The rules of the freelance game

Tips for pitching like a pro and double-dipping story ideas without going the full Jonah Lehrer

Aside from the general advice of networking and putting yourself out there, how do I break into freelancing? What makes a good query letter? Can you really still make a living off freelancing, and how? —Melissa

Quick! Off the top of your head, name five editors you know will recognize your name and open your pitch emails. If you can’t, it’s too soon to go full-time freelance. Every profession is about connections, and journalism is no exception. And those connections are the lifeblood of a freelancer. How do you get editors to know your name? Have friends introduce you to them via email. (Yeah, “networking.” Sorry.) Write regularly on your personal site and on sites that don’t pay you, and then disseminate those links as widely as you can. Cold pitching can work, too, but it’s tougher.

A good query email is one that’s sent directly to the assigning editor for the specific section you’re pitching. The email features a compelling subject line (think of it as a proto-headline) and a tight paragraph explaining the piece you want to write, why it’s timely, and why this outlet is the perfect place to publish it. A second short paragraph in the email explains who you are and why you’re the best writer for the job. It also includes a link to your personal site, which has an easily navigable archive of your work. It ends with a note about when you’ll be following up. Depending on how timely the piece is, that follow-up date can be anywhere from 24 hours to several weeks away. Basically, it’s just to help you set a timeline and enable you to pitch the piece elsewhere before the time hook expires, rather than twiddling your thumbs for weeks waiting for a reply that may never come.

I’m in the midst of my own freelance experiment. Admittedly, I started with the advantage of several years of experience as an editor, so I know a lot of the people to whom I’m pitching, and I know how editors think. I’ve made some freelance rules for myself: 1) Set up a few recurring gigs (like this column) to add structure to my week and my finances. 2) Send at least two additional pitches per week. 3) Meticulously track each assignment through six stages: pitched, assigned, published, promoted, invoiced, paid. The lag time between publication and payment is usually significant. So prepare to harass your employers to cut the check.

As for whether you can make a living… I know some writers and editors who certainly do. Most make it work by supplementing their writing assignments with speaking gigs, fellowships, or consulting work. It’s not easy. Before you make the freelance leap, make sure you have a plush financial cushion.

What are the ethics involved if the editor of a local magazine wants to pitch to a national publication? I have stories that I’ve written that would work well for a wider, national audience. I wouldn’t pitch exactly the same story, of course, but I would want to pitch a different angle with the same subject. Okay or not? —Brandon

Give it a shot. You should try to get as much mileage as possible out of every story—stopping short of self-plagiarism, of course. (More about that in a minute.) Be sure to disclose that you’ve already written about the subject for a local publication. My only note of caution is that the bar might be higher than you think when it comes to convincing an editor that your local idea is nationally relevant.

In other words, do your homework before you start pitching.

Like every ascending writer these days, I’m terrified of ending up like Jonah Lehrer by accidentally using previously published quotes and similar background info in multiple stories. Any advice? —Melody Wilson

In my recent advice column to newbie journalists, I suggested writing each story three times, three different ways. And I stick by that! It’s not okay to reuse quotes without acknowledging that they’ve already been published or without linking to the previously published piece. It is, however, completely fair to mine the same subject matter and find a new angle or thesis on the topic and to pitch a new (but related) piece to another publication. I also think it’s fine to use portions of an interview conducted for one outlet in a piece for a different outlet—as long as the original outlet is mentioned, along with the date and original context of the interview.

A good rule of thumb? Quote your own previously published work as if you’re quoting another journalist, and you’ll stay in the clear. And if you have any doubts at all, raise them with your editor. If she thinks you’re crossing a line, believe me, she’ll let you know.

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk