When people reach out to me, it’s almost always to ask how they can get started doing some freelance writing. If that’s you, welcome. Pull up a chair. I'll give you the quick and dirty version.
So, what is editorial freelancing?
When I speak of freelance writing here, what I’m speaking of is freelance editorial writing, i.e. writing articles and essays for magazines, websites and print publications.
With this kind of writing, you generally send a pitch email to a particular editor, then that editor responds or doesn’t – accepts your pitch or doesn’t. It is not really the done thing to send in completed work before you’ve talked over the idea with an editor and he or she has weighed in on it.
How to pitch, because you need to pitch a lot
A pitch is a brief email, usually not more than about 300 words at the outside, introducing yourself and explaining your amazing article idea and why it’s right for this person (this editor) and this publication.
Breaking it down a little bit more: What you do is you look up editors’ names and emails and then address your pitches to them personally, explaining how your idea fits in with their particular editorial vision and the publication’s history.
Some publications prefer you direct pitches to a general inbox; my take is, observe this rule when it’s clearly stated, but realize it means your chances of getting a response are probably lower than they might otherwise be. I mean, yes, sure, it might work, but consider how small the odds are that you’ll stand out at a cattle call.
But where do I find the editor’s name and email address??
Most publications list editors on their masthead.
Also, most publications have an About Us page or Contact Us with some guidelines about submissions.
Remember: You can always google “How to pitch PUBLICATION NAME,” and often you will find a very handy guide, straight from the horse’s mouth, about how and when to contact that publication and that editor with an idea.
Here, steal my freelance pitch template
This is a very basic template for pitches, to give you a sense of the structure.
Email subject line: Pitch: CATCHY TITLE OF MY IDEA
My name is YOUR FIRST AND LAST NAME, and I'm a writer who's VERY QUICK SUMMARY OF YOUR BACKGROUND HERE. I'm contacting you with an idea I think could be perfect for PUBLICATION's SECTION. Here goes.
CATCHY TITLE OF YOUR IDEA
YOUR 100 TO 150 WORD PITCH GOES HERE.
Do you think you might be interested? I could see this piece really connecting with readers, a lot like RECENT EXAMPLE FROM THIS PUBLICATION. Just let me know.
Something you should know, right upfront
There’s not a lot of money in this. You will probably make as much money on a per-hour basis as you would working retail, so think about that. Writing really isn’t something to get into for the money.
Of course, YMMV on every single point here: There are some people who do make a living at this and who’ve gone about it various ways and been wonderfully frank about their experiences. I really loved this conversation between the freelance writers Nicole Dieker and Paulette Perhach. Lots of good, sane, apt advice there.
Also, freelancing can be financially rewarding in a longer-term, more indirect sense. The process of pitching can sharpen your sales instincts (always helpful) and publishing can help you get full-time jobs in copywriting and content farming. Having clips and links to add to your resume or include in a cover letter can really help you stand out.
Some things I wish people had told me
Personal finance is a boom industry in the content sense. I’m not the first person to say or notice this, but the deal is that writing about money is a pretty decent way to break in. It’s very hard to place pitches about TV shows or books or what have you, while it’s much easier to get published when you write about your financial life, common financial issues and job stuff.
You’re right to be afraid of the internet! Every crappy thing you write, every strong opinion you express confidently that you later change your mind about completely – these will invariably make up your first page of Google results. May god bless you with a common name so people can’t find this stuff.
Update: Here's part two of this post.