WOMEN WHO PITCH: FREELANCING IN THE DIGITAL AGE
*Takeaways from our panel at Bindercon 2016, UCLA
How do you craft the perfect pitch? How do you get paid to write the stories you care about? How can you travel around the world to cover a story? Inspired by the Los Angeles-based group “Women Who Submit,” which encourages women writers to gather together and submit their work to magazines, and to celebrate the often intimidating process of sending work out into the world, this award-winning group of panelists will reveal their secrets to becoming successful freelance writers. The will discuss how to tackle a difficult story, how to master the craft of nonfiction storytelling, when a story is a right for longform pitch, which digital outlets pay for travel, expenses and which pay $1-a-word vs. $50 for an entire story? They will also offer tips on networking with editors, tackling big, ambitious stories, and balancing home, family, and the writing life while trying to pay the bills and follow your passions.
Melissa Chadburn, author of the Poets & Writers essay, “Submission Blitz: Finding Courage at a Writer’s Conference.” Melissa has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Salon, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America and dozens other places, her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her first novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. When she is not teaching, she can usually be found protesting somewhere.
Embarrassing Sample Query Letter above
· Address query to a particular person. You can often find these names in masthead. People like it when you’ve done your homework.
· Make reference to a previous article or story you’ve read before why you share the same aesthetic as this particular journal.
· If you are pitching establish why you are the best person for the story… what access you might have to subjects for direct reportage
· If they say not a good fit but we’d like to see more… they want to see more. Pitch again.
Mona Gable has written for Los Angeles magazine, Cosmopolitan, Fast Company, Pacific Standard, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, TruthPart.com, Salon, and many other national publications. Her story in Los Angeles magazine “The Trouble with Oxy,” about campus sexual violence, was named one of the best longreads of 2015. Gable is the author of the 2014 memoir, “Blood Brother: The Gene That Rocked My Family.” Her essays have also appeared in several anthologies, including “The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change” and “Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood.”
1) Read several issues of the publication you’d like to write for to make sure they haven’t already done a story like yours. This will save you possible embarrassment, but also show the editor when you pitch your idea that you’re familiar with the publication. As part of your research, also check out how the publication uses headlines and subheads to describe a story. What language do they use? How do they frame a story?
2) Write your pitch in the voice and style of the article you’re pitching, as if you were actually writing the piece. If you’re pitching an essay, for instance, write the first few graphs and then a brief paragraph describing the angle. If you’re pitching a reported story, do the same but also include quotes from a source or two. Also say why you’re the best person to do the piece (you’re an expert in the subject, for instance, or have access to a great source The editor wants to know: Why should I assign this to YOU?). As for tone, if the voice of the publication is funny, snarky, self-deprecating, use that in your pitch. Same goes If the tone is objective and serious. Finally, keep your pitches to a single page.
3) OK, so you’ve emailed your pitch to an editor. How long do you wait until you check in? Editors are busier than ever, so wait at least 10 days before you shoot the editor an email. When you do, make it short and sweet and include (so they don’t have to frantically search for it) in the email your original pitch. (Paste it in the body of the email — not as an attachment.)
4) Money. All I can say is “it depends.” Some websites pay $.25 a word; others as much as $1.00. Ask around before you pitch so you know what the rate is. Editors will often offer the lowest rate — not because they’re evil but because they haven’t worked with you and don’t know if your work is going to be fabulous or drek. (Not that YOUR work would be drek.) Be professional.
5) Meet the deadline. Don’t give excuses no matter what happens. GET IT IN! If this is your first piece you want to make the best impression you possibly can. This is a business. If you can, even send the piece in early. That will signal your editor that you’re not only dependable — she meets deadlines! — but enterprising and hungry. She’ll know she can count on you — and ask for other ideas.
Liana Aghajanian is a journalist whose work explores the issues, people and places that remain hidden on the fringes of society. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, Los Angeles Magazine, BBC News Magazine and Al Jazeera America. She has reported from Kenya, Germany, Mongolia and extensively in the South Caucasus. Her reporting has received support from a number of fellowships and grants, including the Metlife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship and the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University. She also authors a bi-monthly column for L.A. Times Community News covering the intersection of identity, immigration and culture. In 2015, she was awarded second Write A House permanent writing residency and currently writes and lives in Detroit.
