This is a bit different from my regular posts – this is a post specifically for writers new to freelancing.
And the good news is that it comes with a downloadable resource of 10 successful pitches.
I’ve had a bit of a rush of new subscribers and visitors to my site recently (hello and thank you!) and some of these lovely readers have been in touch and asked if I could go back to the beginning.
I’ve been getting lots of questions about:
- how you can become a freelance writer for magazines
- how to get into freelance writing without experience
- how to become a freelance writer online.
So here is a quick crash course in getting started as a freelance writer.
How to get started as a freelance writer
I have been a freelance writer since 2012.
I had always written but I’d never been brave enough to actually call myself a writer.
Writers had book deals, writers had their bylines in glossy magazines.
And writers got paid to arrange words on a page.
When I was pregnant with my first child I searched on the Internet for a writing course.
I found a course on feature writing and I immediately knew I wanted to do it.
So what started as something fun to do while I was pregnant and on maternity leave, has become my new career.
In 2017 I began freelancing full time and I couldn’t be happier.
This post explores how you can become a freelance writer for magazines, newspapers and digital publications.
Although I do write some content for businesses, not-for-profits and big organisations, you can find more info about landing high-paying corporate writing work here.
And if you are already a freelance writer, you may be interested in this resource.
It contains 10 real-life pitches that were commissioned by editors at Travel + Leisure, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, The Sydney Morning Herald, Peppermint, Dumbo Feather and more.
Or you may be interested in taking my Foundations of Freelance Writing course, which steps you through exactly how to come up with story ideas for publication, pitch editors, write amazing articles and get paid to do so!
But first, I want to take you through the key points of what you need to know to break into freelance writing.
Break into freelance writing with no experience
1. Know why you want to get into freelance writing
You probably know why you want to be a writer but it’s worth thinking about these questions:
What motivates you?
Are you one of those people who anticipate the arrival of a particular glossy magazine each month?
Are you someone who follows a particular journalist’s writing and reads each of their articles?
Do you rip pages out of magazines or bookmark specific articles because the writing or the ideas blow you away?
Or maybe it’s not that grand – maybe you quite like writing and want to see if you can get an article published.
Whatever your reason – have a think about the type of writing you want to do, the kinds of stories you love to read and your favourite publications.
They will all serve as motivation as you embark on (oh my goodness, I’m going to say it), this journey.
2. Come up with a stellar idea
Lots of new freelance writers run into trouble when they are trying to decide if they should brainstorm ideas for stories or whether they should look at a particular publication first.
Personally I come up with an idea for an article first.
The I look and see which publication I could see it fitting in.
I know freelancers who do it the other way around – both is fine – you just need to make sure you cover off the next two points.
3. Think of your angle and your hook
This is crucial.
Sending editors topics rather than stories is one of the most common complaints about pitches from freelance writers.
Your idea has to be more than a topic.
This means that you have a specific area you want to explore within a topic – this is called the angle.
As you’ll see from my example pitch (point 5) below I wanted to write about children’s behaviour.
But children’s behaviour is a broad topic – I needed to drill down and find a specific angle within that topic.
So I did some research and found there was a relatively new way of addressing children’s behaviour.
And even better, this approach hadn’t been widely reported on.
You also need a hook.
Ask yourself what is going entice the reader to keep reading this article.
Why is this story important now?
Why will the readers want to know about this idea you are proposing to write about?
Every article has a hook.
It may be that there has been a new scientific discovery about allergies.
Or you may be taking a humorous look at a typically serious issue.
You may want to shine a light on an issue that hasn’t had much media attention.
Whatever your idea is, make sure you can clearly articulate why this article needs to be written now.
4. Know the publication
As a new freelance writer, you need to ensure that the idea you are pitching is a good fit for the publication.
You may be a long-time reader of a particular magazine and know a specific story would sit beautifully within the pages.
Look carefully at the publication – what tone do they use?
What is the average length of the articles?
Who are their readers and what are their interests?
You can often find this information if you search the Internet for the publication’s name + ‘media kit’.
Have they run a similar story recently?
Knowing this information will ensure that you are giving yourself the best chance of success.
You’ll also need to know if the publication accept freelance writers,
This is a bit trickier to find out – if it’s a print publication look at the bylines or the list of contributors usually on the front couple of pages of the magazine.
Google a couple of the names you see – are they staff writers or freelancers?
With online publications you can do the same – often you can click on a writer’s name on an online article and the link will take you to their bio.
There you’ll get a good perspective about whether the publication commissions freelancers.
If you’re not sure if the publication works with freelance writers, you can always email or phone and ask.
Most magazines and newspapers will have a generic phone number to ring.
Ask whether they use freelance writers and who is the best person to pitch feature stories to.
5. Get the editor’s details
So you’ve got your idea with a strong angle and hook, and the publication you want to pitch to.
Now you have to find out whom to direct your pitch or query letter to.
This is a crucial step.
If you send your pitch to the wrong person they may not forward it on to the correct individual.
Or they may not even open your email.
