Come for the advice, stay to copy edit the hell out of me

“Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” launched this week, which means a couple things:

  1. I’ll usually be posting at least once a day, Monday through Thursday. (Friday, possibly. Weekends only if something really weird happens.) You can feel free to subscribe if your professor is making you keep track of this instead of randomly checking in on the blog from time to time.
  2. I’ll be driving up Amazon’s web traffic exponentially by checking in constantly to see if anyone is buying this thing. (That’s not weird or anything, right? It is? OK, forget I said it.)
  3. I’m going to screw some stuff up. It’s inevitable.

I was on a call with the publisher Wednesday and I asked if everything was going OK with the book and the blog. Her responses were essentially, “The reps have only had the book for a day. Calm down.” and “The posts are fine, just watch the cussing and the typos.”

I’ve been dialing back on the cussing, although I think we need a running list of things the president is allowed to say, the media is allowed to repeat and that I can’t say on the blog. Maybe we need bingo cards or something. Feel free to get on that.

As for the typos, I’m going to be honest: I read the heck out of the posts before they go out but eventually I go blind to what I write. As I noted earlier in the year, I know everyone needs an editor. In fact, when I made that post, I got an email from a former student who caught a typo in there. Yes, I suppose it proves my point, but good grief…

So here’s the deal in this wonderful world of symbiotic relationships: I’ll do my best to tell you stuff that helps you out and you should feel free to say, “Hey chucklehead, you spelled (whatever thing I screwed up) wrong.” Just hit me with an email or via twitter (@doctorofpaper) and I’ll patch up my stuff and give you a hat tip.

Hope you all have a great start to your semester and let me know if I can be of any help.

Firefighters fight fire (or how to avoid the obvious when writing a lead)

I got this message from a former student:

Firefightersfightfire

(My hope is that thinking of me did not push her toward her pro-concussion stance.)

One of our earlier exercises in our media writing class requires the students to review a standard press release from a fire department and write a four-paragraph brief. The inclination the students have is to write it like the fire department did, placing the emphasis on what the department is doing and writing in a chronological format.

The problem with that is obvious in this headline: It doesn’t tell you what happened and the concept of “firefighters fight fire” isn’t a real revelation to the readers. Here are a couple tips to avoid writing a “no duh” lead:

  • What would you want to know first? Put yourself into your readers’ shoes and think about what would matter most to you if you were reading the thing you’re writing. If you went home after class and your roommate said, “Hey, your mom called. There was a fire at your house…” what would you want to know right away? (Is anyone hurt? How bad was the fire? What caused it?) Now, imagine your roommate started off with, “Well, the Merrill firefighters responded to a fire…”
    This is the same with any other straightforward story you write for a media outlet. People want to know the score of the game, the result of the meeting or the outcome of the vote, just like you would.

 

  • Look for the “noun-verb-object” elements: One of the key parts of our fire brief exercise is to put everyone’s brief up on the overhead and dissect each one. When we pick through the leads, the questions are simple: “What’s the verb? OK, what’s the noun? Now, what’s the object?” In a lot of cases, we get more than a few, “Firefighter fight fire” or “Firefighters respond to blaze” leads. When you’re trying to figure out if you have a good lead or not, look at the noun, the verb and any object you can find in that lead. If you have “fire destroys home” or “fire causes damage,” you’ll have a lot stronger lead than if you have “firefighters fight fire.” The same is true for things like “Board held a meeting” or “Woman gave a speech.” Tell me what the board did (Regents raise tuition) and the theme of the speech (Fight against sexism) and you’ll have some stronger leads

 

  • Focus on the FOCII: The five interest elements outlined in the book should be helpful in guiding you toward more engaging leads. Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Impact and Immediacy all speak to the basic things that make people want to read on. Impact and Immediacy can easily make a difference in a fire brief. If the fire is particularly noteworthy (oldest home, heaviest losses, weird way it started), Oddity can play in as well. Think about the things we care about and have an interest in and you’ll be in great shape.

When you write a lead, remember that you’re not trying to cure cancer or impress someone with your vocabulary. Your goal is simple: Just tell me what happened and let me know why I should care.

If the president said it, why can’t I? A look at cussing in the media.

The issue of when certain words can and should be used in the media came back into play this week, after news broke about President Donald Trump and his position on immigration. According to multiple reports, he used the term “shithole” to describe several countries, thus upsetting people from those countries, shocking many politicians who were in the room and sending the media into another “should we or shouldn’t we” debate on language.

To say the past year or so has been a long, strange journey for language wranglers would clearly be an understatement. We had the “Billy Bush Bus Tape” incident, which had people wondering how to explain what Trump said could be “grabbed.” We had the questions about how exactly to refer to the allegations outlined in “the Russia dossier,” especially as they related to the act the hookers were said to have performed. We had the “Scaramucci meltdown” in which he offered a profanity-laced tirade to a reporter. And now we have countries that fail to measure up to the standards of Norway.

(Side Note 1: I actually asked if the term should be one word or a compound modifier. That was my key concern. You would not believe the level of grammar the hivemind went to in discussing this. Yes, your professors and your profession are both weird…)

(Side Note 2: I asked a former student who is now a bigwig with AP if she could give us some thoughts today on this in the wake of the “hole-like nature” attributed to these countries. It turned out, she was going on vacation for her birthday, so I let that go. We both, sadly, agreed this likely wouldn’t be the last time we’d be discussing some word that we’re not allowed to say in print, broadcast or anywhere short of a biker bar, so I could hit her up for some help next time.)

So how do you know if you should or shouldn’t be using the term, an explanation of the term or just some Q-Bert like exclamation? The hivemind dug into this earlier in the year with the Scaramucci thing, so feel free to click here and take a read to see what some of the “best practices” are for dealing with some of the “worst behavior” out there.

Obituary Writing: Telling truths, not tales, in a reverent recounting of a life

In a discussion among student media advisers, one person noted that obituaries are probably the second-hardest things journalists have to do frequently. (The hardest? Interviewing family members about dead kids.) When a person dies, media outlets often serve as both town criers and official record keepers. They tell us who this person was, what made him or her important and what kind of life this person led. This is a difficult proposition, especially given that people have many facets and the public face of an individual isn’t always how those who knew the person best see him or her. Couple these concerns with the shock and grief the person’s loved ones and friends have experienced in the wake of the death and this has all the makings of a rough journalistic experience.

The New York Times experienced this earlier in the week when it published an obituary on Thomas Monson, the president of the Mormon Church. The Times produced a news obituary that focused on multiple facets of Monson and his affect on the church. This included references to his work to expand the reach and the population of its missionary forces as well as his unwillingness to ordain women and acknowledge same-sex marriages. The obituary drew criticism from many inside the church, leading the obituary editor to defend the choices the paper made in how it covered Monson. (For a sense of comparison, here is the official obituary/notification of death that the church itself wrote for Monson.)

