It’s a Catch 22 when you’re starting out as a freelance writer – commissioning editors want to see what other work you’ve done, but you’re trying to get your first byline. There’s no guaranteed way to get a foot in the door, but here are a few tips for getting that initial break.
Know the audience of the publication you’re pitching to
It sounds obvious, but plenty of pitches show no awareness of this. What demographic is the publication aimed at? Are they wealthy or thrifty? Worthy or hedonistic? Right wing or left wing? Lots of publications have material on their websites aimed at advertisers, which will describe who their readers are.
Know what they’ve published before
It's an all too common mistake not to check this before you pitch. You can visit their website to find out what pieces they’ve run recently, and avoid wasting your time in pitching something identical. At the same time, if you know they frequently run a certain type of interview or other piece, you can pitch the same format with a different subject.
Pitch to a specific section
This will show that you’ve read the publication, and know the kid of pieces and formats that they commission. It's unlikely that you'll get commission for the longest pieces in the publication (online or in print) hasn't worked with you before. Instead, look for regular sections that they will need to fill (see point 5 below).
Don’t pitch too big
At least at the start. Celebrity interviews, columns and eight page travel features will tend to go to established writers. Your aim is to get there, but you'll only do that by building up a reputation for filing on time and to brief. If there's a particular reason why you're suited to writing a certain piece (because of your contacts, experience or expertise), then make sure you say that to give yourself an edge.
Look for regular slots
These will be sections that have to get filled every week or month, which means there’s a pain point there for the commissioning editor that you can help soothe. These could be anything from first-person confessional pieces, to instructional 'how to' formats. Once you’ve got a few smaller regulars published, you can start pitching for the bigger sections.
If you’re not getting paid, know what you are getting
Ideally you’d never write for free, but sometimes there’s no money on the table. In that case, make sure you’re at least getting a prominent link back to your website and social media channels, and get that agreed in advance. If you're not getting cold hard cash, you still need to make sure you're getting something for your time.