Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Erik Petersen, the editor of Fort Lauderdale Magazine. As an editor, Petersen often receives offers from freelancers to cover things that might be of interest to his magazine. These queries vary wildly in terms of tone, content and approach, so today Petersen is talking about what makes for a good pitch for a story, giving us an insider’s look at how best to get published. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.
As an editor of a city monthly magazine, I get lots of letters from freelance writers. They’re an interesting mixture. Some are one sentence long, others read like James Joyce after a few espresso shots. Some are clearly cut-and-paste jobs, some take a sort of free jazz approach to punctuation – and some make me want to learn more about this writer and what she or he might be able to do for our magazine.
Freelancing is a crowded, competitive field that includes many people who’ve built up relationships with editors over the years. But there are ways in – and a few things you can do to help yourself.
1) Get the basics right.
For example, I’ve got a great freelancer weed-out test built into my name. “Erik” and “Petersen” are not uncommon names, but my particular spellings of them typically get butchered anywhere outside of Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Nordic countries. If I get an email addressed to “Eric,” “Mr. Peterson” or (this has happened) “Peter Ericson,” the emailer has just been helpful enough to inform me that he will probably screw up something in a story, too. Delete.
Incidentally, if that advice sounds painfully obvious to you, that’s great. It should. It also means you’ve already got an advantage over a good chunk of the competition.
2) Make your email compelling but concise.
This might sound like another one that falls in the category “simple common sense” but again, not everybody does it. An introductory email/pitch letter should read like the journalism that will hopefully follow it – sharp, well-written and nailing a word count. Four solid paragraphs should tell me enough while making me want to know more.
3) Pitch stories – but know it’s not really about that.
When I hear from a potential freelancer, I want to know three main things: that she can write, that she has ideas and that she’s thought a bit about what my specific publication might need. One great way to do that is to pitch one or two good stories.
Stories that she most likely won’t write for me. At least not right away.
Publications vary, but here’s how it works at the one I edit. We’re a monthly, and we plan months in advance. Anything four months out has already been assigned; anything three months out is already being worked on. There are issues nearly a year away that we’ve got ideas about. Point being, there’s an excellent chance the issue you’re pitching for is already planned.
This isn’t always the case. If, for example, you’ve worked hard to get access to someone for a profile that’s relevant to the publication, that profile’s an impressive thing to pitch. (“Wow, Ol’ Jed the Reclusive Woodcarver never gives interviews.”)
But for the most part, with writers I haven’t worked with very much, I tend to assign. So by all means, pitch. But be ready to write something else.
Something else here also needs to be addressed. Are there unscrupulous editors who will take your good idea and give it to somebody else? Yes. In my experience it’s not overly common, but it can happen. Unfortunately, it’s just a risk you have to take. It’s one of the reasons, however, that I wouldn’t recommend writing a piece first and then shopping it around. Again, most editors won’t take a piece, give it to somebody else and say “Rewrite this.” But if one does, you don’t have much recourse.
4) Get face-to-face.
Editors get lots of email. Too much email. All the email. Seriously, I was just going to make a point about how much email we get by telling you how much is in my inbox, but I checked and it’s too embarrassing.
You want to make an impression, and that’s hard to do as one little subject line in a flooded inbox. In the email, or the follow-up email or phone call (don’t do too many, but a bit of persistence is good), ask to meet. Suggest coffee. Say you’d also appreciate career advice/a chat about the industry. (That last one’s good because A) useful career advice actually is helpful and, B) like most people, editors like to be flattered. And being treated like some Journalism Yoda who can help a young Jedi is flattering.) All those things you’ve perfected – a solid story pitch, knowledge of the editor’s publication – will be even more memorable in person.
5) Once you’re up the ladder, make sure you extend it down for somebody else.
Not long ago, a writer got in touch. He wrote concisely, pitched well, suggested coffee, got an assignment and became a regular. Then he emailed asking if I’d mind being put in touch with a former colleague who was also looking for freelance work. Somebody whose work comes recommended from a writer I like? Absolutely.
In a business that happens so much over the phone and email, personal recommendations go a long way. If you know somebody and respect their work, you can help them by getting them in front of an editor with whom you’ve established a relationship.
Just make sure they’ll do the same for you.