You will likely find yourself writing an obituary at some point in time if you go into a news-related field.  Some of my favorite stories have been obituaries, including one I did on a professor who was stricken by polio shortly after he was married in the 1950s. I interviewed his wife, who was so generous with her recollections that I was really upset when we had to cut the hell out of the piece to make it fit the space we had for it. Still, she loved it and sent me a card thanking me for my time.

Some of my most painful stories have also been obituaries. The one that comes to mind is one I wrote about a 4-year-old boy who died of complications from AIDS. His mother, his father and one of his siblings also had AIDS at a time in which the illness brought you an almost immediate death sentence and status as a societal pariah. I spoke to the mother on the phone multiple times that night, including once around my deadline when she called me sobbing. Word about the 4-year-old’s death had become public knowledge and thus she was told that her older son, who did not have AIDS, would not be allowed to return to his daycare school. Other things, including some really bad choices by my editor, made for a truly horrific overall situation in which the woman called me up after the piece I co-wrote ran and told me what a miserable human being I was. She told me the boy’s father was so distraught by what we published that he would not leave the house to mourn his own son and that she held me responsible for that. Like I said, these things can be painful.

No matter the situation, there are some things you need to keep in mind when you are writing obituaries:

  • Don’t dodge the tough stuff: Your job as a journalist is to provide an objective, fair and balanced recounting of a person’s life. The Times’ editor makes a good point in noting that the paper’s job is to recount the person’s life, not to pay tribute or to serve as a eulogist. This means that you have to tell the story, however pleasant or unpleasant that might be. One of my favorite moments of honesty came from hockey legend Gordie Howe who was recalling the tight-fisted, cheap-as-heck former owner of the Detroit Red Wings:

    “I was a pallbearer for Jack,” says Howe. “We were all in the limousine, on the way to the cemetery, and everyone was saying something nice, toasting him. Then finally one of the pallbearers said, `I played for him, and he was a miserable sonofabitch. Now he’s … a dead, miserable sonofabitch.'”

    It’s not your fault if the person got arrested for something or treated people poorly. If these things are in the public record and they are a large part of how someone was known, you can’t just dodge them because you feel weird. Check out the Times’ obituary on Richard Nixon and you’ll notice that Watergate makes the headline and the lead. As much as that was likely unpleasant for the people who were closest to Nixon, it was a central point of his life and needed to be discussed. In short, don’t smooth off the rough edges because you are worried about how other people might feel. Tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

 

  • Avoid euphemisms: This goes back to the first point about being a journalist. You don’t want to soften the language or use euphemisms. People don’t “pass on” or “expire.” NFL quarterbacks pass and magazine subscriptions expire. People die. Also, unless you can prove it, don’t tell your readers that the person is “among the angels” or “resting in the arms of Jesus.” (Both of these euphemisms ended up in obituaries I edited at one point or another. They obviously didn’t make it to publication.) Say what you know for sure: The person died.

 

  • Double down on accuracy efforts: People who are reading obituaries about loved ones and friends are already on edge, so the last thing you want to do is tick them off by screwing up an obituary. I don’t know if this was just a matter of newspaper lore or if it was a real thing, but I was told more than once at a paper where I worked that there were only two things that would get us to “stop the presses:” 1) we printed the wrong lottery numbers and 2) we screwed up an obituary.
    True or not, the point was clear to me: Don’t screw up an obituary.
    Go back through your piece before you put it out for public consumption and check proper nouns for spelling and accuracy. Do the math yourself when it comes to the age (date of birth subtracted from date of death) and review each fact you possess to make sure you are sure about each one. If you need to make an extra call or something to verify information, do it. It’s better to be slightly annoying than wrong.

 

  • Accuracy cuts both ways: As much as you need to be accurate for the sake of the family, you also need to be accurate for the sake of the public record. This means verifying key information in the obituary before publishing it. The person who died might told family and friends about winning a medal during World War II or graduating at the top of her class at Harvard Law School. These could be accurate pieces of information or they could be tall tales meant to impress people. Before you publish things that could be factually inaccurate, you need to be sure you feel confident in your sourcing.
    Common sense dictates that you shouldn’t be shaking the family down for evidence on certain things (“OK, you say she liked to knit. Now, how do we KNOW she REALLY liked knitting? Do you have some sort of support for that?”) but you should try to verify fact-based elements with as many people as possible or check the information against publicly available information. Don’t get snowed by legends and myths. Publish only what you know for sure.

 

  • Don’t take things personally: Calling family, friends and colleagues of someone who just died can be really awkward and difficult for you as a reporter. Interviews with these people can be hard on them as well as hard on you. I found that when I did obituaries, I got one of three responses from people that I contacted:
    1. The source told me, “I’m sorry, but I really just can’t talk about this right now.” At that point, I apologized for intruding upon the person’s grief and left that person alone.
    2. The source is a fount of information and wanted to tell me EVERYTHING about the dead person. I found that for some of them, it was cathartic to share and eulogize and commemorate. It was like I was a new person in their circle of grief and they wanted to make sure I knew exactly why the person who died was someone worth knowing.
    3. The source was like a wounded animal and I made the mistake of sticking my hand where it didn’t belong. I have been called a vulture, a scumbag and other words I’ve been asked to avoid posting on this blog. One person even told me, “Your mother didn’t raise you right” because I had the audacity to make this phone call. I apologized profusely and once I hung up, I needed a couple minutes to shake it off. I knew it wasn’t my fault but it wasn’t easy either.

Your goal in an obituary is always to be respectful and decent while still retaining your journalistic sensibilities. It’s a fine line to walk, but if you do an obituary well, you will tell an interesting story about someone who had an impact on the world in some way. I like to think a story about this person who died should be good enough to make people wish they’d known that person while he or she was alive.

Still Tinker-ing with free speech: 50 years after a landmark SCOTUS decision, the case’s namesake continues her First Amendment work

Tinker
(One of my happiest geeky moments: A photo with Mary Beth Tinker at a journalism convention.)

Journalism students tend only to get jazzed up about court cases when they manage to accurately recall them for a media law final. Hosty v. Carter, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, NY Times v. Sullivan and more tend to blur after time and become a jumble of, “Wait, wasn’t that one about…” recall after the fact. (One of the few favorites I can recall is Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, a momentous case that dictated how the First and 14th amendments related to parody and public figures.)

