Archive for October, 2011

Pitches Brew – A Staple of Successful Freelance Writing

I’m in my studio away from studio, traveling 38,000 feet above sea level on my return to Seattle from the Alaska Media Roadshow in Santa Barbara, an annual speed-info feed with the tour operators and destinations of Alaska. Like Canada Media Marketplace and Go Media, travel media are flown to a wonderful destination like Santa Barbara where we are feted and presented with inviting details about kayaking off the Kenai Peninsula or small boat cruising through Glacier Bay. I consider these events, eight hours of 15-minute meetings, a cauldron of pitches brew.

What is pitches brew? It’s the magical potion that successful freelancers call upon to keep churning up stories worthy of an editor’s nod, the first ingredient to getting paid for writing, as essential as salt in a professional writer’s cupboard. In the ever changing world of freelance writing, where editors change more often then my teenager changes his socks, if you can’t conjure up a pitch from the time the elevator door closes on the seventh floor until you reach the lobby, making it as freelancer is going to be mighty tough.

Speaking of my eleven year old, all of his blurt outs in 6th grade that are driving his teachers nuts come from the same synapses that now serve his father everyday as a freelance writer: the randomly abstract mind. (Full disclosure: math isn’t my subject but I’m rather confident I spent 50% of my elementary school years on a stool in the hallway.) What was once a deadly potion that combined an inability to sit still and disquieted mind in elementary school (and, let’s be honest, all the way through college and, for that matter, last night’s dinner party), now provides me with the skills to conjure and craft pitches at a wicked swirl.

I give this example when I speak to high school and college journalism classes, student newspapers, etc. We’re usually sitting in a classroom when I ask, “How many stories are in this room?” The students, used to chasing bigger fry, valiantly try to find a story After a few minutes, I share the story about how each of them probably possesses an interesting story one relative or friend removed, an uncle who fishes in Alaska while attending law school or some such. But I also tell them the very desks in which they’re sitting is a story. I then recall the story I wrote, after wondering where school furniture goes to die (or in Seattle, to be recycled into new office furniture) that I researched and wrote eight years ago for Washington CEO. That story, “Where do overlooked industrial necessities go?” led to four similar-themed stories and a roundup. (We’ll talk about bundling another time.)

Crai S. Bower on assignment

Whatever technique you use is fine. When I am in pitch mode I unleash, clear my desk and run like a lab rat until I’ve exhausted the fount. Sometimes I have a “Pitch Tuesday,” when all I do is pitch, forcing myself to create ideas. At other times the ideas come at napkin (or iPhone notes) writing time, typing during a men’s room interlude during a romantic dinner with my partner. Whatever it takes, I take.

The second part of successful pitching also stems from school: homework. You have to know, not just your target publication, but your actual quarry, the editor.

Unfortunately, no two editors are the same, even if they work for the same publication. One may like a single line pitch, one may prefer a paragraph with supporting links and demographic targets. He may prefer to know why you are the right writer to research and compose this piece, she may wonder why the hell you’re selling yourself so hard and lose interest in the story, worried the destination will become a first person narrative that only your mother would enjoy. There are lots of ways to find out about an editor, I like Media Bistro’s “How to Pitch” pages because the examples are right before me and then I don’t have to ask a colleague for the insight that he’s worked hard to cull himself and deserves to keep in his own Rolodex. (Yet another subject for another time.)

The third and final ingredient for good pitching is persistence. When I first started, following up on pitches was embarrassing, so I spent many hours staring forlornly at my “in” box wondering if I would ever hear from anybody. I considered follow-ups to be badgering and my grandmother taught me never to badger. But more than a few editors have told me they appreciate being pestered (their word), as it lets them know I am excited about and committed to a story. (Disclaimer: see part two for mention of how no two editors are exactly alike.) But honestly, what’s the worst that can happen? They can say “no way, go away!”

Getting rejected may sting our egos, but at least we know where we stand, which saves on wasted energy and creates more time for, you guessed it, stirring up more pitches brew. Good luck.

Award winning travel writer, radio and television commentator Crai S Bower estimates he sells about half of the 200 pitches he brews up every year.

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The Wild West of Freelancing: Advice from the Pros

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the “Building a Better Journalist” fall conference put on by the Oregon/SW Washington Pro SPJ chapter. It was a great conference. I particularly enjoyed “The Wild West of Freelancing” panel which included Nancy Rommelmann, Lee van der Voo, Kelly Clarke and Zach Dundas and moderated by SPJ chapter president Aaron Mesh. Here is just a fraction of the wisdom shared during the panel discussion:

– Establish a relationship with a particular editor before sending a pitch  (hint:  editors love *free* coffee)

– Know your editor, the sections they edit, their style and their editorial calendar.

