. Your writing needs to be your writing, but it also needs to fit within the publication’s voice.
An example. I had a call from a magazine aimed at younger women asking me to ‘look into’ a story on egg donors. They had seen an overseas story on how young women were selling their eggs to get through uni, and wanted to know if it happened here. Great idea – except that women in Australia aren’t paid to donate eggs, and they like you to have completed your own family before you do so. The mag decide they didn’t want the story.
But I’d done enough research at that point to almost have the story in place, including finding a couple of case studies (always the hardest bit), so I pitched it (with permission) to a different publication with a new angle. I thought the really interesting thing about egg donors was why they did it – what’s in it for them? The other publication bought the story and it worked out really well.
Moral of the story? If one editor says no – and they do, you know – take another look at your idea, try a different angle and think about where else you might send it. Then start all over again.
**Note: it takes a while to master this. When you first begin, you will need more words to explain your ideas. Finetune with experience.
Would you love more writing tips and advice? Check out my book So You Want To Be A Writer: How To Get Started (While You Still Have A Day Job), co-authored with Valerie Khoo and based on our top-rating podcast.