One case that refuses to collect dust is Tinker v. Des Moines, thanks in large part to plaintiff Mary Beth Tinker’s lifelong crusade to keep the importance of free speech front and center. Tinker and her siblings, along with a family friend, wore black armbands to school in 1965 in protest of the Vietnam War. They were subsequently punished, leading to a lawsuit that made its way to the Supreme Court. The Court heard the case in 1968 and issued its decision early the next year, ruling 7-2 in favor of the plaintiff. The majority noted that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Today, Mary Beth Tinker continues to use her experiences as a learning device for subsequent generations of U.S. students. Over the past few years, she hit the road with the “Tinker Tour” project, which aimed to bring real-life civics lessons to students, faculty and administrators throughout the country. The project, which started in 2013 with some help from the Student Press Law Center, continues to promote the ideas of free speech, free press and more at the student level.

For more information on Mary Beth Tinker, the landmark Supreme Court Case and the Tinker Tour itself, you can head over to the Tour’s official website.

 

 

How to avoid promoting the most racist sweatshirt in the world (or 3 things to help you avoid looking stupid, insensitive or worse when you publish something.)

monkey
(Yes, this actually ran as an ad. No, it did not go over well…)

Clothing manufacturer H&M found itself scrambling Monday when the advertisement above went viral on social media, leading many people to accuse the company of racism. The image of a black child wearing a “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt was pulled from all of the company’s advertising and company officials issued an apology. (As the article notes, this isn’t the first time an advertiser has manged to pump out a racially tone-deaf advertisement.)

The stereotyping of black people as “monkeys” or “apes” is not a new phenomenon, nor is it germane only to the United States, so attempting to give the Swiss-based company a pass on this racially insensitive ad doesn’t hold water. That said, the goal of this blog isn’t to beat up on people who make mistakes but to help you figure out how to avoid making mistakes like this in the first place. Here are three simple tips to help you avoid something like this:

  • Paranoia is your friend: Murphy’s Law includes the famous line about “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” so it’s always best to plan for the worst. When you find yourself putting together ANYTHING that will be disseminated to the general public, you want to engage in some active paranoia. Read every word as if it might have a double meaning or if a misspelling might lead to an awkward moment (e.g. “Bill Smith, a pubic librarian, reads…”). Look at every image you have to see if anything could be misconstrued in a negative way or would cast aspersions on an individual or group. Go through every potential stereotype you can think of in your head and see if something looks like it might be playing into that stereotype (e.g., Is a blond woman shown to be less intelligent? Did you put a person of color into a “monkey” sweatshirt?). For example, check out this University of North Georgia course catalog cover:

    Notice anything particularly problematic? Like the white guy is winning the race, the other white guy is coming in second and the woman and the only person of color included in the image are coming in far behind?
    If you come across something that could cast a negative light on you or your organization, rethink your approach before publishing it.

 

  • Diversity is not a buzzword: One of the main reasons why having a broad array of people from various backgrounds and experiences in a media organization (or any organization for that matter) is because it help the organization gain a more diversified view of reality. Unfortunately, some places see diversity as a “check box” item in terms of race, gender or other demographic elements.
    In organizations that embrace this wider view of societal understanding, people can put ideas out there and open the floor for discussion. If the person who put the kid in the “monkey” sweatshirt didn’t see how this could be a negative stereotype, (and I’m not sure how this is possible, but still…) someone else in that organization who might have dealt with this kind of negative language could raise the issue. In the end, this likely would not have seen the light of day and thus we could have had a “cute kid in a sweatshirt” ad that didn’t lead people to think of the company as racially insensitive.

 

  • Know where the landmines are: As the famous Filak-ism notes, you will screw up at some point. Your face is not on a lunchbox. That said, some screw-ups are bigger deals than others, whether you know it or not. Case in point: I was interviewing for a job at a university in the southwest, so my wife and I went out and bought me some newer shirts and ties. When I got there, I got the stink-eye from some of the students and more than a few faculty members.

What I didn’t find out until much later in the interview was that my new shirt and tie combo was in the colors of that university’s most hated in-state rival. It probably wasn’t the only reason I didn’t get the job, but I’m sure it didn’t help.

When you are putting content out for public display, you should know what specific topics, ideas and issues are most sensitive to anyone in your audience. In the United States, pretty much anything having to do with race, gender or sex will have some pretty sensitive tripwires. In some cases, companies don’t pay enough attention to these possibilities, like when Bud Light got into a jam for using the phrase “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.” Critics charged it accentuated the ties between alcohol and rape culture.

It’s not easy to catch every mistake or avoid every public snafu, but it’s not hard to do a little research to figure out exactly where the biggest landmines might be and avoid them.

Five stories you can do when you arrive back at Ice Station Zebra (a.k.a. your campus)

Everyone has their own version of what “too cold” is. However if you live in a state in which 50 degrees is considered an arctic blast or a half inch of snow means your area grocery stores run out of bread, milk and batteries, you probably can skip this post.

For those of us who live in areas where terms like “lake-effect snow” and “wind-chill factor” are as common as people who complain about the parking on campus, here are a couple story ideas you can chase down as you get back to campus.

  1. Weather policies: Like those other urban legends about how you get straight A’s if your roommate dies in the dorms, the “rules” for closing the campus due to weather are a bit nebulous in most cases. Track down your school’s policy on these kinds of things. See if there either a concrete rule (e.g. if the public schools in town shut down, campus closes) or at least a trend (e.g. more than a foot of snow means  no school) for weather-related closures.
    Also see if there are different rules for different groups regarding coming to campus. In some cases, “essential” employees are required to risk life and limb to show up and do things while “non-essential” professors get to sit home and think, “Man, it looks ugly out there…”
  2. Maintenance issues: Weather can cause havoc all over a campus and people in the maintenance staff will try to prevent the problems they can and then scramble to fix the ones that happen. Typical issues include things like snow removal, sidewalk salting and so forth, but there are other things to consider. Frigid cold can freeze and burst pipes. Critters can be industrious in looking for warm places to live, thus leading to invasions of mice and squirrels. Heaters and boilers can break down or become overworked. Talk to the folks who are responsible for keeping the systems on campus running smoothly and see what’s going on.
  3. Parking problems: Snow really messes with parking. Will the parking department be out ticketing for cars that inhibit plowing? How do you park when you can’t see the lines? Is there some sort of amnesty for  cars with dead batteries? Talk to the parking folks and give your readers some answers.
  4. Student health center trends: If my class this winter term is any indication, we’re about two coughs and one sneeze away from World War Z. Miserable weather, close-quarter living conditions like dorms and a general lack of healthy habits can have all sorts of illness ripping through your campus. See what the “sickness du jour” is on campus and how much traffic the health center has seen as a result of it.
  5. Helpful graphics/stories: I was leaving my office on Sunday when I saw two students trying to jump start one of their cars. I went over to help them because a) they were trying to jump the car without starting the donor car and b) one of them was wearing no hat, a sweatshirt, a pair of soccer shorts, no socks and a pair of slip on shoes. It was -10 outside with a -25 windchill.
    We got the car started, but it occurred to me that there are a lot of “cold-weather help” pieces we could run. A graphic on how to jump start a dead car would be helpful. So would a link to a “here’s what you should keep in your car in case of emergency” list. Advice on how to drive on snow (cars and techniques have changed a lot since your parents learned on rear-wheel drive cars that didn’t have anti-lock brakes) would also be good. Think about all the stuff you think people should know create a central-junction point for this stuff on your website or in your paper/publication.

