Want to write for magazines, newspapers or online? Here’s how
Before you pitch
There is really only one rule here, and that is to READ THE PUBLICATION YOU ARE PITCHING TO (or at least do a tiny bit of research into the title before you pitch). I put that in all caps and bolded it because, based on experience, it seems I need to shout.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been pitched stories that have absolutely no relevance to the publication
For example, when I was editor of Jetstar Airways’ inflight magazine, I was frequently pitched stories on Africa, South America and Europe. Jetstar did not (and does not) fly to those destinations. It takes hardly any time at all to go to an airline’s website and look at their route map (or to a newsagency to buy a copy of the magazine you want to write for). In Jetstar’s case, its route map was clearly marked under a tab titled “Where We Fly”. Airline magazines act as a marketing tool, to inspire people to travel with that airline, so the editor only wants pitches that relate to the appropriate network.
Actually, there is one other rule: find out who you need to contact at the publication before emailing all of its staff willy-nilly.
[Shortcut: If you know both of the above tips, scroll down until you get to the subhead “The Pitch Itself”]
If you want to write for a newsstand title (one that is sold or can be subscribed to), there will be a page close to the front of the magazine (and in rare cases right at the back) with all the staff listed one after the other. You want to contact the Editor, Managing Editor, Deputy Editor, Features Editor or Commissioning Editor. Often, you will find an email address for editorial enquiries there too. If not, at least you will find out the name of the appropriate editor if not their contact. In that case only, phone the publishing company and ask to speak to the Editorial Assistant on the publication you wish to write for. Ask whoever then picks up the phone for the best email address to pitch stories to as a freelance writer.
On newspapers, the commissioning editor for each section will be listed within the appropriate section, often on the title page or the very next page. If the outlet is a custom publication, such as a client magazine for a business, brand or product, you are likely to find out who you need to approach by conducting a Google search (or clicking around for a while on LinkedIn).
If the tips above seem patronising, or you know both of those tips already, that is fantastic. Many don’t. Now you can move on to…
The pitch itself
Email your pitches: Once in a blue moon I’ve received a call from a writer wanting to pitch me a story over the phone. While it is nice to actually talk to someone for a change instead of just seeing them in your inbox, there will be no record of your pitch. Editors are busy (they are not just saying that!) and due to their enormous, unwieldy and constantly shifting workload, they may forget all about a verbal pitch. Do not take this personally. At the very least, you don’t really expect them to write your pitch down and email it back to you, do you?
Keep it short: Pitch a maximum of three story ideas in one email and make each story idea brief. Include a snappy headline followed by a maximum of three punchy sentences underneath to describe each idea. Tip: if you have an “and” in your sentence, you should break it into two sentences. Another tip:
If it takes longer than one paragraph to explain your story idea, you haven’t thought it out properly. There is no angle
Do not pitch any stories to anybody, ever, if they do not have a clear, engaging angle. Maybe I should have included that in “Before You Pitch”, above, but if you are a writer you should already know this:
If there is no angle, there is no story
Anyway, back to keeping it brief, haha! If an editor likes one or more of your ideas they will ask you to flesh out the pitch. That’s when you can go into more detail on what you will cover, whether the story will be written in first or third person, whether it will include interviews and quotes, fact boxes, subheads, breakouts and more. But maybe – and this is every editor’s prerogative – they will want you to write your story in a specific way, to their style. That’s what being commissioned is all about:
You are not really writing for you, you are writing for the publication’s audience. The editor knows their reader – trust them
Of course, there are some exceptions to the rule above and you may encounter an editor who wants a million ideas at once and all over the phone, but they will let you know that – don’t assume!
Never send “complete” stories: No one has time to read stories they can’t use or don’t want. Even if you have complete a story and want it placed, use a “top-line” pitch rather than submitting the complete story (as described above). This goes back to writing for a publication rather than yourself. Do you really know the readership so well that you can guess what the editor wants? Possibly you do – but that kind of intuition only comes from being a regular contributor, and you can only become a regular contributor by giving the editor what they want. Let them tell you what they want!
Wait! Yes, wait for a response on that one email containing your three ideas before pitching even more ideas. Editors get a lot of emails every day (and I mean A LOT!).
Editors don’t have time to read and respond to every email. Do not take it personally if they don’t respond, or respond with a one-word “No”!
Even the most on-top-of-it time manager can get swamped by emails, and if they are on deadline forget about them responding to anything but the most urgent correspondence. Yes, they may have emailed you about something ten minutes ago, but that does not mean they are on standby to receive your pitches. Hold your horses!
An even worse example (for an editor) is when a freelancer spots an editor in the supermarket, eating out in a restaurant or at a baggage carousel at the airport (i.e. live in the wild!) and runs up to them thinking they can and should get an answer on the spot… all three of those scenarios have happened to me. Hint: it does not make the editor like you very much. They may think twice about opening any further emails from you at all.