– Know the “nuts and bolts” of the media organization or publication you want to write for.

– Hiring a freelancer is not about the story you pitch; it is about your ability to make an editor’s job easier.

– Editors are, gasp, NOT the enemy. They need you as much as you need them.

– Don’t let fear win.

– Try to do your best work always.

– Meet deadlines.
– Be easy to work with.
– Remember the basics of good reporting.
– Let your own voice shine through.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Ultimately, the quality of your work and the relationships you cultivate will bring you the type of work that you can be proud of and that pays the bills!


Dana Neuts has been a full-time freelance writer for eight years, specializing in small business writing, features, humor, women’s issues, freelancing and more. She serves as the Region 10 Director and Freelance Committee Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists. Dana Neuts also provides writing, editing and marketing services through her company Virtually Yourz and is the owner and publisher of, a community website about Kent, Washington.

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Freelance Cents from Tara Puckey

Contributed by four-year freelancer Tara Puckey

I like examples. Real, tangible examples of what works and what doesn’t. Conference sessions telling me that I should stay organized, without actually giving me some tools to do so, just don’t fly with me. I want to know what software you’re using, how you make your lists, manage your time, what color to paint my office so that it’s soothing… Maybe that last one was a little too much.

Either way, because of my overwhelming need for specifics, I thought I would pass on some of my own examples.  Keep in mind, I’ve only been freelancing for four years and I don’t have a bathtub full of cash to throw around, so your idea of my success is negotiable.  On that note, let’s get started.

Pen and Paper, what?: I’ve tried every high-tech list service out there and although some are better than others, I went back to old fashioned paper.  I keep one master list, and if you’re anything like me, it needs to be on a full-size piece of paper.  Every single thing that needs to be done, regardless of the deadline, ends up here.  To make it manageable, each morning I take a smaller piece of paper and write the things from the master list that absolutely need to be done that day.  I know, it sounds too simple to be functional.  Try it.  You’ll see.

Money, Money: When I first started freelancing, I used Numbers to track my expenses and Pages to create invoices.  After a while, they looked boring, became slightly complicated and created a bunch of template and invoice mix-ups.  And so I tried several other applications, including QuickBooks.  I finally settled on Billings for my invoices. Creating estimates is simple, moving them to actual invoices is even easier and most importantly (for me), the whole thing looks cool.  I use Money to track my expenses, although I would recommend entering them as they come in instead of letting them pile up in a box like I do.  I’ll get around to that soon, I promise.

Schedule it out: Remember that master list we talked about?  Even with the daily list, it’s easy to forget some of the required daily tasks: updating Facebook, Twitter, entering your expenses (obviously not something I’m good at), or filing client paperwork.  In an effort to make myself complete these mundane tasks, I schedule out my day.  I use iCal for a lot of my scheduling, but I also use a Sticky Note Widget on my Dashboard with a list of things that have to be completed first thing in the morning.

Turn it off: As I write this, I realize that I should be taking my own advice more seriously.  Walking away from work is my biggest problem, as I assume it is for many of you since my email generally floods from fellow freelancers around 3 a.m.  But not eating dinner with my family and missing that killer season finale… Well, it gets old.  So even though your home office is oh-so-accessible, you’ve got to shut it down as if you punched in somewhere.  Pick a time, turn off the notifications to your email, shut down your cell phone and enjoy a little free time.

Fix it when it’s not broken: Completely contradicts the saying, I know.  Sometimes, though, it’s worth changing it up a bit.  For example, I used the basic Twitter application to manage several of the Twitter accounts I’m tasked with.  But I got bored and recently changed to Tweetie. There are things I’m a big fan of, and some that I’m not.  I’ll give it a chance for two weeks and decide then.  Bottom line: Changing what I use gives me another reason to get engaged with it, leading to “extra” tweets and some giddy excitement, if only for a while.

So there, just my two cents.  I’d love to hear what works for you and what doesn’t because that’s the only way we all get better, by sharing.  There, doesn’t that sound nice?