The Art and Craft of Freelancing (Part III)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last piece of a multi-part series on freelance journalism. The idea for these posts came from an instructor who was adopting the News Reporting and Writing and said she would love to see a section or discussion on freelancing in there somewhere. When my editor mentioned this to me, I promised I’d work on it for the blog.

Part one, along with a good introduction to three freelancers who were nice enough to help me understand their business (Charles Choi, Tony Rehagen and Nick White) is here. Part two can be found here.

Do you have a “I wish your book had included X” element? Contact me and I’ll see what I can do to make it happen.

Why Freelance?

The idea of walking the red carpet with celebrities, traveling to exotic places and cutting your own path through journalism can be an alluring idea when compared to pounding out cops briefs at the Beaver County Tidbit. The idea of sweating out paychecks, trying to track your own expenses and hounding people for work can also seem daunting when compared to the steady work of a staff job.

What is it that makes freelance an appealing option? I asked the three folks what they thought about the best and the worst elements of freelancing and their answers are below:

 

THE GOOD STUFF

Freedom tops the list: Of the best aspects discussed in freelancing, all three folks noted that freedom to do whatever they wanted when they wanted was the biggest plus (“The benefits are freedom, which is far and away the best one,” Nick White said.)

“I get a great deal of freedom over my time. I don’t have to commute to work, I don’t have to change into work clothes, I get to watch TV when I work, I can go on vacations when I want… and the fact that I can use my phone as a modem means that I can work in a mobile manner if I want,” Charles Choi said.

It’s not just the freedom to do the jobs, but also the freedom of being able to say “no” to certain things and to live beyond the 9-to-5 grind.

“I have a flexible schedule that enables me to spend time with my family,” Tony Rehagen said. “No boring administrative meetings or HR seminars. For the most part, in addition to a few money gigs, I do what I want for whom I want, on my terms. And best of all, from a professional standpoint, I get to work with a host of different editors, many of whom can help me get better in a multitude of ways.”

 

Variety is the spice of life: As Rehagen noted earlier, he has a wide array of curiosities and he can dig into them all as a freelancer. He also gets to work with multiple editors, which helps him develop his skill set.

“From a professional standpoint, I get to work with a host of different editors, many of whom can help me get better in a multitude of ways,” he said.

Even within a niche, Choi said, you can get a variety of experiences and avoid things you don’t like.

“I get to write many different stories for many different clients,” he said. “I like that variety. And while I almost never turn down work, if I think a story would be boring or a pain in the butt, I get to turn it down. If I dislike an editor, I hopefully have other avenues I can turn to.”

Choi noted he has gone on assignments in multiple fields, visited all seven continents and gotten some incredible life experiences while writing science stories. The variety of the work keeps him engaged, he said, and allows him to enjoy his work and his life.

 

THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF:

Unsteady cash flow: The freedom you receive comes at the price of not being tied to a steady paycheck. Unlike a staff job, you can turn down a job if don’t like the editor or the idea. However, that staff job means you get paid no matter how much you write or don’t write in a given pay period. This was the number one thing the freelancers noted as a drawback to their jobs.

“There are of course drawbacks to freelance life,” Choi said. “First and most obviously, you do not get paid if you do not work. You have to constantly hunt for good new story ideas and pitch them before your competition. Not everyone is good at such enterprise reporting, and it can be exhausting, and even if you are good at such enterprise reporting, sometimes there are no story ideas to be had. Freelancers often go through feast and famine stages, and learn to write as many stories as they can so they have money to cover slow periods.”

 

Accounting 101: If you ever sat through a business course and thought, “Why do I need this? I’m going into journalism!” well, here’s your answer. As a freelancer, you are essentially your own business. You have to keep track of income and expenses, document certain things for tax purposes, pay your own insurance and more.

“The drawbacks are there’s no guaranteed salary or income, no medical benefits, and you have to become much more than a journalist,” Rehagen said. “You have to be your own business. That means accountant, agent and IT person. Some days are spent entirely chasing down invoices and paychecks. But the benefits, in my opinion, are more than worth it.”

If you think keeping an eye on your bills now can be worrisome or perplexing, it gets far more detailed and complex as a freelancer, Choi said.

“First, I make more money than I think I would as a staffer,” he said. “This is offset by how I had to cover business expenses such as health insurance, but as of this writing, many expenses were tax-deductible, and many were expenses I’d have to pay anyhow (e.g. Internet access), so I get to use these business expenses to lower what I pay in taxes. As a freelancer, you quickly learn to keep receipts for everything, to itemize your expenses, and usually to hire a good accountant to help you save money on your taxes. Hiring an accountant for your taxes is in itself a tax-deductible expense.”

With recent changes to the tax code and the variable nature of freelance work, the ability to be detail-oriented in a numerically driven area can be a bit concerning and is one thing to keep in mind when planning life as a freelancer.

 

Isolation and fear: As an entrepreneur and a single-employee business, you are your entire workforce. Even though every journalist writes with an editor, regardless of if the journalist is a freelancer or a staffer, freelancers are on an island of their own making. This can be great for people who don’t like dealing with the daily grind of meetings and annoying colleagues, but it can also limit your contact with other like-minded people to help you get better at your job.

“Staffers may get more chances at mentorship and at cultivating their stories and their careers,” Choi said. “It was very lonely for me as a freelancer sometimes, although joining journalist associations and kvetching with other journalists helped ease that loneliness.”

White said one of the drawbacks he found is the fear that being a “good freelancer” can become more of a curse than a blessing when it comes to how managers in the field see him.

“Another drawback possibility is that if you freelance exclusively for too long, say maybe five years or more, companies will begin to view you exclusively as a freelancer, and not a qualified candidate for a regular job, should you want to switch to that path, and thus are treated to likewise peripheral status,” he said.

Even more, he said, some outlets tend to treat freelancers unfairly and use them to generate ideas for staffers rather than paying for the freelancers to do the work.

