May 5, 2019 (Updated )
As editor of The Overtake, I regularly give people their first freelance commission. I read dozens of pitches a week (yes, I do read them all) and, since we launched a year and a half ago I’ve read hundreds of articles written by people who are taking their first steps in journalism.
I’d worked as a magazine journalist for years before I had the courage to pitch a freelance article (reader, it was not a success) but don’t be intimidated as the process is actually fairly simple.
Just a note before we begin – I’d never recommended trying to begin a freelance career without having had a staff job first because it’s incredibly difficult for even established journalists to keep enough money coming in to make a living.
Most successful freelancers do shifts or other work like copywriting to pay the bills. However, for a variety of reasons (including that there aren’t that many around) staff jobs might not be an option for you.
The Perfect Pitch Formula
Good pitches follow a simple formula – a quick intro about yourself, a couple of short paragraphs about the article you’d like to write. and links to some of your previous writing (blog posts are fine — it’s just to give the editor an idea of your writing ability).
When you explain the idea, mention why YOU are the person to write it. Perhaps you have contacts or particular knowledge of the subject? Although most editors wouldn’t steal an idea from a freelancer, some would read the pitch and think there might be someone on staff better equipped to write it.
Want to see it in action?
We convinced some freelancers to show us some successful pitches they sent to editors, so you can see exactly how it’s done.
Sometimes freelancers add a couple of lines explaining why the article would work for our audience. There’s no need for that (but you do need to have thought about it). If it’s a good pitch, it should be obvious to the editor whether it’s the right fit or not.
Be brief and professional and make sure you’ve actually looked at the publication you’re pitching to and that the article would be appropriate for it.
The (Incredibly Well-Researched) Idea
Do the research. Don’t pitch “I’d like to look into this”. It’s absolutely painful reading pitch after pitch of great ideas that I know would be excellent stories if they came off but (from a decade of working as a journalist) will probably amount to nothing once you’ve done some basic research.
See also: “I’d like to put in a Freedom of Information request about this” and “I’d like to try to interview this person”. The only realistic chance of getting it commissioned is by putting the FOI in or getting the interview agreed before pitching. You don’t have to have carried out the interview, just know that who you want to speak to is available and willing to talk.
Editors try to plan content to the best of their ability and it’s incredibly frustrating to not have an article come off or, even worse, for the freelancer to have spent a lot of time writing something that an editor has to spike because it’s different to what they pitched.
I know it’s annoying to research something that then doesn’t get commissioned (trust me, I’ve done it millions of times) but it’s the only way to do it. There’s simply no way any good publication will commission an idea that’s not substantiated.
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Later on, when you have a great track record as an established journalist or have written for the publication multiple times before, editors may be prepared to take your word for it, but when you’re new, you need to tell them exactly what they’re going to get.
Freelancers often get caught in a Catch 22 – they can’t get an interview without the commission but they can’t get the commission without getting the interview. It’s a conundrum.
I would always be honest with the PR and say I’m a freelancer and I’m planning to pitch it to XX but I know some freelancers lie and say they’ve got a commission already. I wouldn’t recommend that because if it gets back to the editor that you’re claiming to be writing for them when they’ve never heard of you, it’s a rocky start to an already tenuous relationship.
Timing. Is. Everything.
Pitch one good idea a week, rather than sending editors something not thought through every day. Of course, if you send lots of pitches you are more likely to get them commissioned – but if an editor opens a few emails from you and they’re not great, they won’t be in a rush to open the others.
Do feel free to put multiple pitches in one email. Editors will probably only commission one if you’ve never written for them before, but it could land you with multiple commissions.
It might be tempting, but don’t send the same pitch to multiple editors at the same time. If they say yes to it and it’s gone, they’ll probably just remember that you wasted their time.
Different publications all have different guidelines…
So we’ve collated them all in one place, so you can see just how they’d like to be pitched, in a step by step guide.
Similarly, don’t write the article before getting a commission because you’re probably wasting your time (I heard someone once estimate that one in 10 of their pitches were accepted) – BUT if you’ve written it already (for uni or something) don’t email asking if the editor wants to see it, just attach it. I once commissioned someone who attached a uni article that sounded terrible but was actually excellent and had it not been attached I would have never taken it.
Timing is everything. Don’t pitch a diary piece for an anniversary that’s just happened or is today. Don’t pitch a piece about something that happened last week. Sorry, you’ve missed it. Focus on what’s coming up.
If you pitch something newsy, understand that you’ll probably have 24 hours to write and file it. If you’re busy and don’t have time to turn something around quickly, perhaps you have a day job and evening plans, don’t pitch newsy stuff.
Don’t be afraid to ask about rates up front, either when you pitch or when the pitch is accepted. Don’t write anything without knowing how much you’ll be paid.
It’s also a good idea to google it — ie “the Guardian freelance rates”. It’s quicker and will stop you annoying an editor of a publication that’s transparent about rates.
Want to know how much places pay?
We’ve put together a whole list, updated weekly with the latest rates on shifts, commissions, and more.
At most places, you’ll need to send an invoice to get paid. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy and there are lots of templates online (ours is here). You can send it with your copy, or after it’s been accepted and you’ve made any necessary edits.
“What if I’ve never written anything before?” Perhaps the question is why are you pitching yourself as a professional writer? Get some work experience, get a blog, and come back when you’ve had some practice.
It’s really up to you what you find an acceptable rate. Don’t be bullied out of paid work by experienced people saying you shouldn’t work for less than a certain rate. This industry is going through a lot of change and people feel understandably very protective over their industry – but everyone has to start somewhere.
Often when people tell you not to write for a certain sum, they’re doing it in their own interest, not yours. Yes, there are exploitative writing jobs which are best avoided but, equally, experience pays. It’s very rare for a rookie to earn good money and, at the start of your career, if you can earn minimum wage for writing instead of working behind a bar, that’s really a win.
Don’t Give Up. We’ve All Been There.
A final few pieces of advice. Don’t pitch opinion unless you’ve got some particular insight on a subject (ie you’re from that community or have worked in that industry). Yes, lots of places publish ill-informed comment pieces but that tends to be a perk of being a staffer — they earn those by doing grunt work.
Just as important – don’t pitch a piece that you got directly from a press release because your editor, too, got that press release. Obviously, get ideas and contacts from press releases but build on them.
Rather than getting a no, you’ll probably just never hear back. Editors don’t have the time to reply to every pitch. Send one email to chase; if it’s newsy, after a couple of hours, if it’s a feature, a week later is fine.
Keep trying. It’s hard and horrible sometimes. But it only takes one editor to say yes. Over time, as people get to know you, it becomes easier. Good luck!