Would you like to break into freelance writing? And if so, how do you pitch the editors of big-name publications?
I was a freelance writer and journalist before I set up Become a Writer Today. It was a challenging profession. I studied journalism in college for a few years, and when I graduated, I struggled to find any work at all.
It was only when I specialized in a particular niche that I was able to start finding regular commissions. And even then, I found it quite difficult to pay the bills as a freelance writer.
If you're looking to get into freelance writing, my tip is to spend some time each week or every other week pitching for new clients and finding additional work, even if you have enough work in the queue.
This week's interviewee, Rebecca Weber, has written for several prestigious publications, including CNN, Forbes, and The Guardian. She's an expert at pitching high-profile editors.
In this week's interview, she goes through her five-step process, which you should use to pitch an editor for a publication. I wish I'd known about this five-step process as a freelance journalist. It would have saved me a lot of time and heartache.
In this episode, we discuss the following:
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Rebecca: Do a little bit of research and analyze that publication. You can look at it with a writer's lens. What are the stories they've already published? What are the unique angles you can provide for them? What is it that their existing publishing work is already telling you about what it is that they're looking for? So that even if you have that little bit of a story idea, you can start to shape it from a very, very early stage and shape it in such a way that the editor will immediately say, "Oh, yeah, this is a really good fit for us."
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: Would you like to break in to freelance writing? And if so, how do you pitch the editors of big-name publications? Hi there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast.
As you may know, before I set up Become a Writer Today, I worked as a freelance writer and journalist. I found it a little bit of a challenging profession. So I studied journalism in college for a few years, and I wasn't a very good journalist when I graduated. In fact, I struggled to find any work at all. It was only when I specialized in a particular niche, or niche as you say in the United States — that is technology — that I was able to start finding regular commissions. And even then, I found it quite difficult to pay the bills as a freelance writer. I'd spend a couple of days or even a week or two working on a commission, getting it just right. Then I'd send it in to the editor, and then find I had no more work lined up. I find myself scrambling for money to pay the bills. This was a real challenge for me. So if you're looking to get into freelance writing, my tip for you is: be sure to spend some time each week or every other week pitching for new clients and finding additional work, even if you have enough work in the queue.
Now I currently don't work as a freelance writer. I'm pretty much focused on Become a Writer Today. But I still regularly talk to other freelance writers and journalists like this week's interviewee, Rebecca Weber. She has written for a number of prestigious publications, including CNN, Forbes, and The Guardian. She's an expert at pitching the editors of publications like these. In this week's interview, she walks through her five-step process, which you should use if you want to pitch an editor for a publication. To be honest, I wish I'd known about this five-step process when I was a freelance journalist. It would have saved me a lot of time and a lot of heartache.
I hope you enjoy this week's interview with Rebecca. It's particularly useful if you want to start with your freelance writing career. And if you do find it helpful, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store. Because when you leave a review for the show, it helps more listeners find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. Of course, if you really want to help, please consider going one step further. I don't run any ads on the show. So if you could take a moment to share it with another writer or another friend, it will help more people find the podcast. Also, I'm currently growing a YouTube channel which is associated with Become a Writer Today. If you want to visit the YouTube channel, you can just simply search for it on YouTube or visit becomeawriter.tv. That's becomeawriter.tv. And it will take you to the YouTube channel. So be sure to hit the like button or smash the like button. Now let's go over to this week's interview with Rebecca.
Bryan: My guest today is Rebecca Weber. She's a freelance journalist, which is a career I worked in for quite some time. She's also a writing coach, and she's the host of the popular podcast of the same name, The Writing Coach. Welcome to the show, Rebecca.
Rebecca: Oh, thanks so much. It's such a pleasure to be here.
Bryan: You have quite a captivating byline. You've written for publications like CNN, USA Today, The New York Times, and a few others. So I'm really interested to hear how you got to write for such prestigious publications. How did your writing career start, Rebecca?