“Unfortunately, some editors are unethical, take your idea for free, and cut you out of the equation,” he said. “It can be heartbreaking for a creative person to have ideas stolen, particularly when the leverage is endemically on the side of the editors and publications. Creative property can be extremely easy to steal and is essentially vulnerable to the goodwill of the outlet.”

 

Final advice

Given all the pros and cons associated with the field, I asked the three folks to give me the “if you had any advice, what would it be” answer for you all who might want to get into the field of freelancing. Here is what they wanted you to know:

 

Nick White: “The freelance life primarily can be marked by a lot of uncertainty. It is like being given the keys to your own business except there are a finite number of high level buyers. So, it is about walking a tightrope to carve out a regularity scheme that is financially sustainable. It may not float on its own in the long term, but it can be worth taking a chance on to buy freedom while you leverage the flexibility to do other big projects, like books or even just a regular day job.”

 

Charles Choi: “I would tell a new graduate that freelance life could be a lot of work and could present challenges, but that it could pay more than a staff job, offer an extraordinary amount of freedom and comfort, and could offer prestigious bylines. I would say that it was not for the faint of heart and required a lot of individual initiative, but that it could make you the kind of journalist that could succeed well in both staff and freelance life.”

 

Tony Rehagen: “First I would caution that as a 22-year-old, the field would be exceedingly more difficult than the job I now have. First and foremost, they wouldn’t have had the time to establish the reputation, clips, and most importantly the connections I rely upon every day to make my living. And honestly, it’s hard to get better as a freelancer because you’re not working closely with many, if any, of these editors. My real growth came from the mentorship of staff-job bosses and colleagues with whom I worked day in/day out. Second, most of them wouldn’t be married—which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but, personally, as a father of two, I wouldn’t be able to do this if my wife didn’t have a corporate job with good health insurance. A stupid reality of living and working in this country that is going to get much more difficult before it gets easier. Just something to think about.

 

“But if you do take the plunge—Godspeed. And find a good accountant to do your taxes.”

The Art and Craft of Freelancing (Part II)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a multi-part series on freelance journalism. The idea for these posts came from an instructor who was adopting the News Reporting and Writing and said she would love to see a section or discussion on freelancing in there somewhere. When my editor mentioned this to me, I promised I’d work on it for the blog.

Today, we get into the pitch itself and how to get it accepted. Part I is here, along with a good introduction to three freelancers who were nice enough to help me understand their business: Charles Choi, Tony Rehagen and Nick White.

Do you have a “I wish your book had included X” element? Contact me and I’ll see what I can do to make it happen.

Building your pitch

The key to a good story is also the key to a good pitch. Consider the following questions when you look at your pitch:

  • Is it clear, concise and have value?
  • Does it get to the point or does it get lost in the details?
  • Does it make the reader want to read on?

You should grab the reader’s attention, show them enough to make them want more and then offer them the opportunity to get it. Here are a few thoughts about how best to build that pitch:

 

Know your audience: One of the biggest points each of the freelancers made was that knowing the audience of the publication and knowing the audience that was reading the pitch letter (the editor) was crucial to success.

“If you are pitching a new outlet, first you should have an introductory paragraph describing who you are and whom you have written for, and an end paragraph providing links to some stories,” Charles Choi said.

Choi said that once he got to know his editors at various publications better, he knew how to tailor his pitch to each one.

“For the outlets I usually write for, novelty is by far the most important factor in what I pitch — no point writing up something if it isn’t news,” he said. “Just as important is how interesting the audience of an outlet would find a pitch — for instance, the audience of Wired might like stories about microchips that can simulate brain cells, but not be as interested as the audience of IEEE Spectrum (a more technical publication) would be in other advances in microchips… All in all, it is crucial to know what the audience of a given outlet likes, and that is something you can best find out by reading a dozen or two recent stories from that outlet.”

Some editors just needed to know he had an idea while others still needed a full pitch that hit on the key elements we’ll discuss below. Choi said it’s also important to understand how to use the right tone and feel when it comes to telling the editors about the story.

“If you are writing a short article, your pitch should have a lede sentence that will often also serve as your nut sentence,” he said. “This single lede/nut sentence should sum up what is new and interesting in a snazzy, provocative way that will make you want to read the rest of the story. You may want to follow this lede with at least one or two sentences describing the potential broader implications of this lede sentence.

“If you are writing a longer article, you may start off with a lede that brings up an interesting anecdote, or introduces an interesting person. After one or two paragraphs of this, then you have a snazzy nut sentence or paragraph that sums up the story and makes you want to read the rest of the story. You may want to follow this lede with at one or two or more paragraphs describing the potential broader implications of this lede sentence.”

 

Get to the point: Editors are busy people and have a dozen or more things to do that are more important than you might be at a given moment. Therefore, you don’t want to waste their time. Tony Rehagen said the body of a pitch should do three key things:

“It’s like writing a short story,” he said. “You have to 1. Grab the editor’s interest 2. Explain why the story is right for the pub and the time and 3. Show that you’re the writer to do it.”

Nick White’s standard approach mirrors this idea:

“A pitch model shown in grad school at Medill that I follow in my head was brief, with a rapport attempt at top, a quick pitch with embedded knowledge in the middle for one or two short paragraphs, and an invitation to drop a line if interest at the bottom,” he said.

In both cases, the idea is to share knowledge, not hype. Nail down your crucial elements quickly and make your case for story in a few short paragraphs that tell the editor you know what you’re doing and that you can be trusted.

Edit the heck out of it: Once you complete your pitch, you need to make sure this thing is cleaner than a cat’s mouth. Is it clear? Did I get too far afield? Was I redundant? If you’ve got redundancy problems, chances are editors will not want to bother with this story as it’s clear they will need to invest a lot of time in fixing your story when it shows up. The same is true for grammar and style. If the editors can’t trust you to spell stuff right, how can they trust you to get the big things right?

“If I’m pitching a new outlet or an outlet I write for only rarely, I not only give a lot more details regarding the story is about, but I craft the writing of the pitch to let them know that I can write well and to give them an idea of what to expect if I were to write that story for them,” Choi said.

In the minds of most editors, the quality of the writing in the pitch will reflect the quality of the writing in the story. Nobody wants to borrow trouble, so make sure you are clean and clear in your writing and editing.

