Here’s what I learned in my first year and how you can do better!
2020 was my first year getting paid to do journalism. This year, I have seen an abundance of advice for journalists, probably vastly outpacing the desire for it. These include misconceptions that you need to work in a newsroom to build up your network of editors before going freelance (I didn’t) or that you need a degree in journalism to do it (I also didn’t). I have a separate day job, so I don’t live and die by the success of my journalism, but here are some things I learned while writing nearly 45 pieces this year.
Coming up With Stories
A question that I get asked pretty often is how to come up with ideas as a freelancer. When you’re not staff at a publication getting assigned pieces or have an established relationship with an editor who calls on you to write specific pieces they know they want to commission, the bulk of coming up with ideas as a freelancer will be on you.
I have been pretty lucky to always have a ton of ideas I want to be pitching on! Either I will see something happening in the world that I think I have an angle on, I will have a question that I haven’t seen anyone answer, or I will see a call for pitches that I want to submit to. I know this is vague, so here are some examples:
- In the early days of the pandemic, the reports of people, especially elderly Americans, dying alone barricaded in their homes made me feel a strong sense of déjà vu to things I had read about the Chicago Heat Wave in classes I had taken in college. I pitched about this to Belt Magazine.
- Also early on in the pandemic, I kept seeing an Indian lady on TV during White House coronavirus briefings. I consider myself pretty well informed on prominent South Asians in politics (I wrote my thesis on South Asian American political identities), so I was surprised to not know who she was or be able to find any deep dives online. I pitched about this to The Juggernaut.
- Similarly early in the pandemic, I was seeing a daily barrage of ‘Isaac Newton discovered gravity and invented calculus while in quarantine’ and ‘Shakespeare wrote King Lear on lockdown’ takes on twitter. I pitched about this to The Guardian.
- Again, early in the pandemic, I saw some of my friends through Chicago Desi Youth Rising putting together a fundraiser for families who wouldn’t be getting stimulus money from the CARES Act. After two degrees in public policy, I’m always thinking about what happens when people fall through policies’ cracks. I pitched about this to The Juggernaut.
- My mom and I are longtime fans and watchers of what we, and sometimes Netflix, call Nordic Noir. After binge watching Bordertown with my mom after being sent back to Iowa by my job in the early days of the pandemic, I was itching to write about the special appeal of shows like it. I pitched about this to a few places before it got picked up by Shondaland.
- During racial justice protests this summer, I saw a lot of South Asian friends who I had heard use racial slurs or culturally appropriate posting black squares on Instagram. I wanted to articulate what about this felt so weird to me so I pitched it a few places before it eventually got picked up by SELF.
- During a South Side Weekly pitch meeting, an editor mentioned the appointment of the new police chief in Chicago in a list of things that had received nearly no coverage as all reporting became pandemic reporting. I asked her if there was a piece about it in the works and she said no, so I wrote about it for South Side Weekly.
Do you keep a list of ideas you want to pitch about or track your pitches in any way?
No, I’m usually trying to pitch when ideas are coming into my head for things I’m excited about and are timely. I’m sure being a little more formalized with the process has its advantages and this is definitely something I want to try next year.
How many publications do you pitch at a time?
As is the implicit rule in the world of journalism, just one. I usually give about a week for an editor to respond, after which I send a follow up email. If that goes unanswered after three days, I pitch elsewhere. For some stories, this drawn-out process may feel like the story will no longer be timely by the time the pitch does get picked up. However, I have found that if you just keep adjusting your hook or slightly changing the angle of the story as time passes, the story can stay relevant.
For example, I originally pitched this piece as a rapid response to the racial justice protests in May and didn’t hear back. It got picked up in June when I was re-pitching it to a different publication pegged to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. But then the piece got killed by the publication and I re-pitched it to a different publication in the context of then-recent, high-profile shows of solidarity by South Asian Americans. By this time, two months had passed since the protests started, but it was fine.
An unfortunate reality of the journalism world is that many, if not most, pitches will go unanswered — not accepted, but also not formally rejected. This is why it is nice to be able to have editors you have already written for before to pitch to because, not only will they probably be more receptive to your idea than if some stranger emailed them about it, if they don’t want it, they will probably let you know quickly.
