July 22, 2013

Freelance Journalism Advice

By: Katherine Mangu-Ward

Last time, we covered some basics of freelancing. Here is additional advice.

Pitch—A Lot

Now comes the hard part: Pitch stories. Get ignored by your new happy hour friends. Try again a month later. Let old pitches die, and send new ones. Every pitch is not sacred—don’t be afraid to let your pitches spill upon the ground. If you only have three good ideas and can’t stand to let one of them go unfertilized, you should consider another field.

Try Not to Suck

A pitch for a magazine story should be about two hundred to three hundred words in the body of an email. It should include a thesis or an angle, not just a topic. It should mention at least one living, breathing source you plan to consult, or at least a book you’re going to read.

If at all possible, a pitch email should be a follow-up to a conversation you have already had in person about the article. But that’s not always an option. You should also introduce (or, depending on the BAC of your previous interactions, reintroduce) yourself very briefly and include two or three non-ancient links to articles you have written for someone else.

This sounds simple, but judging by the number of emails in my inbox containing three-thousand-word articles on Milton Friedman’s dog, with no other explanation or contact information, it is not.

Fail Fast

If you try something and no one is digging it, try something else. Statistically speaking, most of your ideas aren’t very good. So launch a blog about how tax policy affects twenty-somethings. If no one reads it after a while, kill the blog and start another one about how federal food regulations impact slobs who love burgers. (You may notice a theme in my choice of topics here. I say again: write what you know.)

Only blog if you’re good at it. If you’re not, spend your energy writing actual articles for other people’s sites. While you may not get paid for these labors, try to write for outlets where some money somewhere is being spent on something. This fact should fill you with the semi-reasonable hope that it may someday be spent on you in the form of a salary or at least a check for the content you provide.

Cultivate a reputation as someone who files clean copy on time. That means no spelling errors, no factual errors, and no weird formatting. Try to adhere to the publication’s style guide and come close to the correct word count. Be an easygoing writer. Accept edits with grace and respond to queries succinctly and completely.

Reuse, Reduce, Recycle

When I was beavering away in my first job as a fact checker at the Weekly Standard, Executive Editor Fred Barnes passed along some classic journalistic advice. He told me never to write anything unless I could write it three times. Write a blog post, turn it into an op-ed, use that as a springboard for a reported feature. Or report a feature, then blog follow-ups as new facts emerge. Seek TV and radio bookings in which you regurgitate the content of your articles. Cable news bookers are like editors on crack. They want all the same things—accuracy, promptness, a way with words—but they want everything faster! shorter! louder! And now! now! now! Just being in DC or New York City dramatically increases your chance of getting your face on the boob tube.

Read Good Journalism

Of course, none of this is any use unless you actually like journalism. Do you relish reading good nonfiction or opinion writing? If not, you might want to consider another profession. Between utilitarian blog posts, read great journalists: H. L. Mencken or A. J. Liebling, perhaps. If you are a lady, add Dorothy Parker to the mix. Read the collection The New Kings of Nonfiction, which is edited by Ira Glass of This American Life. But do not (I repeat, do not) get confused and think that you are Hunter S. Thompson, or Tom Wolfe, or Michael Lewis. You are not. Let’s face it, you are not even Malcolm Gladwell. Maybe someday you will be. But if you are reading this essay, you aren’t yet.

A decade in DC—and in journalism—should make a person jaded. But my experience has done just the opposite. As far as I’m concerned, journalism is the best gig in the world. You get paid to talk to interesting people about interesting things all day and then share the best bits with your readers. Nice work if you can get it. So go get it.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is managing editor of Reason magazine. This post originally appeared in the Institute for Humane Studies Guide to Journalism Careers.