Lately I’m of the belief that the best way to learn is to study and ask questions of those who’re older than me. This realisation only dawned on me after I noticed that I was paying the most attention not to my peers, but to those with decades more knowledge and experience.
And maybe this is a simple, elementary realisation to have – I mean, the entire education system is built on this old-teaching-young structure – but what I’m trying to say is that for perhaps the first time in my life, I’m starting to throw away the bullshit arrogance that’s become a part of my personality, and I’m instead listening to and taking on board the advice of the wise.
I just came across your site after seeing your comment on the Earley Edition Twitter list. I saw that you’re a sub-editor and contributor to many publications, so I thought I’d ask for some advice.
I’m Andrew, I’m 21, I live in Brisbane, and I write for a bunch of places including The Music Network, Mess+Noise, Rave Magazine and FourThousand, as well as my blog.
I conducted an interview in Sydney with one of my favourite writers a fortnight ago – Neil Strauss, six times New York Times bestseller – and I’d really like to get the interview published as a feature article in a publication similar to the Virgin and Qantas in-flight mags.
Any advice you can spare as to how to pitch this article to editors will be very much appreciated. I have an inkling that’s not so much who you are, but who you know – I started writing for TMN and M+N only after being introduced to the editors of those publications by a mutual friend.
Thanks Lucy – nice to e-meet you! :)
A couple of hours later, Lucy floored me with some valuable, honest advice that’s applicable to any freelance writer. With Lucy’s permission, I’ve reproduced her reply in full.
I hope you find Lucy’s words as entertaining and inspiration as I did . Thanks again, Lucy.
Great to hear from you! It’s always wonderful to see new writers coming into the industry with a healthy dose of passion. Thanks for stopping by my site, although I have to say it’s not as functional and relevant as yours – I’ve been meaning to get a blog up and running for a while but it keeps getting punted down my ‘to-do’ list. Sigh.
Anyway, to your questions… It sounds like you’re already well on the road to finding some good outlets for your work, and it’s great to be concentrating on something you love. I think the best way to carve out a niche for yourself in such a competitive industry is to write about what you love and make yourself indispensable in that area (another thing I haven’t really managed to do – I’ll write anything!). So snaps to you. Street press like Rave Mag and niche independent pubs like FourThousand and Mess+Noise are fabulous for getting some quality bylines and to start building a name for yourself in music/arts writing, so hopefully they’re paying you OK and giving you regular stuff.
You’re also right about it often being who you know instead of what that gets you work … I worked on staff at Text Pacific for VirginBlue’s mag and have continued to get work as a freelancer there because of it. Same with ACP mags (Qantas, Austar, Foxtel, Ralph, etc), where I was a sub for a while and got to know the people who hand out commissions. Buying people a beer after work has never been so important! Try and get to every meet-and-greet opportunity you can, and hand out cards like it’s nobody’s business.
BUT, that said, I’d like to think getting writing work is also about the simplicity of having a great idea at the right time. Editors are usually an overworked, underpaid bunch of creatives who spend their life trying to come up with new angles on old stories or interesting ways to sell an idea. So, if your email lands in their inbox at the right time, with the right wording and after the right amount of caffeine, you’ve usually got a foot in the door. And speaking of doors, SQUEAKY ones help too… I know a few pretty ordinary writers who keep getting work simply because they pitch madly and constantly to spread their chances.
So basically, get an email template up and running and get into the habit of sending it out to as many editors as you can get email addresses for. Aim for two new contacts a week or something to build up your contact list. I’d make your pitch short and sweet, and include everything in the body of the email, because editors don’t often have time to open an attachment. Get straight to the point and just introduce yourself in one line, then put your idea forward with a snappy headline (try things that catch their attention like puns on the theme of your story or name of the writer, etc, or a play on words that sticks in the mind without being contrived) and the first paragraph of your proposed story that will hopefully have them wanting to read more. Sometimes I outline what could follow in the rest of the article a few quick dot-points, including any talent you might have already lined up or are able to get hold of… If you don’t hear anything back from them in a week, send it on to somebody else. And if you DO hear back from them saying they’re not interested or whatever, don’t give up – keep sending it around!
Of course it pays to do your homework and make sure your idea fits with their mag. For instance, at VirginBlue we were constantly getting emails from freelancers pitching ideas about great travel articles on skiing in Japan, which would have been perfect for an airline that actually flew there. Same goes for seasonal stuff – don’t pitch a winter-themed story at the end of winter, because by the time the story goes through three months of so of production, it will be sweltering. Blah blah blah, I’m sure you already know all of this!
Now for the bad news. Unfortunately it’s very hard to get much published as a freelancer at the moment. Lots of my regular monthly commissions have dried up (including Virgin Blue!) because the first thing most big publishing houses do in a downturn is cut staff writers, reign in their freelance budget and start syndicating material from their international partners or sister media channels (for instance, Text Pacific is owned by Channel Seven, so they’re re-working interviews done for TV or by international titles at Pacific Mags, rather than paying for a whole new story).
You’ll also see the same thing happening a lot at Fairfax and News Ltd, which are using a lot of AAP-sourced material and have laid off a shitload of journos in preference of regurgitating older material or taking free contributions (from academics, researchers, etc) and even just cutting book sizes to reduce their costs. Personally, I think this sucks and it’s a bad way to run any successful media organisation, because it’s only a matter of time before readers get the shits with being served the same old story for the same price. BUT, it’s something we all have to deal with for a few months and hope it all blows over sooner rather than later. If you have an economics degree, it might be a good time to be an accountant for a while! Ha haaa. Or not.
Ironically, it’s usually the smaller publishing houses that are used to having their backs up against the wall that keep commissioning good writers during down times, because they live and die on the quality of their rag. Which is where you answer lies… research the THOUSANDS of crazy little magazines floating around out there and pitch to them. You’ll be amazed how many custom magazines, online newsletters, and little niche publications there are out there, and you probably have more chance of winning a pitch because there’s less competition for their bylines. It’s less glamorous, but it pays the bills and builds up some solid contacts that are usually less flighty than the big wigs. At the moment, without much work at all coming in from the likes of Virgin Blue or Qantas, SMH, etc, I’m living off smaller, quirkier commissions from weird places like a business magazine for dentists, an in-store brochure for GO-VITA health stores, some film reviews for Optus magazine and a bit of marketing writing for websites. It’s all super snore-ville stuff, but hopefully I’m just biding my time till the market picks up, the ads start coming back to mags, and the commissions start rolling in again. Fingers crossed.
So, my advice to you is to keep pitching those great ideas to all the pubs you want to write for. Just don’t lose heart if you don’t get heaps of work straight away, because it’s seriously a bit tough at the moment. It will pick up, and when it does, you’ll be ahead of the queue! But also, keep writing for those independent publications and keep writing about stuff you love. And keep up the blog!!
Try not to get ripped off with anything less than about 40-50 cents per word, too. Somewhere around .70 per word is more reasonable, but it’s a fine balance between getting published and earning a living at the moment, so find out where that line is for you. Also don’t write for free for these big guys unless it’s an on-spec arrangement and you think you might get paid for later work.
Geez, I’ve rabbited on. Are you still awake?
I hope that helps mate. Let me know how you go, and keep up the passion levels. It’s hard to do sometimes, but if you really love words then it’s all worth it in the end! And it can be a great lifestyle – even in tough times like … um, right now.