How did you come up with your beat?
My advice here is to not force it! My first piece of reporting was about bail reform, a pitch I felt comfortable picking up because of my experiences working at a criminal justice policy research organization and in every conceivable part of the criminal justice system. If you write a good piece on a topic, it is likely that you will then become associated with that topic for editors at that and other publications. That’s what happened to me, as I was asked to write more pieces on issues that were adjacent to my first series.
As you write these pieces, you will become familiar with interesting issues and questions in the field you’re writing about, which will lead to good follow-up stories to pitch. More importantly, you will develop a strong network of sources who will not only be able to provide you interviews for pieces, but will alert you to potential stories on their radar. Thus, a beat is born!
In addition to criminal justice, I have another main beat, which is the political lives of South Asian Americans. This is something I love thinking about so much that I wrote an optional 80 page thesis on it when I was in college, just for fun! Partly due to my thesis research, but also because I am very plugged in to ~the discourse~ as it relates to anything South Asian American, I pitch a lot of pieces on this because there are a lot of things I want to talk about and I feel confident that I am qualified to make well-informed arguments about them.
Similarly, the beats you cover will likely arise completely organically, as mine did. I think having some informal beats has really helped me as a journalist, but I also love stepping outside of them to write about reality TV, scripted TV, Iowa history, disability representation, voting, and more. A beat should never be limiting, it should only help you.
This is what I receive the most questions about as a freelancer. My pitches tend to be much longer than recommended by nearly any pitch guide I have ever seen, but what I take this to mean is that there actually is no magic formula for pitching — you will have success if the idea is there. Here is what I tell people you need to do in a pitch:
- What the story is (must be a story, not just a topic). When I say ‘story, not topic,’ here is what I mean. Topic: ‘I want to write about Nordic Noir.’ Story: ‘I want to write about why Scandinavian shows are so popular with American audiences.’ Topic: ‘I want to write about desi chick lit.’ Story: ‘I want to write about how a new genre of novels is helping South Asian American girls read about themselves for the first time.’ There should be a ‘why’ or ‘how’ element and an argument.
- Why now.
- Why you should be the person to write it. Editors want to see that you can handle the actual execution of the piece you are pitching. What I tend to do is link to some clips, awards, and my portfolio in a paragraph at the end of a pitch. But what I really should be doing is making clear to editors why I should write this piece. For example, if you’re mainly a criminal justice journalist and you want to write about healthcare, it’s not enough to just say you’re a journalist who has been published in so many outlets. But the upside is that you don’t even need clips for this! Let’s say you want to write about the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine and you’ve worked giving out flu shots in the CVS pharmacy, highlight that! If you want to write about climate change and you’ve seen your hometown deluged with natural disasters, bring that out. If you have none of these, a well researched and well considered pitch is often enough to demonstrate to an editor that you know your way around an issue. You should try to link to some writing samples, if you can, though. Editors want to make sure you can turn in clean copy.
How do I get writing samples from past writing gigs if I already need writing samples to get writing gigs?
This is a great question! I got writing samples by writing for my student paper, writing for a teaching paper that didn’t require me to submit clips to pick up a pitch, and writing for publications on my campus that didn’t require any particular past writing experience. But these opportunities are harder to come by if you’re no longer a student and teaching papers are few and far between.
However, in the digital age, there are tons of publications that seek content from new writers. Some of these pay well, but others may only be able to pay a nominal fee or may even be unpaid. All writing for these publications requires is a good idea. This is a great place to start and after writing a few pieces like these, you can link to them in pitches to other editors who may want to see some more reporting experience. Many are also a good place to start your freelancing career and keep writing for even as the clips pile up, because they are great publications!
I find it tough to advocate for anyone to take on low-paid or unpaid writing work even when one is starting out, because everyone should get fairly compensated for their labor. But I also know that many publications doing great work may have very limited funding, but are still worth writing for, for a variety of reasons. These decisions are ones you will have to weigh for yourself. Having clips is not necessary for pitching, even to many legacy publications, it just often helps.
Let’s Say You’ve Never Written A Pitch Before
Here are some samples. As I said before, they’re a little less focused than I would like, but they got the job done!
