Advice from Madeleine White

Whether you like it or not, selling yourself is a part of journalism. The art of freelancing is not that dissimilar to the art of selling shoes. You have to convince your customer (in this case an editor) that you’re knowledgeable about the product that you’re pitching, and that it’s good.

It’s been my experience that many journalists hate to talk about themselves, let alone their strengths. The good news is that a well-written pitch can let your work do most of the talking, but you also have be prepared to back it with some ego and expertise. To help build your confidence, here are five strategic points to consider when you’re putting a pitch together.

1) Do your research first.

Figure out which section of the website/paper your story would go in and then find out who is the editor. This may require that you make a phone call or two. Once you’ve found the decision-making editor, get their business email address and phone number.

2) Keep it short.

These section editors are usually incredibly busy people, assigning their own staff to stories, managing freelancers and working under constant pressure to produce award-winning journalism. Do not send them a pitch that is over 250 words long. They won’t read it.

Things to include in your pitch email are:

  • the nut graf of your piece (this gives the editor a sense of your writing style as well as the essence and importance of your story)
  • a brief (one, two sentences maximum) reason why you are the best person to write this piece (do you have an inside edge? are you more knowledgeable than others on the topic?)
  • the time line of your piece (is it embargoed news? can you have it done in less than a day?)

3) Give enough detail to intrigue the editor but don’t ruin the surprise.

A major fear with pitching is that the editor will take your idea and assign it to one of their reporters. There is no way to prevent this from happening, but one way to decrease the chance is to give only a bit of the story. Choose one tantalizing detail. But that’s it. You can also be a little coy and suggest there is more where that came from but make sure there is. There is nothing worse than a pitch tease.

4) Don’t expect to make riches at first.

Different sections pay different amounts for the a story of the same length, so try to freelance for different editors. But don’t balk at an offer. As a young journalist you need the clippings more than you need the money. Shitty medicine, but something we all have to swallow.

5) If someone takes you up on your pitch, work your ass off.

A big factor in freelancing is your reputation. As a rookie freelancer, you need to prove that you can develop your pitch into an engaging, well-written story on time. No pressure, right? Good work will help solidify professional relationships and once you’ve been published by an editor it’s a lot easier to go back and get published again.

Remember to keep trying if your first pitch isn’t successful. Like anything in journalism, it can be hard but it’s totally worth it when you do succeed.

Happy freelancing!

About Madeleine

    Madeleine White

  • J-school: MJ at Ryerson University, undergrad in Women’s Studies, Political Science and Zoology at UofT
  • Publications: Toronto Star
  • Platforms: web, print, video
  • Twitter: @mjwhite27
  • Most notorious piece of work: Why I look good naked
  • Previous incarnations: Political staffer from 2006 to 2009, Running Room manager