Rebecca: I started with a rather humble origin. I had worked for a while as a teacher, and I had taken a job as a junior editor at a publication that did not want me to write for them. They wanted me to read other people's stories. And so I started pitching story ideas on the side. I started getting assignments. And when I had built up enough of those pieces, I felt confident to say goodbye to the regular day job and pursue freelancing on my own. And so I didn't start off with The New York Times and CNN. But the work that I did earlier led to me being both capable of doing more complex stories for the bigger publications, and also being able to have pitching skills that allowed me to get the eye of editors, who otherwise didn't know who I was, would never have reached out to me.
Bryan: When I was a journalist, I struggled to make a living in the career until I specialized in a particular niche or niche. I worked as a technology journalist. From there, I moved into copywriting. Was there any particular areas or niches that you specialized in over the years?
Rebecca: Well, I have. Over the years is probably the best way to put it, because I have shifted and changed. That has largely been because of my own interest shifting over time. So I would say that the umbrellas that I've mostly worked in have been social justice, the environment. I've done a lot of travel stories, story about the arts. Then, of course, as a freelancer, you can just sort of also choose. Here's one other story that doesn't fit under those other things, and pitch that as well.
I'm based in South Africa, and so when I made the move — I had originally started off freelancing while I was living in Washington, DC. When I made the move to South Africa, I think that for a lot of editors outside of South Africa, they would have seen my niche as being just South Africa, which, to me seemed overly broad. But I think that's how a lot of the editors saw me.
Bryan: How do you balance freelance journalism with actually finding paying work? Because for me, this is a big challenge. One story that comes to mind is, I got a great commission one month for a well-known newspaper in Ireland. I thought this is fantastic. I'm going to have lots of paying work. So I spent pretty much the month on it. Then at the end of the month, I didn't know anything else lined up. The editor wasn't quite ready to give me another commission, so I found myself scrambling to pay the bills the following month.
Rebecca: Yeah, well, I think that that is not unusual at all. I think that even people who are doing really well, there's an inconsistency from month to month. If you wanted to have the exact same number of assignments, exact same amount of pay each month, then you'd have to have a lot of long-term contracts or retainer agreements set up. So there is this natural fluctuation. I think one of the things that you're talking about is like that, the two issues that come up. On the one hand, the editor not being ready to give you another piece, and so being able to look at the longevity of building long-term editorial relationships. So even if they can't give you an assignment immediately after the next one, that there is another one coming up that you're thinking about what else can I pitch them and what else would be right for them.
Then the other thing, this is a challenge I think for most people, of when your plate is full and you're working on the creative work — which is what most people are in this for. People are in it for actually doing reporting and the writing — that you don't let go of marketing completely. That might be okay for a day or two to say there are no marketing right now. But to go a month or two, it's a whole different thing. Because then you wind up in that exact situation that you just described in being like, what now?
That can be a challenging thing. Because on the one hand, you don't actually have the money coming in. But it also, I think, in many ways, is harder psychologically to pitch from an empty plate. Because it's so easy to start second guessing yourself and telling yourself stories about how you're not going to get the next piece. Oftentimes, if you're doing a little bit of pitching while you also have a lot of work going on, it's easy to be not overthinking things so much. I think it's probably the best way to put it.
Bryan: I mentioned or I described some of the publications you've written for, Rebecca. One topic that you help writers with as a coach is the act of pitching to publications, like the ones you've described. You actually have a five-step process. Would you be able to walk the listeners through that process?
Rebecca: Yeah, sure. The first thing is just identifying who it is that you're going to be writing for. I was very common to do this the other way around. You identify an idea that you're like, oh, this is so interesting. Write up a pitch. Sometimes people will even really get into the reporting and might even write up a draft of the story. Then they afterwards say, well, who would this be a good fit for? I really see this as being sort of backwards. If we could first identify the publication — again, in most cases, identify a publication that you want to write for again and again — then when you do a little bit of research and analyze that publication, you can look at it with the writer's lens. What are the stories they've already published? What are the unique angles you can provide for them? What is it that their existing publishing work is already telling you about what it is that they're looking for? So that even if you have that little bit of a story idea, you can start to shape it from a very, very early stage and shape it in such a way that the editor will immediately say, "Oh, yeah, this is a really good fit for us." So that's I see as sort of the foundation.
