I’ve found myself giving this advice to quite a few people over the past year or two, and while I don’t by any means claim to be an expert in this, or have all the answers, I’ve learned a few things in my freelance career thus far.
So, here are my suggestions for wannabe freelancers trying to get a foot in the door, or just someone with a great idea for a story but not sure what to do with it.
Be very clear in your mind why your story is interesting. It has to be more than the fact that it’s something new – what it is about the story that interests you? That will help you work out what about the story will interest other people, and who those people might be (which helps with Step Two).
The next step is to think about exactly the sort of publication that might be interested in your sort of story. The main thing to consider is the audience. Is your story going to appeal to the readers of women’s magazines, science magazines, national or local newspapers, news magazines, financial mags, international magazines, national websites etc? Are you aiming for an audience with a special interest in your subject eg people with an interest in science or medicine, boat owners, environmentally-conscious people or tabloid newspaper readers?
A good way to answer this question is to go to your local newsagency, and buy a whole pile of magazines that loosely cover your subject area. For example, if you have a story about a scientific discovery, the obvious choices are mags such as New Scientist, Scientific American and Cosmos, but some women’s magazines also run science stories, as do news magazines, popular health magazines and newspapers.
You should also think about whether your story is better suited to be a news article, a feature article or even a column-style piece. This isn’t always easy to work out but generally a feature article is going to need a lot more substance beyond the immediate facts of the story. Lengthwise, a news story can range roughly from 300-800 words, while a feature can be anything from 1000-4000 words and even longer.
It’s also worth checking out if any of your target publications have writers’ guidelines available, as these can really help you work out if that publication is going to be interested in your story.
And it’s also worth checking to see if any of your target publications have already covered your story idea. This is easy to do – just pick a few keywords from your idea and search their archives. There’s not much point in pitching a great idea to a magazine if they have done a feature on it the week before.
Now write a summary of your story. If you’re thinking it will lend itself to a news story, then I would summarise it in 100-200 words, making it as punchy, sexy and succinct as possible. Tackle it as if you are writing a short news piece on it. If you’re aiming for a longer feature then I would write a 400-500 word summary, with the same principles in mind. In both cases, it’s worth including a list of suggested interviewees – even if you don’t have specific names beyond the main subject themselves, think about what other voices might add to the story eg if it’s a medical story and you’re writing for a mainstream newspaper audience, maybe a patient voice will help, or having another expert opinion in there to add weight to the research.
It’s also worth putting a bit of info about yourself at the bottom of your summary (if the editor you’re targeting doesn’t already know who you are) so they know who you are and your background and experience.
Work out who you need to send the story to. You want the story to go to the right editor for the section, so if you send it to a generic email address there’s a chance it might not get to the person you want to get it to. Have a look at the publication’s masthead and find the editor you want to target eg the news editor, health editor, features editor. Even if you only have a generic email address to send to, at least you can mark it to the attention of someone specific.
If you can find out the name of the editor you’re trying to contact, then either look for their email address or if you look at some of the other email addresses for that mag or company, you can usually work out what their personal email address will be.
Cold pitching stories to an editor you’ve never met can be tough and unless your story is a good one, there’s a good chance you won’t hear from them. But editors are busy people so if you haven’t heard back in a couple of weeks, send a follow-up email and just check they received it and maybe ask if they found it of interest. Just because they haven’t replied doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not interested.
If you do get a knockback from an editor, or don’t hear from them for months, don’t consign the story to the scrapheap just yet. It may be that there are other publications interested, it might have more legs overseas than in Australia, or you might be able to rework the idea for a different audience and with a different emphasis. Have a look at your idea from lots of angles and repeat all the steps above.
These are just some loose suggestions that I have found have (sometimes, but not always) worked for me – hopefully they might prove helpful.