As a new-on-the-scene freelance writer without major connections, it can be very difficult to find freelance writing jobs. I’ve advocated for writing for free on this blog, especially early on, and especially when it guarantees exposure. However, getting paid writing work from solid publications is always a challenge. Most often, these jobs get nabbed after business hours, in bars, clubs or various other mingles.
Sadly most of us are introverts, are we not? Do most of us not write because we usually fail to express ourselves at such mingles and clubs and bars? The best use of my time, giving advice to aspiring freelancers, might be to run a David DeAngelo-style column on being confident in social situations, but alas, I cannot teach what I do not know. The question breaks down to this: How, when and in what way do I contact an editor I don’t know?
In many ways, questions like these are what freelance living is all about. We are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the flyer-passer-outers of the writing world. Having sold Cutco knives door to door for a short period of time in high school, I can tell you that it’s not easy to make cold sales, especially when you, as the product, aren’t nearly as sharp as a Cutco Sandwich Deluxe.
Some Rules For Pitching Editors You Don’t Know
Email is Tricky There was probably a time within recent memory where emails to editors were far more effective then they are now. In say, 2003, sending an email to a stranger was weighty. Most importantly, an editor’s email box was not constantly bulging with emails from strangers.
My advice is not to avoid email. You must email because often other forms of communication (calling) are considered intrusive. You absolutely should send your pitch out to editors, but these emails must be deliberate, clear and to the point.
Finding Contacts Some publications list the emails of their editorial staff on their mastheads. However, this is often a bad thing for you the aspiring contributor, because it means everybody and anybody can and does email them. If they don’t list their email addresses, Google stalking and finding the person’s email can be your best bet. It also shows a little effort.
You ready Crash Override? It’s time to strap in and hack the Gibson. If your editor is Jon Reiss at Freelance Life Magazine, begin by Googling “Jon Reiss Freelance Life Magazine Contact.” If that doesn’t work, get creative. Try searching the name with an @ and the publication name, “JonReiss@ Freelance Life Magazine.” Then different mixes of first name/last name with first and last initials. For instance: “Jreiss@ Freelance Life Magazine” or “JonR@ Freelance Life Magazine.” Failing that, ask around. many publications have a set email format, say, firstname.lastname@example.org. If a friend has a contact there, even in the mail room, try plugging the editor’s name into that same formula. (Note: this does NOT work at The New York Times.)
Also, remember most of us have Gmail. In my searches I’ve found many editors with Tumblr sites on which they actually post when they’re looking for writers. These sites also include contacts. As a last-ditch effort that rarely works, but ostensibly could work, try @ messaging editors on twitter. Send them a link to an article that is related to their publication or their own writing, or a tip about something in the area they cover. They may follow then you at which time you may then direct message them. Many people don’t get twitter and therefore are excited about the attention. Follow, then @message but be discreet because those messages are public. This tipping method, can work via email, too. Send along a tip about something new and exciting that the publication should know about and say, “I love Freelance Magazine, and I’m too busy to cover this myself right now, but you should really know about this new free tax preparation service for Brooklyn freelancers. I imagine you’ve already heard about it, but if you haven’t I just thought I’d send it along.” Then, when you have a suitable pitch, you’ve already established yourself as a friendly. Just make sure the tip is a good one.
Sadly, being too eager when it comes to contacting an editor could mar your potential chances of working with that editor. However, it’s nothing being at the right place at the right time and buying them a drink can’t fix.
Don’t Introduce Yourself As a young, up and coming writer you’re quite likely deluded enough to think that an email to a busy, hard working editor saying, “Hi, my name is Jon and I’m a writer from New Jersey looking to get my articles out there” is going to land you a gig. It’s not! No buts, here. Even if you have some great clips and are really handsome and your 11th grade English teacher called you “the next Sasha Frere Jones” it’s a waste of time. If you are emailing one of these people, start with three lines max on who you are and what you’ve done, then get right to the pitch. Do not send an email without a pitch or “asking if it’s okay to pitch.”