Then we get into actually writing the pitch for them. We look at really leading with the story. This is as simple as looking to see what kind of subject line the individual publication has. Some places will do lots of tons. Some are very straightforward. Some are really short. Some are really long. It seems so superficial. But when you can reflect back to the editor, that you understand even at the subject line level what it is they do, it helps them say, "Oh, yeah, this is somebody who really gets what it is that we do." So you have that right there in their subject line a story or rather a suggestion of a story title that they could use in their publication.
Then the really important thing is to make it timely. If you can tie the pitch to what's going on in the news, it doesn't have to be current news in terms of today. But maybe there's something that's going on this season. If this is a story that will come out a month from now or three months from now, just sort of think about what's going to still be relevant then. Or you can think ahead and peg it to a special date, especially if you're future doing it, if it's a story that doesn't otherwise have a really compelling reason why it needs to be told now.
The fourth thing I really encourage you to do is to think about how the pieces is going to be packaged. What are all the components that you're going to be offering them? Part of this might be thinking visually. Sometimes editors do want you to be responsible for the photographs. And so you might be suggesting the kinds of images that you have or offering a link to see the work that you've done before. Or, if you're not a particularly good photographer — my photography skills are definitely not on par with my writing skills. So I like to just suggest image options. That can be really helpful too. It allows the editor to see the stories of visual potential. That's going to be always super important to the readers. Readers tend to decide what it is they're going to read based on the image and the title. So if you're already thinking ahead about what the reader experience is going to be, you're helping the editor imagine what it will be like for them as well.
Then finally, you need to talk about why it is that you're the one to do this. Hopefully, your pitch sets things up, that it does demonstrate that you have a good handle on who the audience is and how things will be talking to their knowledge and their interest. But I still think it's important at the bottom of the pitch to keep a very brief explanation about why it is that you're the one to do this. So you can keep this precise and concise. You might include experience about your topic. Writing about what you've done with this topic otherwise. If, for example, the person or the writer is an entrepreneurial type person, they have experience in business, you could mention specifically what it is that they've done in business that's related to this article.
Obviously, if you've written about the topic, you can mention that as well. It might mean that you have exclusive access to a source that doesn't otherwise want to talk to people. It might mean that you have geographic proximity. As I mentioned, a lot of times for editors, it's just a plus that I'm in South Africa. For them, they know that that means that I will most likely be familiar with the issues of the day. Then they can sort of look to me to help indicate, point out what good story angles might be for their beer. There's a lot of ways to get creative about why you're the one to do this story. I really encourage people to think out of the box on that one. Keep it short but make it explicit about why they are the one, and not let yourself get caught up in, "I'm not the one," or, "Why am I the one?" If you're asking yourself, why am I the one to do this in a way that is sort of self- deprecating, I encourage you to just actually write it out. Write out the reasons why you are a really good person to do this particular story for their audience.
Bryan: I remember a few years ago or a good few years ago, I went to cover a technology event in London. I got a good interview at the event. I went home. I pitched it to a publication, and the publication didn't reply. But I'd actually written the article so I sent it through to another publication. But I forgot to take out the name of the first publication on the second pitch. Thankfully, the editor asked me, has this been published elsewhere? I said no. He swapped it out. So I got lucky. Do you send in the same pitches to multiple editors or publications?
Rebecca: Well, look, I certainly have done so. I think that once you have done a fair amount of pitching, I just say the story that you just shared, I certainly have been in that boat as well. It's sort of like, oops. Also, having found editors who are often forgiving of that kind of thing. My experience has been that when you're pitching pretty much the exact same core idea to multiple audiences, it's less likely to get picked up not because including the wrong name, but just because it usually is a little bit more generic and less of a good fit for any one publication.