 

A simple breakdown of a pitch letter:

 

If you’re doing the “old-fashioned pitch letter,” the standard topper information is a good idea to include. Even though most of what you’ll do is via email, we’re including this below so that you can get a sense of the audience for the pitch:

Bill Menow, Editor
Green Bay Sports Monthly
111 Lombardi Ave.
Green Bay, WI 54302
If you have an “in” as Nick White mentioned earlier, you probably want to make that known up top. If not, some standard information about who you are and why you matter will work:

 

Bill, 

I wanted to reach out to you about a story I think your readers would like. Our previous collaborations on “What happened to the Kicking Zendejas brothers?” piece last year and the review of “Five Packer-friendly churches in Green Bay” last month drew a lot of readers to your site.

 

After that, you want to make a quick and simple pitch on the topic:

 

Here’s the pitch: As you know, this is the 50th anniversary of the famed “Ice Bowl” game, in which the weather and frozen field conditions took center stage. It seems that every aspect of this game has been examined except for one: The field.

Every Packer fan knows Vince Lombardi spent $80,000 on an “electric blanket” of wires that ran under Lambeau Field to prevent the field from freezing. What they don’t know is the back story of George J. Halas, the nephew of Chicago’s famed George S. Halas, who sold the project to Lombardi. They also don’t know that this “malfunctioning” system actually served the city for more than 30 years and had been installed in several other stadiums successfully.

 

After that, you want to explain what you are proposing and why you are the person to do it:

I am proposing a 1,200-word piece for your December issue that digs deep on this issue. This piece will examine the “frozen tundra” in a way that gives context to the game, the field and the people involved the area’s most exalted patch of grass.

Although George J. Halas is gone, I have already spoken to his son, Tim, who is willing to share his recollections and his father’s notes with me on this issue. I also have access to three other GE workers who were responsible for selling and installing these systems back in the late 1960s and early 1970s to help me explain how this should have worked and why it didn’t during the Ice Bowl. Furthermore, the Packers have offered to let me spend time with current groundskeepers to see how things now work to provide context. They have also offered me access to their photo archives for images of the installation and the game itself.

 

Finally, offer them the ability to contact you if they are interested:

If this sounds like a good idea to you, please email me at (EMAIL) and let me know what you think.

Best,

Vince Filak

 

After the pitch

Once you make your pitch, the ball is solidly in the court of the publication. This can lead to additional anxiety if your story is based on a timely news peg that could be rapidly deteriorating as you wait to hear back. It can also feel like an eternity if you aren’t hearing back from multiple editors on multiple pitches.

Rehagen said there is a healthy debate among his friends who freelance regarding the idea of trying to expedite the process of acceptance by pitching a story to multiple places at once, something he said he doesn’t do.

“It’s not only excruciating waiting for a response from an editor, but it can also be a matter of losing a timely story,” he said. “But I still err on the side of caution—I just can’t imagine having an editor finally say “yes” and me having to tell them, “Sorry, I sold it elsewhere.” But I often wonder whether I’m being too cautious.”

After the long wait, you will end up with one of two potential outcomes from a pitch: You sell the story to the outlet or you don’t. Let’s consider each of these in turn and what it means:

 

Your pitch worked!

Nothing compares with the feeling of victory, so when someone gets your pitch and says, “This looks great! Let’s do it!” go ahead and enjoy a brief moment of exhilaration. After that passes, you need to consider a few things before you start working for your latest employer:

 

Clarify the expectations: The pitch itself should have established the foundation for what you will be doing for the publication. However, before you start working on the story, you need to make sure you and your editor are on the same page when it comes to the big issues. How long will the story be? What does the deadline structure look like? Where in the process will the editor get involved? Who has final say over specific elements of the story? If you have worked with the editor before, much of this will be old hat. However, if you are working with someone for the first time, getting this all set up and written out will be beneficial for both of you.

 

Show me the money: You are setting up a contract with a company to provide a service at a cost. Keep that in mind when you start looking into how much you are willing to ask for and what it is these organizations are willing to pay you. It might not be as easy to see it this way with freelance writing as it would be for other forms of projects that yield a more concrete product, but the situations are comparable.

“Rate is a big deal,” Rehagen said. “There is a rash of publishers who somehow think we should do our job for nothing or next to it. (No way.)  We have a skill that has value. You need to maximize that value—not just for yourself, but for your fellow freelancers.”

How that rate is established will determine the degree to which you are doing well financially or struggling as a freelancer. Some places will pay a certain amount of money per word, with a specific word limit on a piece. Others will offer to pay a flat fee for a story that fits within a word-count range. Other ways of establishing this also exist, but you can’t just think about the amount of time and energy associated with the writing of the story.

Reporting takes time and often cost money. In some cases, a story can be nailed down with a few phone calls and a few in-person interviews with someone nearby. In other cases, you end up going halfway around the world, like Choi did when he went to Russia, Morocco and the South Pole to conduct his reporting. (“I love traveling, and have been to all seven continents and on multiple archaeological and paleontology digs,” he noted.)

Money might not be the only motivating factor, as Choi noted while explaining how he sometimes considers the value of a job in other ways.

“There are other factors when it comes to whom I pitch stories to, such as prestige,” he said. “Writing for The New York Times may not be a great return on investment, but it’s great publicity and helps me get other jobs, and I treat such gigs like paying for advertising.”

However you calculate the value, be it in cash or other ways, figure out what you are earning from each gig and get it in writing.

 

Know your rights: Depending on the circumstances, the rights you have to the material may be more valuable than the cash you get from a particular piece. Many publications have moved toward a “work for hire” model in which they can do whatever they want with your piece as long as they want. This limits you in a lot of ways, so be careful with the fine print in the contract before you sign it.

“Ideally, as a freelancer, when you sign a contract, you get rights back to your story after, say, 90 days,” Choi said. “That way you can resell stories in, say, foreign markets, or if stories get collected in books.”

In some cases, you may care a little less about your rights than a paycheck, but you never know when an article could lead to a bigger project. A number of movies and TV series came from a single article. For example, “Shattered Glass” began as an article written by Buzz Bissinger.

“You need to read your contracts carefully. Ideally, you want the rights to your stories—so if Hollywood or Netflix comes calling, you can reap the benefits, but also, and more practically, so you can reprint it elsewhere and spin off for other stories,” Rehagen said.

Even if a big-name organization doesn’t come calling, retaining as many rights as you can to your material will allow you to control how your work gets used or reused. In a “work for hire” situation, you lose the ability to say “no” if you don’t like how the organization is using your material or what other projects are underway based on it.

“The area of concern in this area has always been owning the content — think of it as Michael Jackson buying the rights to The Beatles’ publishing to retain the wealth of many resells and replays of The Beatles’ songs, even though The Beatles are the authors,” White said. “Every single contract you will sign to work for a media outlet will give all ownership to the outlet, not to mention a possible NDA so that essentially the experience is “owned.” Retaining ownership rights, with some exceptions, will only belong to you if you start an outlet or buy it as an investor; otherwise, rights generally belong to the outlet.”