Where to Pitch
I keep a spreadsheet of calls for pitches I see on twitter — even if the original call for pitches mentioned in the tweet is outdated, the email address mentioned is still a good place to send pitches usually. This strategy works well for me!
As you write for publications, you will develop relationships with editors and will likely end up doing less cold pitching and reaching out more often to editors you already know.
Even if freelancing isn’t your full-time job, it is important to at least consider the fact that you are running a perhaps very small business selling your writing labor. I have a 9 to 5 job, so whether or not I can pay my bills and afford health insurance does not depend on the success of my journalism. But there are still reasons why it matters to me what a piece pays. For one, sometimes if I am being paid very little for the piece, but am spending dozens of hours working on it, I find myself feeling frustrated and resentful about it, which is not how I want to be feeling about journalism, an activity I do entirely voluntarily. For two, there’s more money being left on the table than you think, so get paid!
That being said, I have taken on pieces that have paid anywhere from $0 to $1400 this year. There is no correlation between what I got paid for any piece and the amount of effort it required. As you can tell, I am not someone who really runs her freelancing career as a business, but I still have some thoughts:
- I have read many guides by freelancers who advocate setting an hourly rate, calculating how many hours you will spend on a piece, and setting rates with publications accordingly. I do not do this for one reason only: at the onset of a project, I usually have absolutely no idea how much time I will end up spending on it. I have a sense of how long I spent writing certain pieces (a week of full-time effort, one morning) in retrospect, but this is rarely, if ever, clear to me at the onset.
- What I do recommend is setting a minimum rate you will write for a typical piece, then going from there. If I stuck by this, I would say that my minimum rate is $750, but I am willing to go lower for a piece that I believe I will be able to write quickly, one for a publication I really want to write for, or if it is a type of writing I want to get more experience in. For example, I rarely get paid for the pieces I write for South Side Weekly, but am still enthusiastic about writing for the paper because the freedom I have to take time to really delve into a meaty story and the excellent editors at the Weekly mean that my pieces for the Weekly are those that are, more often than my other pieces, finalists for and winners of awards. Similarly, I recently accepted a rate far below my minimum because it was for a publication I had really wanted to write for and I knew I could write the piece quickly without having to do any interviews.
- That being said, I have heard that you should always at least try to negotiate rates when provided them by editors. I wish I did this more! My main fear is that editors will reject my proposed higher rate and call my bluff that I would still be willing to write the piece for the amount they are offering. However, the few times I have tried to negotiate a rate, editors have been very responsive, which leads me to believe that you should continue negotiating for the rate you deserve rather than accepting an amount you would be willing, but not enthusiastic about, writing for.
- When possible, apply for grants! I have only applied for a few, but in my experience they are a great option for ensuring you are compensated fairly for a piece that requires significant time commitment beyond what a publication can provide.
- I have to put a shoutout to ZORA here, which has the fairest rates of any publication I have ever worked with! Thank you, ZORA!
In my early days as a journalist, I would start by transcribing all my interviews in their entirety by hand, then highlighting elements of them I wanted to include in a piece, then copying these into a second word document and rearranging them to make the story, then writing around the quotes. To be honest, other than the fact that this took hundreds of hours, it mostly worked fine, albeit resulting in some perhaps overly long and quote-heavy pieces.
Now, I start by copying and pasting my pitch into an empty doc, as this usually works well as an outline. I don’t really outline anything beyond that, but starting with the pitch is a good motivator because it feels like you have already written 300 words on your piece, which you have!
Beyond that, my writing process is a bit haphazard. Usually what I do first is reaching out to potential sources since I know scheduling an interview or even getting a comment from someone else is the part of reporting I have the least control over, timeline-wise. Then, ideally what I would do when waiting on responses from sources is flesh out the pitch based on my own knowledge, adding details that didn’t make it into the pitch, supplementing with internet research.
As I do interviews, I add new sections based on what I’ve learned and add in quotes to some of the sections where my sources have explained something well.
Who should I interview? How should I reach out?