1) Study the publication: In order to get a better chance for getting a pitch not just ignored, but accepted, you have to make sure your story idea is suited to the publication. Thoroughly read the website over a few weeks and if it’s print publication, study at least two or three issues.
2) Don’t pitch a topic, pitch a story: A story has a conflict, uncertainty and characters, a topic does not. Your pitch should have should lay the outline for a piece that has a beginning, middle and end.
3) Set yourself apart from the pack: Publications often have staffers who cover the most widespread, well-know pieces of news and information. Don’t bring them something they can cover, bring them something only you can.
4) Keep pitching: Build up your thick skin because you’re always going to get rejections, they are part of the game. The trick is to keep pitching your idea, at least three to four times, before you move on.
5) Do your pre-pitching research: A phone call with multiple sources lets you develop your story idea before you even begin to pitch and in turn makes your pitch stronger.
Erika Hayasaki’s feature stories and essays have appeared in Wired, Newsweek, Glamour, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, The California Sunday Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and more. She spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter and New York-based national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of The Death Class: A True Story About Life (Simon & Schuster 2014), and has published two Kindle Singles. She is an associate professor in the Literary Journalism Program at UC Irvine. Erika is a recipient of the Association of Sunday Feature Editors Award, The Society for Features Journalism Narrative Award, the American Society of Newspaper Editors Breaking News Award, Los Angeles Times Best Writing Award, and is a two-time finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
1.) Putting the issue of money aside for a moment, when it comes to freelancing I feel like time management is imperative. Between motherhood and career, I have to determine whether the writing projects in which I am investing my time and energy are worth me working on at all. For some of us, money can drive the story assignments we take on. I get that. But I also feel like to grow as writers, we have to at some point prioritize what we want and need from our writing. So if 50 to 70 percent of your time is spent earning money to pay the bills (however that might be), how can you spend the other 30 to 50 percent of your time writing what you love and becoming better at it? It may sound cheesy, but I believe figuring out this balance can help you fulfill your soul. So, when I am considering stories I often ask myself these four questions before pitching:
a. Is this a subject that totally fascinates me and I want to spend time learning more about?
b. Is this a story that will just be a lot of fun to work on, even if it’s not about the most important issue in the world?
c. Is this a story that is simply a damn good narrative with potential for movie-like scenes, characters, twists and turns?
d. Will this story give me a chance to work with an editor who will push me to be better, or a publication that will challenge me as a writer?
2.) Keeping with the theme of “growth as a writer,” what about the money then? Should you write for free, ever? Should you accept a low fee for a story you absolutely poured yourself into? Should you finance your own reporting and travel, ever? I think it’s okay to at times accept a low fee or even fund your own travel — if you’ve got a game plan. And, if you absolutely cannot get any publication to pay you for your work, then publishing it for free on, say, Medium, might be an option (I would really think about this, however, if you are putting a lot of reporting into a piece. If it’s a personal essay that may be different because it’s not as expensive to produce). So first, ask yourself:
a. How will this story propel your career to the next level? Will you be sacrificing a higher fee for a bigger audience, and is that worth it?
b. Will this clip showcase your very best work, and possibly get you noticed by editors who will eventually pay you? Or book agents or Hollywood?
c. And are you willing to promote your own piece like a PR person?
If you believe in your story that much, if you are that passionate about it — then make it happen. I don’t think this is a way to conduct your entire freelance career, however. But the end goal should be to get noticed by someone who realizes that you deserve to be paid for your writing, someone who will start compensating you fairly for your work.
3.) Before you publish for free, keep in mind there are tons of publications out there, and most of them will pay something. Pitch and pitch until you can’t anymore. Subscribe to mediabistro.com and check out its link to “Pitches That Worked,” for sample pitch letters, as well as its database “How to Pitch,” which provides details on rates and even editor emails. Also check out The Open Notebook and its Pitch Database for more examples of how to write pitches. Of course Binders also has a great growing list of editors and publications. Also consider digital publications — places like The Big Roundtable, which promotes narrative and authors receive donations, or Kindle Singles at Amazon, and a growing list of other pubs like this.