 

Dealing with rejection

Nobody likes hearing, “Sorry, not interested” when it comes to a story, but for freelancers, this can be particularly problematic. Finding a balance between investing in a story and overly investing in a story can be crucial to keeping your head above water, Rehagen said.

“I often do a little reporting to flesh out my pitch—but I don’t know anyone who does the entire story on spec,” he said. “It’s just not feasible to front that time, money, and energy without knowing if you’ll ever get paid or published.”

A lost opportunity to publish a story means a loss of time, energy and wages. This is why it doesn’t pay to have the story completed before you pitch it.

“I never pitch completed stories to outlets if I can help it for two reasons,” Choi said. “First, no outlet may end up picking up the story, and if that happens I will have wasted time and effort for no reason and I will likely disappoint the sources I interviewed, potentially burning bridges for later stories. Second, every outlet has a unique voice, and a story written with one story in mind may need to be drastically rewritten if pitched to a different outlet.”

Here are some ways to deal with rejection in a positive way that could still yield a good story:

 

Is the pitch “mostly dead” or just dead?: Remember Billy Crystal’s character in the Princess Bride? He’s talking to Mandy Patinkin about the dead guy on the table and he says, “He’s not dead. He’s only mostly dead.”

The same level of absurdity applies to your work. After it’s been rejected, you need to see if your work is dead or mostly dead when it comes to the pitch.

Dead is when the editor says, “This just isn’t something we want. Best of luck elsewhere.” At that point, you can give up on that outlet and look elsewhere.

“Mostly dead” is where the editor gives you a second bite at the apple. The editor might want to see more material before committing or might want to postpone the story for a good reason while still retaining interest in it. When you get a “mostly dead” response, see what constructive criticism you get from the rejection, determine how easy it will be to deal with that criticism and see if it’s something you want to do. If it’s a set of simple fixes for an editor who has been good about taking your work before, give it a shot and see if you can get an acceptance. If it requires you to do something you are unable or unwilling to do, consider other options.

 

Hope for the best but plan for the worst: When you pitch an article to a media outlet, you clearly hope the editor will love it and buy it on the spot. However, since you can’t rely on that outcome always happening, you want to have a back-up plan (or four) so that your initial work on the story doesn’t go to waste.

As Choi said throughout this series, working in a niche has many benefits: You become an expert on the area, you become the go-to writer on those topics and you work repeatedly with certain editors. One other benefit is that you know multiple outlets that want stories like the one you are pitching at that point. Therefore, if Magazine X decides the story doesn’t sound all that great, you can see if any of the criticism in the rejection merits addressing, spruce up your pitch and send it to Magazine Y.

 

Know when to stop: The late actor and comedian W.C. Fields famously once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use in being a damned fool about it.” That’s some pretty solid advice when it comes to pitching a story.

You might really have an emotional attachment or a driving desire to see a particular story get published and that’s great. However, you have to remember you also have a passion for making rent and eating food, so you need to put your time and energy where it will help you meet those needs. You can give a pitch a few shots, but if you keep getting rejected and you can’t seem to make the editors want it, consider that you might be wrong about how important this thing is and then move on.

(Continue to Part III)

The Art and Craft of Freelancing (Part I)

EDITOR’S NOTE: One instructor who was adopting the News Reporting and Writing book mentioned to my editor that she would have loved to see a section or a discussion of freelancing in there somewhere. The minute I found out about that ask, I set off to find some really smart people who could help me deliver on this.

Thus, here comes a multi-part series on how freelancing works, how to become successful at it and some general suggestions to consider for anyone planning a freelance career. I hope it’s more than enough.

Do you have a “I wish your book had included X” element? Contact me and I’ll see what I can do to make it happen.

Freelancing is a pretty good gig if you’re not tied to a steady paycheck, have a lot of inspiration and some good street smarts. The goal is to find topics that matter to you, meet the needs of a specific audience and find venues that will help you reach those readers. Some of my favorite former students have made a really good living by doing it.

When I started working on this topic, I reached out to a couple of them who work in vastly different niches but all work in the same basic freelance ecosystem. They provided me with some key information about the way in which they got involved in freelancing, how they work within their areas of interest and how to make a living as a freelancer. Throughout these posts, I’ll be weaving in their comments as we go, so let’s meet them up front:

CharlesCharles Choi began freelancing in 2001 after completing his master’s degree in journalism. He has worked primarily as a science writer and his work has been published in a variety of outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Scientific American, Wired, National Geographic News, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and Science magazine. He is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the Asian-American Journalists Association. His main base of operation is the New York City area, although he has travel the world in pursuit of stories, including trips to Russia and Antarctica.

 

NickNick White has spent the last 15 years as a freelancer on the West Coast. He has worked on a variety of topics, but tends to publish heavily in entertainment media outlets. His work has appeared frequently in People, Us Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, TVGuide.com, Infinity, and AOL, as well as being published in The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, E! Online, Celebuzz, InStyle.com, Alternative Press, Wetpaint, iVillage, and OC Weekly.

 

ch4rehagenmug.jpgTony Rehagen began freelancing in 2009 when he was on staff at Indianapolis Monthly magazine, writing a few pieces for Men’s Health. Since then, he continued to work staff jobs while freelancing on the side. He is currently a contributing editor for St. Louis Magazine in Missouri as well as a freelance writer for magazines and online publications. He was named a five-time finalist for the City Regional Magazine Association’s Writer of the Year award and his work has been included in the book “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.” His freelance work has appeared in GQ, Pacific Standard, Popular Mechanics, ESPN The Magazine, espnW, MEL Magazine, Southwest Magazine, Bloomberg Digital, SB Nation and others.

 

Getting started

Publications usually have a robust staff of writers and editors who cover the basics the readers have come to expect from them. A freelancer’s goal is to find news that nobody else knows about and pitch those ideas as stories. Choi noted that freelancers are like a staff’s enterprise reporters: They don’t do the day-in, day-out pieces, but they fill a niche that matters to the readers in a unique way. So, what makes for good freelancing? Here are some thoughts on how to come up with some good freelance pieces:

 

Develop a sense of wonder: If traditional journalism is about a standard “who did what to whom” approach, freelancing tends to dig into the “how” and “why” a lot more. This sense of curiosity can yield a wide array of interests that will let you find interesting things in a variety of places that other people tend not to examine.

When we are little kids, we desperately want to know everything about everything we see. That sense of wonder manifests itself in about 10,018 questions that range from how a license plate gets made to who is responsible for the voice in the phone’s GPS directions. Eventually, we stop asking those questions aloud and then we just stop wondering. Tony Rehagen said his sense of wonder has led him to all sorts of experiences as a freelancer.