What if an editor is still not responding to your pitch after, say, a full week? If an editor is not responding to your email, wait 1-2 weeks then send the same email again, typing at the top something polite like this (but in your own words):
“I’m sorry for emailing you again regarding my story ideas sent on [date]. I’m not sure if you have had time to consider them yet but could you please let me know if this is something you definitely don’t want so so I can pitch it elsewhere?”
Most editors will appreciate this and let you know if they are thinking “no” straight away. Or they might let you know that they are considering it but haven’t been able to place it in their production schedule yet. If that is the case, wait 1-2 weeks and repeat.
But every now and then, an editor will respond saying, “Thanks for reminding me, I love it” and commission you on the spot
“But I have loads of ideas!”, I hear you say: That’s great. Regardless: wait at least a week (preferably two) between pitches to send an email with new ideas to an editor, unless that editor has explicitly asked you for more ideas. In the meantime you can tighten and refine your list of pitches. You want every pitch to be as attractive as possible to an editor by making sure it is both relevant to the publication and has an irresistible hook or angle before you put it in an email.
Keep a spreadsheet: Once you’ve done all of the above, if you really want to make a living out of being a freelance writer you will need to start staggering your pitches. If you don’t have a master document listing all your pitches along with their three-sentence-max top-line briefs (and who you have sent them to) you should create one now, in Excel, using separate tabs for different styles of story – lifestyle, health, travel and so on.
This means keeping a calendar of stories you have pitched, stories that have been commissioned and stories that have been declined that can now be pitched elsewhere. It will help you keep a rolling schedule of pitches – one you can actually keep track of.
Some writers pitch the same story ideas to multiple editors at once. There is nothing wrong with that approach in theory (especially when you remember to update all editors when a particular story is no longer available), but it can be embarrassing for you when, a month after you have pitched it, an editor writes to request the story and you have already sold it to someone else.
Yes, you could re-write it using a different angle but I have seen loads of examples in which a “rewritten” story uses the same phraseology, quotes, anecdotes etc and appears very similar indeed. You may even forget what you have written the first time and subconsciously head in the same direction with your second story.
So. What I suggest is this:
Only pitch a story to one editor at a time. When that editor says no – or if you haven’t had a response from them in over one month – pitch it to another
Hence the need for a spreadsheet – you will need many columns to keep on top of which pitches have gone out, which been commissioned, which have been declined, which have been accepted, etc. Once a pitch has been accepted, you” need even more columns for deadlines and briefs and word counts and word rates… but that’s another story.
Excel is an under-rated tool for writers: Yes, I know you didn’t want to become an accountant, but if you become a successful freelance writer you will need to become your own personal accountant nonetheless. You will need to know how to use Excel or MYOB – or some sort of accounting software! – to keep track of your invoices and your workload. Might as well start practising with words.
After you’ve been commissioned
There are only two rules after an editor has said “Yes!” to a story: write to brief and meet the deadline.
Writing to brief means both following your editor’s instructions and sticking to the word count. I have had a few writers supply twice as many words as I asked for thinking they were doing me a tremendous favour. “You can keep what you want and cut out what you don’t want!” they merrily reasoned. This creates more work for the editor – which can make them wonder if they wouldn’t have saved time by writing the story themselves in the first place.
Tip: If you follow the brief you should be able to adhere to the word count
If a writer produces far fewer words than the requested word count (which very rarely happens in my experience as an editor), it proves that:
a) You haven’t experienced what they claimed to have experienced – or would experience to get the story – in their original pitch
b) You haven’t done enough research (a red flag to an editor: it means you are a lazy writer and will only ever do the bare minimum to meet the brief)
c) Your angle is weak. Your angle should not be weak if an editor has accepted the story. If it is, go back to your original pitch and ask yourself if the story fulfils the promise
Oh, and a note on deadlines. When you are given a date to provide copy by, what time do you think you should submit it? So they can read it over their morning coffee or in bed at night?
The time you should submit your copy is as close to the start of the business day as possible.
In Australia, that is 9am. Try not to send in your copy late in the afternoon, at close of business or after. Imagine if you were to receive a truckload of new work to do just when you want to go home. Not a nice feeling. Having said that, I just submitted a story 12 hours after it was due… so all of us are late sometimes. But please, please, on behalf of all editors everywhere, try to submit copy at 9am on your deadline date. It’s only polite! (As is using Spellcheck.)
END NOTE: I hope this story has helped aspiring writers get a feel for pitching. If you have any questions, please ask it in the comment box below. If you feel I’ve missed something, let me know and I will consider including it in Part Two. (This story is already way over my word count.) But one last thing before I go: There are some wonderful freelance writers in this world. By following these tips, you can become one of them!