New freelancers sometimes focus on how to write for clients, overlooking the obvious--that before you can write for a client, you must have one. And that means knowing how to pitch. In fact, if you can't pitch new markets, you may as well forget about succeeding as a freelancer. So I was happy to talk with freelancer and writing instructor Anne Trubek, Professor at Oberlin College, Editor-in-Chief of Belt (beltmag.com) and Founder of The Thinking Writer, about this very topic. Our Q and A appears below.
Q: I think pitching is arguably the most important skill for a freelancer, especially a new one, to possess. Do you agree with this, and why or why not?
A: Yes--not just because you need to pitch to get good assignments, but developing a good pitch is a great way to understand all the components of a story, from focus (what’s the subject line of the email pitch? can you focus your topic to a good subject line?) to structure (how will you describe the structure do in one sentence or two?), tone, research, etc.
Q: I know that as a new freelancer, most of my pitches stunk—and were rejected. What common mistakes do you see writers making when they pitch?
A: Agreed! It took me a very long period of trial and error to get good at pitching.
Many writers don't have a clear enough focus or angle, haven’t done the proper research in advance, or lack any news hook or “timely” element. These were all things that I struggled with when I first pitching as well.
Q: I have a four-paragarph template I use to pitch that includes a lead; a “why-write-it” section; a “nuts-and-bolts” section where I describe how I plan to approach the story; and an ISG (I’m-so-great), where I make the case for being THE writer for the story. Do you tend to use a template too? Why or why not?
A: That is more or less the template I use, but I now tailor my pitches much more specifically to the publication. I also am writing shorter pitches lately: we run lots of editor Q & As in all The Thinking Writer courses, and editors seem to prefer short, one to two paragraph (max) pitches now. Some of the information I used to always put in the initial pitch I now communicate in a an email back and forth if the editor is interested.
Q: Anne, I know you teach classes at The Thinking Writer. Tell me more about your classes, and how writers can benefit from them. And are they geared more toward new writers or more experienced ones?
A: These classes began with two main groups of writers in mind: women (in response to the VIDA statistics about gender disparity in bylines), and academics who wanted to write for general audiences (because I was once exactly that!). But it has evolved over the 3 years The Thinking Writer has been around. Now I think the class ["How to Pitch and Submit"] is very well suited to freelancers with a smidgen of experience (enough so they know what “pitch” means--although we do walk through those terms in the class) and those with experience but who either want a way to help them get a lot of work done in those two weeks (say, write and submit an op-ed during the op-ed course, or pitch 4 book reviews during the book review course) or want to write for more “thinky” publications. For instance, last year a full-time experienced freelancer took the course because he wanted to work on cracking some dream markets--and he did! A pitch he worked on in the class became a feature for the Sunday New York Times Magazine just a month after class was over.
Q: Anything else you think is critical about pitching that freelancers should know?
A: Read! Read the publication you are pitching. I’m sure most folks have heard that advice before. Just a reminder ;)
Q: Oh, tell me a bit about your background, and how you started teaching these kinds of classes for writers.
A: I was once just a professor--I taught English at Oberlin College. About 10 years ago I decided I wanted to write for general audiences, and taught myself how to pitch, learn about publications, etc. I loved doing it! So I left academia and became a freelancer. Then, when the VIDA statistics came out showing gender disparity in bylines for “literary publications,” I decided to bring my teaching experience to bear on the freelance game, and started these classes in order to help women pitch those publications. Since then, The Thinking Writer has broadened: we now teach 3 different courses--How To Pitch, Writing About Books and Writing and Publishing Op-Eds and Commentaries. These days, I am also the editor of a magazine I started--Belt (beltmag.com) and so I now receive pitches from writers. And boy do they make lots of rookie mistakes!
If you want to make fewer (or no!) rookie mistakes, be sure to check out classes at The Thinking Writer. And thanks again to Anne for today's Q and A!