“My strength (and weakness) is my insatiable curiosity for just about damn near anything,” he said. “I always joke that I know a little about a lot of things and a lot about very few. For instance, over the past month I’ve written about ethnomusicology, mass extinction of megafauna due to foreign pathogens, NBA basketball, the science of whiskey distillation, a personal essay on when to leave your job and a travel piece about St. Louis. That’s part of the reason I got into general interest magazines in the first place.”

 

Find a niche: The wide range of topical wonder can be helpful in keeping ideas fresh, but it also helps to have a home-base topic that will make you an expert in an area. If you develop a niche, you will work repeatedly with publications and establish relationships with editors. It will also make you a “go-to” freelancer for publications seeking coverage on that topic.

“The fact that I largely work in a specialized niche — science journalism — greatly helps focus whom I pitch stories to, where I get story ideas from, and what the pitches should look like,” Charles Choi said. “Freelancers usually have at least one specialty for this reason…There are many other kinds of stories I can write other than news-focused ones. For instance, I can pitch profiles of scientists, or explainer pieces, or stories delving into the scientific aspects of major news events, or stories focusing on the business or political sides of science, and so on. However, I personally enjoy writing news-focused stories, and it makes up the brunt of my workload — everyone has a specialty.”

Choi’s point about having a niche also raises an important element of freelancing: Find something you like to do.

“When I was first starting off as a freelancer, a key way I made a living was finding interesting stories in areas that few other freelancers worked on — for instance, physics and chemistry,” he said. “I found these niches because I had a personal interest in physics growing up — I was fascinated with the science of things like black holes because of years reading and watching science fiction.”

All three writers noted that they liked the idea of finding new topics and writing stories that go beyond what they could do as staff writers. They also noted they enjoy the fields they cover. If you don’t like what topic you are covering, you will be less motivated to find stories of interest and you will be less likely to pitch them successfully. Even worse, if you ARE successful in your pitches, you will end up writing stories you hate and that vibe will come through in your pieces.

 

Dig in and dig deep: If you want to make a living at freelancing, you need to find out what sells and who is buying. Staff writers can have an “off” week when it comes to finding content, but freelancers live off of their labors, so knowing what works and what doesn’t in terms of getting pieces sold will matter.

“Essentially, I find the model is to immerse yourself in different aspects and coverage areas of your given industry and stick with the one that pays the most reliably or gets the best response from the boss, readers, or click numbers,” Nick White said.

In some cases, you’ll locate a particular area within a niche, such as biology or physics within the field of science. In other cases, you might locate a story approach that works well and then replicate it with multiple topics. For example, you might find that a short profile with a five-question Q and A sidebar on high-school athletes in your area is often the most-read piece you write in a given week. Repeating that approach can lead to additional successful pitches in which you feature additional athletes.

The goal is to also dig into areas where you see a need but no one else is doing the work. In a lot of cases, publications know there is too many story ideas available without enough staff to cover them all. If you can find those deserted areas that are crying out for coverage, you can create a nice cottage industry for yourself.

“When I combed science journals and press releases, I could see that there were plenty of story ideas that were not getting written up, and so I pitched them knowing that others were likely not pitching them and knowing that my interest in these areas would help me tell compelling stories,” Choi said. “Basically, I filled niches in which there were few competitors and ample opportunities. Once I made a reputation writing these niche stories well, editors sent me other pitches in these niches (in one case, a regular column on nanotechnology) and related niches (astronomy, planetary science, cosmology, electronics). Those editors also knew I could write well, and when I let them know I could write stories outside this niche, they pitched me other stories as well, typically ones they didn’t want to write themselves. In this way, I gained expertise in geology and paleoanthropology.

 

Preparing for the pitch

To work as a freelancer, you need to have great ideas and you need to make editors and publishers see why they are great. To do this, you will need to “pitch” your story to them in the form of a query letter or email.

Queries are like fishing lines: You toss them out on to the water with the hope that something will jump on them. The better the bait and the better the fishing hole, the better the likelihood of getting a bite. To do this, you need do a few things before you approach a potential client:

 

Research the publication: You need to find out as much as you can about the outlets to which you plan to pitch. Just like a form letter for a job application, generic pitches are bad because they seem flat and forced. You want to dig around and find out what the publication does, how it works, with whom it competes and more. You want to figure out what kinds of things they published, how long the stories they publish tend to be and what audience they cater to.

You might have the world’s greatest feature on model train building, but if the model train magazine you’re pitching runs 400 word stories and you pitch something in the 4,000-words range, you’re not getting a second look. If you pitch a story on how to play football with your kids, but you market it to a futbol magazine, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

Figure out if the publication has done work on this or if their competitors have. If they have and you have a new angle, mention this. It’ll show that you’re not just firing blindly. If the competition has done something, explain how your story will move your editor’s publication back ahead of the pack. It always helps to show that you’re not a newbie to the field.

 

Find an “in” if you can:  White said one of the best ways to connect a story to a publication is when he has a connection to someone at that organization.

“Story-selling is something that is best done through establishing a relationship first in my opinion, even if it’s a low-level acquaintance situation,” he said. “The story itself can be secondary to selling the pitch.”

All three writers mentioned that forming relationships with people at various media outlets will lead to improved success in getting a pitch picked up. Even more, the more frequently they work with a person at a media outlet, the easier the pitch becomes.

“The amount of salesmanship I put into a pitch depends largely on how often I write for a given outlet,” Choi said. “If I’m pitching a regular client, they know how well I can write, and so I just give them the basic facts of a pitch, and that’s usually good enough — basically what the lede sentence would be, if I’m pitching a short news story.”

If you have a connection at a media outlet, you want to make it count for you when you pitch. Find that person and make the pitch to him or her. If that person isn’t responsible for making the decision on pitches, at least mention in your pitch that you have worked with that person. This person could provide valuable support in trying to reach the decision-maker.

 

Develop a sniper’s mentality: When it comes to a pitch, you get one chance to impress an editor so you need to make it count. Get yourself set, get your eye on the target and take one good shot. If the editor feels like you’re wasting their time, they won’t open your next email or letter. You don’t want to be known as “that annoying weirdo who keep sending lousy pitches.” Before you write your pitch, understand that you will need to showcase your enthusiasm without over-hyping your piece. You should provide the editor with a sense that you understand the publication without overdoing it and keep your writing as tight and strong as you will when compose your piece. If the pitch is full of errors or the writing is weak, all an editor is going to see is a preview of a messy story that will take more time than it is worth.

(Click here for Part II)