If it’s a print publication, often you’ll pitch to the editor, the deputy editor or the features editor.
Their name (and sometimes their email address) is found in the masthead of the magazine or newspaper.
If it’s not, you can do a bit of sleuthing – does the publication have any email addresses on their masthead?
If so, follow the email format (e.g. it may be JaneSmith@glossymagazine.com) so once you have the name of the editor you can slot their name into that formula.
If there aren’t any email addresses on their masthead, look at their media kit and see what the email format is for the publication.
For online publications, it can be a bit harder, but by no means impossible.
Some websites will have a ‘contact us’ page and there will be a specific email address for pitches and submissions.
But if you can, you should always try and send your pitch or query directly to the correct person.
Use Google, LinkedIn or Twitter to search for the editor.
You may type ‘digital editor + publication’ and see if you can find their name. Then you can use a tool such as hunter to grab their email address.
If you know other freelance writers, ask them if they know the editor’s email address.
My experience is that freelance writers are generally very happy to share contact details.
6. Write a pitch or a query letter
Ok, so this is it.
Now you have to email the editor with your idea.
Editors are incredibly busy – so you need to sell your idea, and quickly.
Start with a great subject line and make sure you write “Freelance writer pitch: 10 unique ways to make spaghetti” or “Freelance pitch: 10 unique ways to make spaghetti”.
Definitely don’t write “Article idea: 10 unique ways to make spaghetti” or “Pitch: 10 unique ways to make spaghetti” as the editor may mistake your email for a press release from a PR.
Introduce yourself but just give the editor the information they need to know.
If you feel comfortable it’s totally ok to say that you are a freelance writer (even if you don’t have experience).
But if you do so, be prepared for them to ask you to send examples of your work.
I’ve dug out my very first pitch I sent to an editor (way back in 2012).
Notice I didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a freelance writer so I didn’t.
It was to the editor of Fairfax’s Essential Kids website.
I am wondering if you would be interested in an article about some new and interesting ways to guide young children’s behaviour for the Essential Kids website.
There is a growing movement called ‘the guidance approach’ which looks at young children’s emotional and social development in much the same way as their physical development. For instance, we don’t say to children learning to walk “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, just put one foot in front of the other”. Yet with children’s emotional learning (such as when they are learning to regulate their own behaviour) we rarely have the same patience and can fall into the trap of branding them ‘naughty’ or ‘manipulative’.
I’d like to write an article for your website about the broad ideas behind the guidance approach with some practical hints and tips for parents wanting to learn more and implement some of the ideas. I’d also speak with Dr Louise Porter, an Australian psychologist who has written many articles and books on guiding young children’s behaviour.
Thanks for your consideration of this idea, I look forward to hearing from you.
You can see very early on in the query letter I put the words ‘new and interesting’, which alerted the editor to the fact that this idea hadn’t necessarily been covered before.
I noted who I was going to interview for the piece and what I was broadly going to cover.
The article was commissioned and published here
If you would like to see more real-life pitches of articles that have been commissioned by publications such as Travel + Leisure, The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age, Dumbo Feather, Peppermint – click here.
7. Press send
This is the scary part.
Editors are busy people so please don’t hang around at your computer refreshing your inbox every 10 seconds; it may be days or weeks before you get a reply.
But you’ve done it. You’ve taken the first step to becoming a freelance writer.
Some THINGS TO BE AWARE OF:
Writing on spec
As a freelance writer who is just starting out, you may or may not have previously published pieces.
If you don’t, it’s not uncommon for editors to ask you to write ‘on spec’.
This means you write the article without any commitment from the publication that they will publish the pieces.
It’s a safety net for the editor who may be keen on your idea but less keen to commit to publishing a new writer.
Some first time writers prefer to write a piece in full.
This is totally fine, especially if the piece is a reflective or opinionated first person article.
You can always email an editor and say, “I wrote this piece with your publication in mind” and give them a one or two sentence overview.
If your article is timely (e.g. if it relates to a news event), make sure you flag that in the body of your email as well as the subject line.
For those pieces, can you follow up in 24 – 48 hours.
If it’s not tied to a news peg, then wait at least a week before following up.
If you’re after more information about how to follow up with editors you can read it here.
Are you looking to get a start in freelance writing? What questions do you have?
So helpful for where I am at right now. Thanks, Lindy!
I’m so glad Emily! Thanks for your comment.
Brilliant guide for those just getting started. I also picked up something new – to put "Freelance" in the subject line, particularly when approaching a new editor. They get inundated with PR requests so this is a very useful tip. Thank you!
Thank you Michaela! After hearing lots of stories of freelancers pitching editors only for the editors to think it was a PR approaching them and then assigning the story to someone else, I’ve learnt to put "Freelance" before everything!
One question, Lindy… I too completed the AWC course (Mag and Newspapers) and in that, they suggested you include a proposed word length for your article as well as when you could submit it by. I noticed in your real life pitch download (which is brilliant – thank you!) you don’t include that in your initial emails. Is there a reason why? I actually find it a bit nerve wracking including a proposed word length and submission time frame before getting any feedback from the editor so your approach makes sense to me, i.e. gauge their initial reponse first.
