Double agent: Freelance writing tips from a former editor

An editor turned freelance writer shares tips for delivering pitches as well as caveats to avoid at all costs.

Double agent

Occasionally, while staring into the abyss of a rejection email, I imagine writers and editors to be two opposing entities: sworn enemies, constantly battling to wipe the other out; age-old foes; the dark and the light, etc. And, of course, it is the editors who are intrinsically evil, dismissing writers’ intelligent, well-thought-out pitches with a maniacal laugh like some sort of literary Simon Cowell. But then I come to my senses and remember that, in a previous life, before jumping into the murky ocean of freelancing, I was, in fact, an editor too. I recall the irksome sense of frustration that I felt every time I received a poor pitch; the struggle to fit constructive and kind responses into a busy schedule. You see, editors are people too. And my experience on both sides of this spectrum has allowed me to amass a few tips on how to go about delivering a killer pitch, and plenty of caveats to avoid at all costs.   

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Getting started in freelance

Looking back at making the transition from editor to freelance writer, I realize just how woefully unprepared I was. Like many who make this leap, I was attracted to the freedom and diversity that come with working for oneself. But I had no idea what type of writer I would be, which type of publications I would target, and, perhaps most important of all, how to construct a decent pitch.

So, like any naïve novice, I jumped in headfirst and blind. I fired off pitches left, right, and center. My article ideas were about anything that vaguely interested me, and I sent them off to any publication that I thought might be vaguely interested. Needless to say, I didn’t receive many responses. In fact, it was radio silence. It wasn’t until I received my first curt reply that I had my first lightbulb moment.

The idea was an article commemorating the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. I sketched out a brief outline of what I thought it would look like and sent it off to a features editor of one of the biggest newspapers in the UK. His response:

“dear will

this idea doesn’t interest me and even if it did i’d get one of my staff writers to do it”

That was it. A laconic scythe to my ego. I was embarrassed and annoyed. (I mean, he hadn’t even bothered to dignify my pitch with a grammatically coherent response.) However, once I’d simmered down, I realized that, for all his lack of courtesy and finesse, the editor was absolutely right. Major publications pay the writers on their books hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in salaries, and there was me expecting them to outsource an article that, frankly, anyone with a library card could have written.

If I were to succeed as a freelancer, I would have to find my niche areas – subjects that only I (or few people, at least) could write about. This doesn’t just include first-person, experience-based accounts; it’s also those topics that you know inside-out. And the more esoteric these are, the better. In short, you want to pitch ideas that an editor can rarely hand out to another writer.

Personally, I chose to avoid areas like sport and literature, as I felt they were convoluted markets. Instead, I drew on my experience of living in France for four years and speaking the language. I drafted up a list of article ideas based on the Anglo-French connection: culture, expat life, juxtapositions, etc. I then found sections of publications or entire magazines dedicated to the subject (thanks to a couple of hours on Google) and got pitching again. My response rate immediately went up exponentially. But I still had a far bigger lesson to learn.

Research is king

During my time as an editor, I had mixed feelings toward unsolicited pitches. They can be a great source of quality, unexpected content, but more often than not they’re an unwelcome distraction in an otherwise busy schedule. Most editors’ inboxes are constantly overflowing, so a writer’s job should be to offer something that is immediately appealing and difficult to say no to. Even if a pitch has potential, many editors are unwilling to sift through them looking for a diamond in the rough. In my naiveté, I’d failed to transfer my editorial experience to freelancing. That’s not to say that the ideas were all bad, but the pitches were.

A bad pitch is essentially a bundle of unfocused ideas. A good pitch is a succinct, razor-sharp proposal that leaves no stone unturned. And the key to a good pitch is research. As an editor, there’s nothing worse than reading a pitch from someone who clearly has no or little idea what your publication is about.

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When I began asking myself what my inner-editor would have looked for in a pitch, I started doing research before sending every email. Lots of research. Not only did I devour as much of the target publication’s content as I could find, I started researching for my own article as if I were about to write it. I would find sources, potential interviewees, and anecdotes around the subject. These didn’t necessarily make it into the pitch, but all these details created a robust proposal. Also, from becoming an expert in the target publication, I was able to suggest which section my article might fit into, reference similar articles the publication had previously published, and offer a possible word count. These all add up to an impressive, eye-catching pitch.

Of course, research is time-consuming. I suddenly went from being able to throw out half-a-dozen pitches a day to laboring for hours over just one. However, the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and I began not only receiving plenty of responses but started to get plenty of paid gigs too.

Every editor is different

After finding a few niche areas and understanding the importance of research, my conversion ratios were at an all-time high. However, there was room for improvement. I decided to get in contact with a few editor friends of mine to see if I was still missing a trick or two. I gleaned one final answer: every editor is different.

Some of the editors said they prefer longer, one-page pitches, others said shorter one or two paragraph proposals; some preferred an informal tone, others liked a casual approach; some liked to be hassled, for others not replying means they’re not interested. In short, as much as editors may sometimes seem inhumanly callous at times, they are all humanly unique and different, and it’s impossible to know exactly what each one is after.

That said, they agreed on a few commonalities: first of all, be sure to be polite, spell-check, and get the editor’s name right (you’d be amazed at how often this doesn’t happen!); second, if there is a submission guidelines page, read it and read it thoroughly, otherwise your pitch is sure to go no further than the trash folder.  

These days, my pitches are consistently between 250 and 400 words. They are formal in tone and, if I don’t receive a response, I follow up around three weeks after the initial email. Of course, pitching is not an exact science. My style may not appeal to every editor; however, I always know that I’ve put in enough legwork to give myself the best possible chance.

The bottom line from all of this is to be professional in your correspondence with editors. Otherwise, you’re making them feel disrespected and doing yourself a disservice. Regardless of their personal preferences, they will appreciate all the time and hard work you’ve put in. Target publications that definitely align with your subject matter, make sure your pitch is crystal clear on what the article is about, and write in a way you’re comfortable with.   

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By following these guidelines, you’re not guaranteed to have your article accepted or even receive a response. Editors are, like any of us, not infallible; emails can slip by them, and they won’t always have the time or energy to get back to you. However, by putting in the extra effort, you’re raising your chances significantly.

Being a freelance writer is great, but it’s a tough industry and most editors know this. I often have to remind myself that being an editor can be hard going, too; it’s an often stressful and time-consuming job. However, when it’s all said and done, editors and writers are not so different after all – they’re both looking to publish top-quality content. So next time you’re writing out a pitch, make sure to convey to the editor that your values are aligned with theirs, and they’ll find it much harder to turn down your proposal. 

 

—Will Kitson is a London-based writer and editor. He specializes in writing about French culture and travel, and is a regular contributor to France-Amérique and Travel Mag.