Pitch a Touchdown Get to your pitch quickly and be concise. You need to get to the point. You also need a hook that relates to something current. For instance, I recently pitched an article about a rematch between two competitors, five years after their original, controversial match up. However, I started my pitch by detailing the match that took place five years ago, which was a mistake. Start with what is current.
Length is important. Your pitch shouldn’t be more than page. Ideally, you should be able to get it across in two paragraphs.
Ask big questions. You piece should evoke some big questions and include some major emotional stakes. It doesn’t hurt to say, “This article will ask ___” or “This article has: sex, jealousy, and betrayal. Just use this sparingly. Really, what you need to do is start reporting the article and include an amazing quote from someone who will be in your piece–that shows initiative and that you can actually deliver the story.
Finally, if you’ve got a big pitch, work hard on it. This will make or break you. Sure, many of them won’t get read, but you only have to write this part of the email once, so craft it. Also, have somebody take a look at it for the things you missed.
Know Who You Are Pitching If you are looking at a masthead full of email addresses, which editor do you pitch to? If the publication is split into sections, it’s a good idea to pitch to the editor of the section your piece falls under. Often, this isn’t the case and you’ll see something like: Editor In Chief, Senior Editor, Features Editor, etc. Picking your to contact from these titles can be haphazard. Personally, I usually start by finding an editor to whom I have some kind of connection. Maybe they wrote a piece in the same vein as the one I am pitching or maybe they wrote some of my favorite pieces from the magazine. If so, it doesn’t hurt to mention this. Maybe they have a blog about science fiction robot movies and that is a personal love of mine. Perhaps I’ll message them, and include a very quick mention of this coincidence.
Otherwise, I will often start with the managing editor of a larger publication. Generally emailing an editor in chief is futile (not at BB, email email@example.com to pitch –ed.). Managing or senior editors often have more to do with assigning stories.
Read The Publication This should be obvious, and it is to most people, and yet they still don’t do it. Read as much of the magazine/blog as you can find. It wouldn’t hurt to reference something you connected with in your reading when you write the pitch. Also, in doing this you’re likely to find out whether your article does or does not belong in this publication. If not, don’t waste your time–or theirs.
Get a Leg Up There aren’t many ways to get a leg up when emailing an editor of a big magazine out of the blue, but I’ve got a few ideas.
Meet people. Talk to people at your coffice, co-working space, etc. Don’t be intrusive: If I’ve got headphones on and am staring deeply at the screen, or am mid-type, hold off. If someone is having a conversation you should be able to tell by how loud they are speaking whether or not they’d be open to you moseying in with “I couldn’t help but overhear….” Don’t underestimate the potential of these connections.
Be unique in your email. Making an editor laugh is never a bad thing, but only if you do it quickly. Think of it as if you’re judging a short story contest and you spend your days reading hundreds of short stories per day. You’re going to respond to what is unique, but also punchy. Be punchy.
Exercise contacts you might have to the editor or publication. This is about as big a boon as you can get in this process. Even if it’s your girlfriend’s mother’s first babysitter, it’s worth a mention.
Start small and specific when it comes to your subjects. Unique hobbies tend to have voracious followings and a paycheck from a fly-fishing magazine cashes just as good as a check from Rolling Stone.
Study up by reading whatever is out there about the person you are pitching. Often there’s an interview or two out there with the editor, which is likely to give you some kind of insight. Did they just write a book? Maybe you loved it and wanted to let them know? (Even if you didn’t know about it before realizing you wanted to pitch them.) Finally, something of a secret weapon in this process is Media Bistro. Their “How To Pitch” section contains specialized entries on pitching specific editors, and I mean big fish. In order to read them you have to sign up for their Avant Guild membership. Whether or not it’s worth the $55 for one-year price tag, I can’t say for sure. I can only admit that I’m consistently tempted.
That’s it for this week. If you’ve got any experiences with emails to editors let us know. Just remember there’s no inflection to your on-screen text. Also, one final word of wisdom, emails to editors and emoticons don’t mix.