Do enough interviews before you pitch a story to make sure it’s really a story. You don’t want to get commissioned to write a story that turns out not to have much substance — it shows the editor that you haven’t done your homework, and could mean you don’t get future work with that publication.
Don’t start writing the story until you’ve got a written contract to do the work. If you’re pitching to magazines, it can take a few months for them to process your idea and get back to you. You’ll lose a lot of time if you’re overly optimistic and start the work, because most editors want to work with you to shape the story, rather than take a completed piece and try to re-work it so it fits their publication.
In your story pitch, tailor it specifically to the publication you want to sell it to. That means going back and reading similar items in the magazine to figure out why your idea is a fit and just how you would tell the story. Include a paragraph or two in your query letter explaining those things.
4. A strong pitch = a successful pitch.
Make your query letter worth reading. The point of your pitch is to convince the editor that you’ve got a story to tell, and that you can tell it in a way that will engage their readers. Show off your writing style, paint a clear picture — I usually start my letters with a scene-setting paragraph or anecdote that illustrates the essence of the story, and then explain in a few more paragraphs of plain prose why the story would matter to their readers, and why it’s timely.
5. Be honest.
Don’t mislead your sources. If you’re doing preliminary interviews, say so. If you haven’t actually sold your story to a publication, don’t say for sure that it will be published, or pretend you’re writing for a certain publication. Just tell them that you’re doing research for a story that you plan to market to X, Y and Z magazines, and bring along samples of your published work to show them that you’re serious about it.
6. Take good notes.
Record your interviews, but take notes of the important stuff. Because there can be so much lag time between pitching and completing a story, you could easily forget the exact turn of phrase your source used, or the colour of the walls in their kitchen — and your editor may ask for these details to be added in.
7. Be organized.
You have to be able to go back to your interviews to corroborate details in the story, or to cover yourself if the source says they never said what you’re reporting. When you’re a freelancer you don’t necessarily have the financial backing of your employer in the case of a lawsuit, so you’ve got to protect yourself by being organized and being very certain you’ve got the details right. Save recorded interviews as MP3s on your computer, organized by date and subject so they’re easy to find. If you’re writing about a new development, project or program, get all the promotional information you can and file it by story. Keep track of source names and phone numbers in a separate word document — you’ll likely have to submit these for fact-checking anyways, so it saves time to do it off the top. And keep copies of any research material or articles you consult as you’re writing — those will have to go to the fact-checkers too.
8. Build relationships.
And don’t be shy to ask for help. Sometimes you need a way to catch an editor’s attention, or get a subject to agree to be interviewed. Work hard to build a reputation as someone who is professional, trustworthy and hardworking — when you need it, you’d be surprised who is willing to help you out. Don’t expect other people to do the work for you, but let people with influence know that you’re a writer looking for work, and see if they can put you in touch with colleagues or story ideas.
9. Surround yourself in ideas.
You can get great ideas from reading publications from around the world, listening to podcasts and reading ads on bulletin boards and telephone poles. If you see a story that fascinates you, see if you can localize it and pitch it to a newspaper or local magazine. Most stories aren’t completely original — but that doesn’t mean they’re not a great story. Take an old subject and find new ways to apply it, or an unusual voice to explain it.
10. Money talks.
Get a good accountant, and keep your receipts. If you’re making more than $30,000 from freelancing you’ll be in a special tax category and have to register with the government — even if you’re making less, you have to report all your earnings on your income tax return. That’s much easier to do when you have paystubs to show for it. And keep receipts for office supplies, meals, travel, electronics —anything that you use in the course of your work. You may be able to claim some of it on your tax return. (Also, money can be tight, so when you have money coming in, pay your bills and set money aside for known expenses, like rent, first. Then you can decide whether you can really afford to go out to dinner, or buy those new jeans. When you sell a story, celebrate with something special, but don’t go overboard– it’s much easier to come up with ideas when you’re not stressed out about rent payments or debt.)
Julia Kilpatrick is a freelance writer and broadcaster living in
Ottawa. She divides her time between making radio for CBC’s regional
news and current affairs programs, and writing news and feature stories
for newspapers and magazines. Her work has appeared in Canadian
Geographic, Reader’s Digest, Beyond the City, the Montreal Gazette, the
Halifax Daily News and the Ottawa Citizen. Julia has a B.A. Hon. in
English Lit and Environmental Studies from the University of Ottawa and
a Master’s of Journalism from Carleton University.