4.) Before you pitch, do some reporting. Even track down your sources or characters (if you are trying to do longform, especially). Get them to agree to speak with you before you try to sell the article. Intelius.com is a great public people-tracking site that does not cost too much. Subscribe to a library to get access to Lexis (for court documents). Pacer even offers court transcripts. As well as Factiva.com or Access World News — for to check what has been written on this subject or person in the news ever anywhere — this will inform your pitch.
5.) For thoughts on finding the longform idea read this Medium post, which I wrote up for Bindercon 2015.
Rachel’s Tips for pitching with Bustle & beyond:
Rachel Krantz is the Senior Features Editor and a founding editor at Bustle. Her work has also been featured on The Huffington Post, NPR, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jezebel, XOJane, Marie Claire, and elsewhere. She’s the recipient of the Peabody Award, The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights International Radio Award, The Investigative Reporters and Editors Radio Award, and the Edward R. Murrow Award for her work as an investigative reporter for Youth Radio.
Pitching 101 With Bustle & Beyond
ALWAYS ASK YOURSELF BEFORE YOU PITCH:
● Can you see your piece on the site? Does your tone match the site’s tone? Pitch where you read.
● Has the site done it before? Check. If so, can you make your piece distinct?
● If it’s personal, is this relevant for reasons besides the fact that it happened to you?
● Why should it be written NOW? Is there anything you could peg it to?
● Where can you condense? Do you repeat yourself anywhere? Have you read this out loud and edited it as closely as possible? Can you show it to a trusted second opinion before you send?
My article on tips for writing the personal essay for online publication has several other questions you should ask yourself before pitching a piece as well.
TIPS FOR THE PITCH ITSELF
● Read the site’s pitch guidelines and follow their rules to a T
● Subject line should make it clear it’s a pitch not pr. Can read like a sample headline Eg. Submission: “6 Reasons Pitch Perfect Is The Ultimate Feminist Film,” “Pitch: What I Learned From Losing My Mother (1500 word Draft Attached)” NOT “Funky Freelancer Wants To Write About Sex!” or “Hi Bustle! I’m Rachel Krantz”
● Keep the body of your email short, professional, and clear (briefly introduce yourself, avoid telling your life story, link to any reputable articles you’ve published if applicable, then get straight to the pitch, 12 graph max)
● Whenever possible, copy and paste an EDITED draft in the body of the email below your pitch. (you can also attach it, but it saves time to copy/paste). It is always better to pitch a fully edited draft
● If you’re enquiring whether an idea is a fit in the first place and only have a pitch, keep your email as short and clear as possible, with estimated word count and expected format (eg. listicle, personal essay, reported story w/ list potential sources)
● If you’re pitching a list and haven’t written it yet, at least 5 sample “points” that give a sense of why this will be unique and your voice so that I know where you’re headed with it. (Eg. Pitch: 7 Reasons Coffee Is The Best Drug” 1. It Contains Caffeine, Which Is My Lifeblood 2. It Tastes Like Comfort and Productivity Wrapped Into One 3. Let’s Be Real, It’s Basically Mother’s Milk For Adults…)
● Always assume the editor is skimming and pressed for time — how can you make your pitch as clear, professional, and hassle free as possible? Including hyperlinks, images, and anything else that makes your piece as ready to go as possible will always give you an advantage
● Feel free to follow up if you don’t get a response or if you want to know why a pitch was rejected.
● Read my article on How To Pitch for more tips!
WHAT BUSTLE IS LOOKING FOR
Bustle is open to all kinds of submissions — especially if you have a full draft to show — but here’s a breakdown of the types of stories we especially look for. All word count guidelines are averages, since there are always exceptions to the rule.