I think this is why a lot of people have this idea that you have to just send it out to so many different editors to get a fight. They're just sort of understanding it in a wrong kind of way. The reason that it's not getting picked up is because it's not so finely tuned for that audience. And so I think you can get away with this more often when something is — republication is sort of less competitive. Or, maybe with the story that you're talking about, that it was something really special, really different, really popped out. It's being like, ooh, we've got to have this. And it does work sometimes. Say, if it's got a really sharp news angle, it's got to be published right away. Or else, it's going to go cold. Those are kind of things when a generic idea might be a better thing to pitch.
But generally speaking, it comes back to that first step of identifying your dream publication. If you really understand the distinctions between the different publications you're looking at, you wouldn't actually pitch them both the same story. There would be a natural shift in terms of the angle. I think that when we acknowledge that, it actually allows you to break apart at the beginning and say, "Hey, here's this one interview." Maybe you can do actually the Q&A version that you suggested. But maybe there's a Q&A version for one publication, and another publication would like to see a profile of this person or a roundup of what's happening in tech right now. This is sort of one of the sources but not the only source, and just start to tease out multiple story ideas that can sell, that can get placed from one core interview or one core idea or reporting.
Bryan: Getting paid to write as a freelancer is tough. So at what point do you talk to your editors about setting rates for your articles?
Rebecca: Usually, at the point where they're saying we'd like the assignment. Sorry. I would say that very often, what happens is, you send in a pitch. Then it's possible that they may come back with a question or two. But very often, if it's not a no, then the next email is going to be like great. They start talking about deadline. Very often, they will mention the rate there. And if they don't, that's the point, I think, to ask to get clarity about what's the word count, what's the rate. That's sort of the explicit discussion. I think it behooves most people to do some research ahead of time whenever possible, to get an idea of at least what the range of rates are at that publication so that you don't get overly surprised that there might be some room for negotiation.
I do encourage people to negotiate, especially the first assignment. Because very often, whatever the rate is offered, very often, in many publications, if you simply ask can you do a little bit more, they'll say yes. But if, let's say, you were expecting to get 1,000 and they offer 100, that's going to be too big a gap for you to likely make up in terms of negotiation.
Bryan: Yeah, I made that mistake when I was 22 or 23. I accepted a job at a local newspaper, and I took the first offer from the editor. I found out after six months, it wasn't enough to live on. So I had to leave the job because he didn't want to budge on what we initially agreed, which was fair enough. It was a lesson learned for me. You mentioned doing research. Are there any resources that freelancers can use to figure out what rights they should expect to receive for their work?
Rebecca: Yeah, there's a number of good ones. I would say, at this point, there's certainly no one central place that has everything that's actually current and up to date. But I do think that many of the online writers’ groups are the best most current place to go as opposed to going and paying an outside source for them. I can't say that I know the best one in Ireland. But very often, there are writers from all over in different writing groups. Many of them are on Facebook. Some of them are paid professional groups. Those are generally the places to go to be able to actually ask explicitly, has anybody written for so and so? And if so, what the rates are. Very often, there's some crowdsource like Google Docs, that people will drop in their most recent experiences and you can start to see — as I said, very often, there's a range of rates. It might depend on not just how long the story is but the complexity of the reporting. You might get paid more on the fourth story than on the first. That is not unusual. You start to see what's likely that I can sort of expect.
Bryan: Did you say that a freelancer can look for groups on Facebook, and they can ask in those groups?
Rebecca: Yeah, I mean I think it does vary, the etiquette, in some groups. You might want to say like, "Hey, have you tried looking at in X, Y, and Z place?" But very often, people are happy to share that information with their fellow writers. Some publications online, in particular, do actually share that if they've got writer's guidelines on their website. Sometimes they do share that. But I would always take those with a grain of salt. I would say that usually, those are the pre-negotiation rates.
Bryan: You have also some other skills that are related to freelance writing. So you also take a lot of images and photographs and slideshows that go along with your articles. That's pretty unusual for a freelance writer. It's a good skill to have. Could you tell the listeners more about that?
