|All you really need to get an assignment from a newspaper, magazine or Web zine is access to a computer and a great idea. Alas, there are many mistakes you could make along the way, including spelling the editor’s name wrong or starting your e-mail: “Though I’ve never read your publication ...” Here are seven better ways to break in:|
Know what kinds of work to pitch. Unknown writers won’t have luck simply explaining that they’d like to write a poignant piece about their relationship with their mother. For essay columns like Newsweek’s My Turn, The New York Times’ Modern Love and Self magazine’s Self Expression, you have to write it all first and then submit the finished product. Don’t pitch poetry, short stories, humor pieces or op-eds, either. Taste for these genres is subjective, so just complete the piece and send a cover letter explaining what you are submitting.
On the other hand, do pitch travel, service and investigative pieces as well as profiles, Q&As and reviews. It helps to get an editor’s input before spending money, traveling, or conducting interviews or extensive research. Your “pitch letter” (also called a “query” or “proposal”) should succinctly and specifically describe your idea. “I’m going to China; you want anything?” is too general. Make your editor feel special. Many editors complain of writers who don’t gear ideas to a specific publication. Know your target publication’s demographics, voice and audience. For example, you can use profanity and be sexually provocative on the Web publication Nerve, but shouldn’t write “hell” or “make love” in Reader’s Digest. Get the correct editor’s name (on the masthead or website, or phone to ask). If you send the exact pitch to two editors at the same time, you’ve already blown it.
Avoid egomania. Having freelanced for a hundred publications, I always start my pitches by first paying respect to the person I’d like to work with. Most editors write, so google them. You don’t want to suggest “10 reasons why it’s smarter to stay childless” to an editor whose bestselling memoir is about her triplets. I recently received an e-mail from a student who asked me to be her mentor. Had she googled me, she would have found my book on writing mentors, where—ironically—I advised potential protégés to start with flattery and not “me, me, me.” Personalize pitches to your platform. Don’t try a piece on the Iraq war if you haven’t been to Iraq or been a soldier. Start smaller. I pitched The Detroit News magazine “The Michigan grapevine in New York,” about Michiganders who send home for Vernor’s soda and Sanders hot fudge. I added, “I love The Detroit News, and as a transplanted West Bloomfield girl, my mother sends me Star Deli tuna in ice packs.”
When I was quitting smoking, I pitched the service piece “Ways New Yorkers nix nicotine,” putting that title in the subject line. “Dear Brandon Holley, I love Time Out New York,” I wrote. “I finally quit my 23-year, two-pack-a-day habit. I’d like to pen a roundup where I’d interview an addiction specialist, Nicotine Anonymous sponsor, a yogi and a psychopharmacologist who prescribes Zyban.” The straightforward pitch worked wonders. My Time Out clip even led to a book! Be local and timely. To update that piece for the New York Post, I added the latest (high) price of cigarettes and statistics of how many New Yorkers still lit up, and I mentioned that famous New Yorkers Sonny Mehta and Harvey Weinstein were both allegedly quitting.
Make it short and sweet. My successful pitches are usually one paragraph. When I had the inside scoop on a hot story, I earned $5,000 from these three lines: “Dear Harvey Shapiro, I love The New York Times Magazine. I’d like to profile Judith Regan, the provocative editrix of Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and Beavis and Butt-head books who was just enticed by Rupert Murdoch’s promise of her own TV show to dump her long-time employer Simon & Schuster to work for him at HarperCollins. I have the exclusive.” If all else fails, finish it. Editors prefer article pitches, yet, paradoxically, they won’t give you the assignment without credits. I once pitched a profile of actor Eric Bogosian’s new show to the New York Daily News. The editor never responded. When Bogosian gave me a half hour, I went ahead, wrote the profile and submitted it that Friday. That Monday it ran on the cover of the art section. As a freelancer, no doesn’t mean no. It means try something else quickly.