(Word Count: 800-1600 words)
We’re open to all sorts of topics relatable to our readers. Stories about family, overcoming personal struggles, body image, relationships, and identity all do especially well. Submitting a full draft is ideal; if you don’t have one yet, submit a brief graph with the essay topic and the general arch of the story. I tend to favor essays with a strong story, lots of specific scenes/moments/details, and counterintuitive conclusions (read: avoid cheesiness, or feeling you have to tie stories up in a pretty bow). Still, all good stories follow the same general arch: where I was, what changed, where I’m at now.
(Word Count: 800-1500 words)
A personal essay that takes the form of a list, these usually discuss significant things in your life that may include but aren’t limited to: lessons you’ve learned, people you’ve encountered, or experiences you’ve had. eg. “12 Lessons About Dating I Wish I’d Known At 22”
(Word Count: 800-1600 words)
We’re always looking for creative and innovative experimental articles. Stories are written in first person and document an original experiment writers conduct. The most successful pitches have somewhat of a newspeg and are usually about identity, feminism, body image, sex/dating, and other women’s issues.
These all need to take place over at least 1 week (unless it’s a onetime thing, like “I went to a Tantric Sex Workshop & Here’s What Happened”) and always need to include a minimum of 5 photos of you conducting the experiment, as highres as possible.
(Word count: 800-1800 words)
Looking for all kinds of reported stories. If there is no immediate news peg, you need to make it clear why the reader should be reading it now. Hyperspecific foreign affairs are not often accepted (for example, an editorial on a new bill in Australia was turned down), whereas more relatable foreign affairs is ( profiling gay rights activists in Russia, for example). Stories of particular interest to our audience, like “ Why is Plan B So Damn Expensive ?” are also encouraged. Full drafts are wonderful when you have them. That said, if you haven’t written one yet, I will be able to tell you whether your pitch is on the right track. Ideally, you will have at least 3 original sources for any reported story. Images are also important.
Political/Global News Features:
(Word Count: 800-1500 words)
Are you a politics whiz or especially interested in international relations, global news, or current events?
Pitch us an explainer , a primer, or an indepth feature about a current event or issue. Past topics of coverage have included the midterm elections, the Hong Kong protests, and #gamergate. Stories should have an innovative angle and have timeliness in mind (i.e. pitch it just before everyone starts talking about it), but more than anything, you should be knowledgeable and have experience writing about the subject.
(Word Count 500-1000 words)
An original tutorial with step by step photos of yourself (or a “model” of your choice) demonstrating how to do something. Generally, these will be fashion/beauty or lifestyle/DIY related, but we’re open to pretty much anything. The photos should be high res (sorry, iPhone selfies don’t count) and easy to follow.
Editorials/Personal Takes on News & Pop Culture:
(Word Count 800-1500 words)
Feminist takes on the news or pop culture events are always great, and LGBTQ and POC perspectives are especially needed. If you haven’t written a draft yet, be sure to pitch your central argument, and the general arch the editorial will take.
(Word Count: 800-1500)
Pegged to a recent study, news, or simply an idea, a researched roundup could be anything from “ Where 9 Famous Women Were at 23 “ and “ How Attitudes Towards Rape Have Changed Over Time “ to “ Pubic Hair Trends, From Tweezerhappy Ancient Greece To Your Last Painful Wax ” and “ 9 Urban Legends About New York City, And The Gross Truth .” Extra interest for roundups that include original comments from trusted sources.
Hyperlocal/college/only understand lists:
(Word Count (600-1000)
The easiest way to break into freelancing for Bustle, since we could always use more of these. All lists follow the same format: minimum 200 word intro, subhed, gif/image, descriptive text. It could be a post about your college , your hometown , or things only someone with your background understands. Try to group your list so that it tells a story, and remember to make headings as specific aspossible (in other words it’s always better to have more things no one understands than fewer headings with longer explanations).
Reviews (500-800 words): Book reviews for current titles that have come out within the last month.
We’re looking for reviews of books that have particular interest for our audience at Bustle, and heavily favor titles by female authors, or authors that have a significant female following. Fiction, memoir, and nonfiction are all fair game, but please consider our audience before pitching.