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Freelance Committee Goals for 2011-2012

Last week some of the members of the Freelance Committee had the opportunity to meet at the 2011 SPJ & RTDNA Excellence in Journalism conference in New Orleans. In addition to meeting some new faces, we exchanged some great ideas about what we feel our members want and need. To provide them with the support and resources our freelancers want, we’ve developed this list of our goals for the upcoming year:

  • Ongoing:  Continue weekly blogs posts to Independent Journalist blog
  • Ongoing:  Provide bimonthly Freelance Toolbox columns for the Quill
  • Ongoing:  Welcome new freelancers to SPJ
  • Ongoing:  Reach out to existing freelancers who are SPJ members to offer resources
  • Ongoing:  Help SPJ promote eCampus, including the freelance videos, as well as other freelance resources
  • Ongoing:  Support Pro and Student chapters with program ideas and resources for freelance workshops
  • Project:  Create digital Freelance Resource Guide

What are we missing? Please send your suggestions to me via email. Also, if you would like to learn more about the committee or are considering joining SPJ as a freelancer, let me know. I’d be happy to help!

~ Dana Neuts, Freelance Committee Chair

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Freelance Opportunity: Assignment Work for AARP

Sylvia Smith, Features Editor for State News, AARP Bulletin is seeking freelancers to work on assignment in a number of states including AZ, CA, OR, WA, FL, GA, SC, TN, CO, TX, CT, MA, NY, MD, NC, NJ, PA, VA, IL, IN, MI, MN, MO, OH and WI.

AARP is not looking for story pitches, but rather writers who can work on assignment on pieces that are approximately 600 words. If you are located in one of the states noted, please send your resume and a couple of clips to Sylvia Smith via email.


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No Need To Join The Circus. Just Become A Freelance Journalist To Work For Peanuts.

The other day I got an email from Yotify. The service aggregates and serves up practically any search results you want from multiple sites all over the Web.

Want a camera cheap? Yotify will search out best deals for you on Craigslist, and more. Looking for a job, it does the same thing.

So, the email that popped into my box yesterday was a writing job report. Yotify had found three potential gigs on Craigslist and sent me an alert and a link. Best thing was, I thought one of the projects could have been a real money-maker. Was I ever wrong.

The heading was right up my alley:

“Freelance Writers for News Content”

The description made me shake my fist at the sky and curse anyone who ever gives away their writing:

Skyword is looking for professional grade writers to share their own perspective on the facts of current news-related topics. Topics include: General News, Politics, Sports and Technology.

About this position:

• Choose your own writing topic based on the latest news trends that you are passionate about

• Write from anywhere, submit your articles through our online state-of-the-art publishing tools

• You’ll learn best practices for writing news content and getting picked up in the major search engines.

• At Skyword, you won’t be treated like a number. Team members are readily available to assist you with any questions you may have

• Build your online writing portfolio, reaching thousands of new readers daily

• Earn up to $13 an article, plus bonuses

• No maximum work quota keeps your earning potential uncapped

•  Receive payment twice a month

Fantastic! Up to $13 an article, plus bonuses? How could I go wrong? That’s what I got into freelancing for…to make the big dollars. Vacation home, here I come. New car, sure – buy it with cash. Lavish parties? Yup, call me and I’ll get you on the list.

I mean at $13 per article….PLUS BONUSES….snack packs and microwavable Chicken Tikka Masala were soon to be memories. I’d buy cashmere sweaters for my cat and hire people to do things for me. Like one guy to learn the banjo for me and another to work out. I’d also call the town to see if they would actually change the name of my road to Easy Street.

I digress. And let me stop before I fall off my sarcasm soapbox and hurt myself. Are you kidding me? We both know there ARE writers who will take this job. We know that there is a draw to seeing your work in print and seeing your name in a publication. But it’s our job as professional journalists to educate our colleagues and provide mentoring to those coming into the business that they hurt everyone who sells words when they take jobs like this.

People (myself included) got into freelancing because they wanted the upside of unmentionable riches and the leeway to write whenever they chose. This isn’t the path. Stay away from the word mills and the blog-for-pennies projects. If you have the acumen to understand what the word acumen means, you have more than enough skill to demand ten times that “$13 per article plus bonuses.”

Now go do just that and stay away from the jobs that demean our training, our profession and insult our pride.




Jeff Cutler has been freelancing for 21 years for outlets that include CBS, NPR, The Boston Globe, NY Post, Technology Review and more. He’s the social media trainer for the Society of Professional Journalists and runs a content marketing company – Novel Ideas – where he is able to exchange blog posts for significantly more than $13 each. He thinks you should do the same. Jeff can be reached via any of the contact information at




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