Oh good questions Emily! I must admit I never put in a proposed word length, because magazines and publications have specific lengths (or ranges at the very least) and I’ve found editors will always guide me. Until a piece is commissioned, I never put in when I could submit by, no reason why, I just don’t!
Makes sense – thank you.
Yes, I’d second that, putting ‘Freelance’ in the subject line is a great tip and not something I’d thought of. And the pitch download is brilliant, it’s so helpful to see how it actually works. I’m definitely going to start pitching magazines a bit more. It’s easy to get bogged down in other things, but writing for magazines is something I’d really love to do alongside other writing. In fact I already have a handful of things to be pitched. Thanks for the tips.
Sometimes I find coming up with ideas can be the hardest thing, so I think if you have some ideas already Claire, you’re well on your way to getting a magazine commission!
So glad the download was helpful – let me know how you go with your pitches.
Your posts are so practical and helpful Lindy – thank-you. I wholeheartedly agree with you on the Australian Writer’s centre courses – they are invaluable and have been the game changer in my attempts at establishing myself as a credible freelance writer. I read your posts regularly and may not comment each time – but wanted to say thank-you on this occasion. Not only is your writing a joy to read, so are your blog posts – here on The Freelancer’s Year.
It is thanks to people like you who are so open with sharing their journey that we can all learn and grow. But best of all this is in a supportive and collaborative light.
Thank you so much Jennifer, I can’t say how much your comment means to me.
Have been loving your articles!! Echoing everyone’s sentiments about them being super practical 🙂
Thank you Zo!
Your articles are so helpful! I find that I start reading one and then go down a (very useful) rabbit hole with your internal links!
I am in the US, would you still recommend the AWC course? I checked out the website and the topics taught look spot on!
Thank you Crystal! I’m so glad that my articles have been useful.
I would definitely recommend the AWC course – I think that the skills and strategies they teach are applicable no matter where you live and who you are pitching. When I did the writing for magazines and newspapers (now called freelance writing 1), there were a couple of people from the US in my group and they loved it.
The grad group you join once you have finished the group is wonderful and full of people from all over the world who have done the courses.
Hope that helps?!
This is super helpful for someone just started off as I am 🙂
Thanks Yoram! Best of luck as you start on this freelance ‘journey’!
Would you recommend emailing a pitch directly to the specific person where possible even if a website has email address for pitches and submissions? Thanks
Hi Arlene, it’s a good question. If the website or pitching guidelines specifically asks that writers pitch through a form or a specific email address, then I’d do that. Some places are really clear that they want writers only to pitch that way and others have a generic email address but also accept direct pitches to specific people. I’d go the general route first and then if you don’t get a reply, I’d maybe contact them via Twitter to confirm the best email address to send a pitch to. Hope that helps?
I came across this post after I sent my first pitch ever off to an editor. I was relieved to see that my first pitch resembled yours in its structure. Thanks for all these tips! I’ll certainly be circling back to this when it comes time to write another pitch.
It isn’t very easy to find REAL and USEFUL tips like this on the net, so thank you 🙂
Thank you Nuria 🙂
Really enjoyed reading this! Not long ago I stepped down as the editor of a local newspaper and have begun freelancing for them, but after browsing your site, I’m excited at the prospect of branching out and trying freelance magazine writing. I always figured most magazine articles were done in-house, not by freelancers, so it feels like a whole new world is opened to me.
I do have one question. There’s a local magazine I’ve been seeking to write for. They have an online application for potential freelance writers to submit a cover letter, a resume, and digital portfolio. About a month ago I applied, to no response. I’m unsure who the “application” even went to. Seeing as how I didn’t technically pitch a story idea to the editor, do you think doing so in this case would be considered redundant–or worse, annoying?
Hi PC, thanks for your comment and I’m excited that you’re considering pitching to magazines and publications. With your local magazine, how often is it published? If it’s a weekly or monthly publication, a one month wait probably isn’t that long, especially given it’s a local publication so I’m guessing it might not employ that many people?
I would probably have a look on LinkedIn and see if you can find any of the magazine’s editorial staff on there and request connect with them. Once you’ve connected, I’d mention that you completed the online application and were wondering what the process and time frame is from here.
If that approach doesn’t work, then I’d see if you can email or phone them directly.
Good luck and let us know how you go.
Hi Lindy, I’m just wondering about your use of sources. In your above pitch example you gave your sources name. Do you approach your intended sources with the idea and ask them if you can quote them if the pitch is accepted? If so, what does that ‘ask’ look like? Also, do you ever pitch with a generalized source, eg ‘leading psychologist’?
I’m a little hooked on your blog and doing a bit of binge reading. I ‘fell’ into writing as a sub editor and then with a content writing retainer client (which has since finished up) so feel like I’m starting all over again from freelancer-scratch! Great resource that is much appreciated 🙂
Hi! Scratch the last comment – just pressed on a link in the article, lol! Thanks 🙂