If you, like me, are a policy journalist and are writing about how policies are impacting or will impact a certain population, you should be talking to these people and quoting them in your stories. Especially as a criminal justice reporter, this can be hard sometimes! It is much easier to get a comment from a policy research organization or nonprofit than it is to find someone in a jail or prison who can talk to you on a deadline, which is probably why I see so many stories on criminal justice policy that completely leave out the voices of people who are incarcerated, have cases pending in the legal system, are on electronic monitoring, or have been incarcerated in the past.
Similarly, it is much easier to speak with school district representatives, education policy research organizations, academics, and parent associations rather than finding teachers and students to speak with in a piece about education policy.
But if you are unable to include these voices, think critically about whether you should be writing this piece and are accurately presenting the core of the issue. Finding impacted people can be hard, but is definitely possible, even if you are covering a community you don’t have a network of sources in. Use nonprofits and organizing groups as a jumping-off point to get connected with affected populations, not as the end goal in terms of sourcing.
I usually reach out to people I want to speak with, using the email subject: “TIME SENSITIVE: Request for Comment or Interview [Publication Title].” This subject often feels pushy and alarmist to me, but you do want people to respond quickly and it works. I often give sources a deadline a day or two before my deadline. There are merits to asking for written comment (faster and easier, usually more concise) versus asking for an interview (more potential to have great, revelatory conversations) that are for you to consider with factors like how soon your deadline is, what you want from the source, the piece length, and how busy the source may be.
Some Thoughts on Having Opinions
There are some misconceptions about journalistic ethics that state that journalists must have an objective take on the issues they cover and have no personal convictions. I hope that if you are reading this, you know that this is not only impossible, but is also predicated on treating certain stances as neutral and other as biased or political, often in a way that benefits existing societal distributions of power. You should be striving for nuanced, accurate, and revelatory coverage that holds the powerful accountable, not pieces that devote 50% of their space to each side of an issue.
I bring this up because I often find myself self-censoring my own arguments in a way that moves them closer to the center, fearing editors will accuse me of bias. These accusations rarely come. Being obviously and firmly committed to the abolition of the prison industrial complex, and, more broadly, the most progressive policies possible has never held me back as a journalist, to the best of my knowledge.
You should also be paying attention to the diversity of your sources, not only in terms of race and gender, but also factors like disability, geography, age, and more. I track these things in my own reporting, so I know how I am doing. I highly recommend this to others, because it is otherwise hard to notice that the expert sources you are quoting are very homogenous.
- I really love otter for transcription. The free version has worked very well for me!
- Similarly, carrd has worked well for me as a portfolio. I have the paid version for the custom url.
- I run a very low-tech operation, but I would recommend at least keeping a spreadsheet of your pieces, the rate, and whether you have been paid. You will need to track down checks at least a few times! This is what part of mine looks like — as you can tell, very low-tech.
Pieces of Note
Some pieces that stuck with me this year:
The Contradictions of a Progressive Police Chief: Part profile, part structural critique of progressive policing, this was probably my favorite piece published this year. I loved how I was able to combine data analysis and public records requests with in-depth interviews with activists on the ground. It took weeks to put together, but the time was worth it. The fact it won an award doesn’t hurt either. $0
Stop Pretending Caste Doesn’t Exist: This is the piece I am most proud of having written this year. Caste is such an open secret in the South Asian community and I struggled to explain the contours and complexities of such a culturally specific system in a way that would be understood by any reader. It took a week of up-until-5 a.m.-writing nights to pull it together, but I feel the final piece is a strong blend of familiar, anecdotal storytelling with me as a tour guide and data-informed reporting on an insidious issue. $1,200
The Biden FCC Needs to Tackle Exorbitant Jail and Prison Call Prices: Prison and jail calls is a topic I have wanted to write about many times this year and one that needs a careful hand because it’s so convoluted. I had a half-written pitch on it in my email drafts for months. When I saw this call for Future Agenda, it seemed like a great time to get it out of the drafts. I was able to write the resulting piece in a single morning since I had already done so much research when writing the pitch earlier in the year. $300