Rebecca: Sure. Well, as I mentioned, I don't think that my photography skills are that great. Very often, the times when I've been asked to do photographs is because either there's no budget to send an individual photographer for that. I'm just in a sort of remote place, and they kind of figure an unusual image or an image that they're not going to otherwise be able to access is better than a generic one. And so what I have done is, I do take my camera. I do do my best in terms of taking pictures. But I also try to ask and engage the people who are somehow involved in a story if they have other images that are available.
For example, I've done a lot of architecture stories. Architectural photography is really tough. It's really challenging to do really well. And so I always would ask are there professionally-done photos of this home? Very often, they have. Even if they haven't published, even if they haven't otherwise used them, usually, there's somebody else who's already done those. And so that is true. When I've done story of celebrities or any kind of artist, whether that's a visual artist, or even a musician, they usually have some buddy professionally take photos of them. So I always try to think about who might have already been here, who might already have images that we could use. Editors are very happy to use those as well. As I said, they're usually better images that I can take. They are very often happy to compensate you for doing that legwork, for doing the research and for sourcing the images just as much as if you had actually taken them.
Again, that's not true at the top publications where they can afford to send a dedicated photographer. In those cases, I really love working with those photographers, because I'd like to think visually about the story and be able to talk with the photographer and point out I'm interviewing this person. Here's this interesting object they're sitting near or whatever. Could you please get a picture of that? Then it'll be a back-and-forth discussion about how to use the visuals to help forward the narrative.
Bryan: Alongside taking photographs, you're also a prolific podcaster, Rebecca. At the time of recording this interview, your podcast, The Writing Coach, has 217 episodes. Clearly, podcasting is something that you're passionate about. What made you set up the podcast in the first place?
Rebecca: You know, it was a writer friend who suggested the idea to me. I have had a newsletter already for a while for writers. I found it a little bit challenging to communicate the ideas that I wanted to each week in those newsletters. She was indicating that I could go longer and deeper more naturally in a podcast format. The idea clicked. Because I had listened to podcasts, and I knew that I grew that relationship in my own mind with the people who I was listening to. I thought, I think this can actually work. Because the nature of the advice or the ideas that I was talking about often was sort of one writer to another writer. So I thought I think I can actually do this. Let's give it a shot. As you say, it's been 200 some episodes. And it seems to work. It seems to be something that people do connect with.
It's a super niche. It's a super niche audience — the people who are having any kind of mindset issues with their writing, who are finding it a little bit challenging. Freelancing can be somewhat isolating. It's a way to sort of work through some of those issues that can either help us or hinder us along the way. The way that you talk yourself, the way that you frame things makes such a big difference, whatever occupation your end. But I think particularly true for writers who tend to be so introspective and don't always get an outside perspective about what they're thinking about with regards to their own writing.
Bryan: So your podcast supports your business, which is acting as a writing coach to newer writers. Could you describe a little bit how you balance your own freelancing with podcasting, which I guess is helping to promote your business with also being a writing coach? What does a typical week look like for you, Rebecca?
Rebecca: Yeah, I mean it definitely has shifted and changed. COVID was a big one. I also have a very young child right now. And so the way in which my weeks have shifted has been something I probably couldn't have predicted, not unlike the way that my specialties have shifted over time.
At the moment, right now, a lot of my time is focusing on working on a book proposal, a traditional book proposal. That is where the bulk of my writing is going these weeks, these weeks as we talk right now and the next weeks that are scheduled. Then I also have some time actually for coaching, for coaching individual writers, as well as for working on podcast and newsletter episodes. I think that in the months come later and the year, that will shift again once the proposal is out, or friends and agents that I'll have more time available for writing for clients again.
Bryan: Interesting. When you are coaching a client, is it typically aspiring freelancers that you work with?
Rebecca: They are sometimes aspiring. They are usually at least a few feet end, if you know what I mean. Very often, they are actually already mid-career or more advanced. The ones that are really starting out as freelancers are very often making some kind of career switch, that they did something else related to communications or they've done some kind of writing in some other capacity, and they haven't freelanced before. That's the most common situation when somebody's new to the field.
