I called myself a freelance journalist long before I had any idea how to be one. I was 24. I even had business cards printed: Alex Crevar, Freelance Journalist. They might just as easily have read: Alex Crevar, Haberdasher, or Alex Crevar, Taxidermist.
What I didn’t know then was that the key first step to becoming a successful freelance writer (perhaps the most oxymoronic phrase in any language) is crafting a watertight, clear and brief story proposal—in journalism parlance, a pitch. Everything else rises from this foundation. From a pitch, an assigning editor will know: how long the writer has been working as a freelancer, how much information she has about the subject presently, whether she has the wherewithal to learn more, and how reliable she will be to bring the story home.
Surely a sage such as myself, who has worked as a freelancer for nearly two decades, must have received some from-on-high knowledge about creating pitches, right? Uh-uh. My early pitches were such shite that I routinely received hard-copy letter responses from editors (yes, before email was the medium of the day) with nearly indiscernible words hand-scrawled diagonally across the length of my typed, stamped and mailed proposals. “Unreadable,” one editor wrote, leaving off the last “e” because he couldn’t be bothered to even finish writing the word. Another said: “Not a story.” My favorite (now—not then): “What the f*&k is this?”
Like many hopeful writers, I envisioned a life on the road documenting what I saw. In my mind, editors would beg for the chance to read my unique experiences. They’d read inspiring stories of me riding trains and roughing it across Europe. They’d tell their wives and husbands to keep dinners warm because they couldn’t leave their desks until they finally discovered just how beautiful the beach was where I was lounging. They’d stop the presses to make room for my groundbreaking stories of grizzled old locals wearing lederhosen and speaking to me, steins in hand, from alpine valleys.
Maybe the stories would have an angle, ehhh … but that hardly seemed pertinent to me at the time. Largely my yarns would be real slice-of-life stuff, you know? Editors would just eat it up. I mean really, how could they resist the nuanced and intricately textured musings of a sheltered, middle-class white kid?
Such egocentric idealism is healthy in the beginning and for about a minute. Such idealism will carry a young writer for the briefest of whiles. But, in order to actually become a regularly published writer, this idealism, I learned, has to quickly jump in the backseat and let professionalism drive.
Oh, that word. Professionalism. How easy it is to type. How hard it is to actually learn. For freelance writers, professionalism is not one thing. Becoming a pro means being aware of all the little things that tie into the overall package presented to an editor. That package begins with the spark of an idea and ends only when the story has gone to press.
Photo: Flickr/Trey Ratcliff
Cracking the code and understanding the many shifting algorithmic combinations needed to succeed does not come easily. It comes in stages. It comes after knowing, just knowing, that writing for one big national glossy is all it will take to break through. It comes after countless responses from editors that essentially read: “Good try, but we’ll pass.”
And though there are a lot of little things that a freelancer must do to earn and then keep an editor as a client—a solid pitch, clean copy, solid fact-checking and early communication when stories have issues—there is one sentence that encapsulates the entirety of a writer’s mission: “A writer must make an editor’s job easier.” Why is this line in quotes? Because this single line was emailed to me, by itself, years ago after I had habitually broken this cardinal rule.
A writer must make an editor’s job easier. Full stop.
What does that mean? It means a freelancer must treat his job like he’s a salesman, not a bon vivant (unless he can do both). A salesman who hopes to earn a client knows who his client is; he knows what his client is looking for; and knows he must make the best pitch possible to sell his widget (likening a story to the classic, hypothetical products of Marketing 101 classes) to a client who is listening to scores of widget pitches per day. The simple question: why would an editor want to buy my widget over a similar widget being sold by Jane Doe? Because I started with a solid pitch—one that makes plain this is not my first rodeo … even, perhaps especially, if it is.