Most of the People Arrested at the Protests were Black: This was my first piece of FOIA reporting and it was really exciting to be able to see how public records spreadsheets can turn into journalism without having any formal training in data reporting. We all know that policing is racist, so it was satisfying to prove it with data. $375
Kamala’s Complicated Relationship With the South Asian Community: This piece was the one I felt would be most disastrous if I got wrong, given the nuances in presenting a good faith critique of a woman of color on the left in a world where representation does, sometimes, matter. To raise the stakes, I was writing this piece on the heels of an international move, while starting a new job, and during a 3-week-long citywide power outage. Writing this took the lion’s share of my attention for about a week traveling to nearby cities for power and internet and it’s a miracle I turned in the piece on schedule. Even better, I feel like I was able to clearly outline the root of years of frustration with purely descriptive identity politics here. $850
Nordic Noir Might Be TV’s Next Big Thing: Watching these shows with my mom every night was one of the most fun parts of being at home in the early days of the pandemic and it was really exciting to be able to turn a hobby completely unrelated to journalism into a story. Even cooler was the fact that I was just able to reach out to the showrunners on shows that I loved and interview them for the piece. I wrote most of this in two late-night sessions and the process of putting this story together did not feel particularly arduous. I watch more TV than pretty much anyone I know, so I definitely want to do more writing about it in 2021. $650
South Asian Girls Are the Stars — Not the Sidekicks — in Desi Chick Lit: This piece was a true joy to write and as a policy reporter I so rarely get to write about things I uncritically love. I enjoyed books like Blue Jasmine and The Not So Star Spangled Life of Sunita Sen so much growing up, so it was extremely cool to call up Mitali Perkins to talk about just that! It’s amazing how far representation in young adult literature has come and I love it whenever I can sneak some jokes and anecdotes about growing up in Cedar Rapids into a piece. A lot of them get cut, but that won’t stop me! $800
Conway’s Millions and Q & A with Kim Foxx: Being the lead reporter on the State’s Attorney’s race this spring was extremely fun and, at times, chaotic. I conducted this interview with Foxx while riding the moving carpet in Fiumicino Airport (after which I had my camera stolen in Paris) and drafted the questions for this interview with Conway on a car ride from Cedar Rapids to Chicago with a 104 degree fever. It’s so satisfying when deep research into seeming minutiae pays off and you can hold elected officials and candidates’ feet to the fire. As a result, we were able to break this story about Conway’s donors and hold Foxx accountable to her campaign promises while really pushing Jim Daley and my #noJussiecoverage agenda. $0
Seema Verma and the #DesiHallofShame: I wrote a lot of profiles about prominent South Asian politicians on the right this year, but this one was the one that kicked them off and laid out why there are so many prominent, conservative South Asian Americans when the community is overwhelmingly more liberal. I also enjoyed writing The Unexpected Rise of Rishi Sunak soon after, which felt so out of my realm of expertise as someone who knows only the bare minimum about British politics. I’m glad I pulled it off. $500
Seen but Not Counted: At the intersection of cracks in policy implementation and South Asian identity, this piece was right in my wheelhouse. It was great to do some old fashioned stopping people on the street for an interview before the pandemic hit and I love any story in which my mom is also a character. Nothing I have ever achieved would be possible without her constant help. I did half of the interviews for this piece, again, with that 104 degree fever in Chicago and the rest from a conference room I snuck away to on the clock in Rome — also very me! $500
New Year’s Eve Traditions Through the Eyes of Women of Color: I joked to my mom the other day that I would have more fodder for my memoir about the trials of growing up as one of the few Indian girls in Cedar Rapids if she had enrolled me in the local Catholic school with mandatory morality classes. But there’s still plenty there, as I wrote about in this piece. I took a walk down memory lane to write about Anji and my special toddler lehengas and the ways we’ve managed to hold on to being Indian in America’s heartland. 100% of the sourcing for this story is just my friends from college, which was a nice change from a lot of the serious investigative journalism I do. $1,400
#NoCopAcademy and the Movement to Defund the Police: I am a big believer that all the compostable waste of my unpublished writing will fertilize a future piece. This is a great example of that! I first wrote a draft of this piece for Mari Cohen at South Side Weekly nearly two years ago, but due to me turning it in a year late, it never made it to publication. I was excited to dust it off the shelf for Belt Magazine. $500
In addition to these, you can read the nearly 30 other pieces I wrote here, at my website. If you have any questions or feedback on this post, feel free to send me a message or leave a comment!