Bryan: Do you think freelancing is getting easier today, or is it is it getting harder? Because although there's lots of opportunities for freelancers, it also feels like the emergence of AI tools could make things even more challenging for some freelancers.
Rebecca: I think that the challenges will continue to be different. I think that you're spot on in that. In some ways, there's a lot more opportunities, I think, for people that are open to changing in different kinds of ways, thinking about things in different ways, that will continue to be new opportunities. I don't think anybody a few years ago could have anticipated how popular podcasts would be coming. So many writers who are involved with, if they don't have their own podcast, are involved with script writing, or show notes, or production of somebody else's podcast.
I think that AI is something that people who are skilled in understanding how it works will be able to offer those services. You mentioned making that transition from tech to copywriting. I think today, probably, a lot of people are making the switch from AI assistant and understanding how that works. There will be continual need and demand for people who are able to come up with original story ideas, provide original reporting. That's certainly something that AI can't do, at least not at this point. They can't go out, and identify people who haven't otherwise been interviewed and ask them original questions and synthesize that info. I think that that kind of reporting is always going to have a special place for readers.
Bryan: Yeah, I find a lot of the AI tools, they can be quite helpful for outlines and fairly straightforward writing. But they could also be confidently wrong and inaccurate. For example, I used one to create a training plan for a marathon because I'm quite unfamiliar with the topic. The plan it created was not a plan that a marathon runner would follow unless they wanted to get injured. But I guess these tools are just going to get better and better. You mentioned the word AI assistant. Could you elaborate a little bit on that concept? What it would mean to be somebody who uses AI as part of their writing?
Rebecca: Well, look, I also have had similar experience using that. I've dabbled with AI to do things that I already kind of know how I would do it. I want to see what AI would show up with. But I know that there are people who are much better than I am in terms of giving the AI prompts and guidance, and eliciting a product that is going to be useful, is going to be something that is better than the person, or at least a lot quicker than the person who otherwise would have created it, can do on their own. That's what I meant. I just see that there will be that need for people to be able to guide AI to create something either for themselves or for their clients in a swift way.
Bryan: Yeah, I would agree with that. Finally, the niches that you write in — arts, business, education, environment. Are there any particular niches that you'd recommend to new freelancers to try getting started in that are perhaps a bit more accessible than some of the other niches?
Rebecca: Yeah, well, it's a bit tricky. Because I think, as you mentioned, tech is obviously a very popular one. Business is a very popular one. These are ones that often are more lucrative than some other publications. Obviously, there's just a lot of demand. There's so much stuff that's going on. It's new, new, new. I think that if those are appealing to you, I definitely would encourage somebody to check them out. But I would also encourage them to think about how they could pair it with something up. Could they mash tech with something else? Could they mash looking at money or business with something else?
Also, related to this is just actually follow their own passion in terms of the things that are of most interest to them. I think it's hard to generate a niche that isn't of interest and keep at it in a way that seems as if it's fueled by passion when it actually isn't. I think that can come sort of boring or stale. Even in the short term, it might work. But in the long term, probably not. I think it can be quite interesting to bring in two different threads. Maybe you have two thirds of the story, something that you really liked. One third is something that's more commercially viable.
When I mentioned doing sort of shelter stories or writing about people's homes, there was one way that I did that. It was sort of like, well, let me spin this into real estate. Business was not necessarily the thing that was most interesting to me. But if I wrote a story about real estate and then pitched it to the editor as a story that would have a lot of design elements, those are things that I was very interested in. I could already come, sort of hit the ground running in terms of those kinds of questions and bring in that something extra for the editor, and also place it in a section that was robust and was able to pay me well. Probably any better than if it had just been a straight architecture or design piece.
Bryan: It's good advice. Rebecca, if people want to learn more about you or your work, where should they go?
Rebecca: I think the best place to find me is over on The Writing Coach Podcast. Or, you can also come to my website which has links to all the things. That's at rebeccalweber.com.
Bryan: Okay. Thanks, Rebecca. I'll be sure to include the links in the show notes. It's very nice to talk to you today.
Rebecca: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you and reach your listeners.
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