Episodes: How to write a freelance pitch


In the last seven or eight months, it's become very popular to pitch Vox Culture for freelance articles, despite the fact that we don't have the sort of budget or editorial team we'd love to have to commission every pitch we love, let alone every pitch we just kinda like.

And in that time, it's become clear that a.) writing a freelance pitch is hard and b.) a lot of people aren't sure how to go about it.

So I'm going to give you advice on how to do it.

First, though, a big caveat: I went back to my old freelance pitches, when I was firing off missives to Keith Phipps in the middle of the night in my AV Club days, and boy, was I bad at it! The way I got the assignment that changed my career forever was by sending an email that consisted of: "Let me know if you guys still want a Glee review on Tuesday. I can get it to you whenever." So, uh, this newsletter is also for 2009 me, who broke roughly all of the rules below, I can just tell.

Still, here are five ironclad rules for writing a freelance pitch. We're going to be pitching a fake article comparing Riverdale to Twin Peaks.

1) Email, email, email: Please don't send a Facebook message (since it's way too easy to lose track of these). Please don't send a Twitter DM. Even if you know the editor really well, it's sort of bad form regardless. (That said, I first connected with Keith via Facebook message, so do as I say, etc.) Email is best because we're used to reading it, and we're used to getting pitches that way, and you can be a little expansive in it.

"But how do I get your email address?" you wonder. That's easy enough. If you can't find the email address of the person you're pitching directly, you can probably find one for someone else at the organization they work for, and you can usually figure out their address from that. If it's a really big-time editor, then your pitch will probably land in a junk mail folder, or they'll have an assistant read it, or something like that. But if it's, like, me, I'll probably see it eventually. (That said, you probably don't want to pitch me. I'm not an editor! Get to know the mastheads of the sites you want to write for, which can usually be found by googling "[site] masthead".)

2) Put something in the subject line that indicates this is a freelance pitch: Often, Freelance Pitch: [subject of pitch] is best. And everything after "Freelance pitch:" should be a condensed version of your article, a headline, if you will. This will be important in a second.

For our fake article, a good subject line would be: "Freelance pitch: Where Riverdale matches up to Twin Peaks and where it falls short." That's kind of a clunky headline, but it gets the point across succinctly for a subject line.

3) Lead your email body copy with a brief introduction, followed by a headline (90 characters or less), followed by a nut graf: Why 90 characters? It's the old Facebook character limit for headlines (which has been expanded somewhat). And think about making this a headline. Think about making it enticing. Think about making it welcoming to people who have no idea what you're talking about. Think about making it grabby. If you can send in your pitch with a good sample headline, even if we don't end up using that headline, or the piece switches focuses during editing, it's by far the thing we're most likely to jump onto, because it suggests immediately that you do or don't know what your piece is about. Your nut graf is your basic thesis, and it should be 100 words or less. 50 words is probably even better.

Here's how I'm going to open my email to an editor (whom we're going to assume is my actual editor, as if I just randomly email her freelance pitches all the time, which come to think of it, would be kind of funny):

Dear Jen:

I've been working on a piece I think might be right for Vox. It's about the new CW show Riverdale, the classic show Twin Peaks, and the works of director David Lynch. With Riverdale currently running and Twin Peaks returning in May, it feels like a good time to consider both.

Headline: Riverdale crosses Twin Peaks with Archie. What's most interesting is when it doesn't. (Note to readers: This headline is 85 characters long, according to my best friend, lettercount.com. It's not my greatest achievement, but it's also not bad.)

The go-to comparison point for The CW's dark Archie series is "Twin Peaks meets Archie Comics." And that's true, so far as it goes. Both series examine the tawdry heart of small-town America, with a healthy dash of sex and violence. But what's most interesting is what remains truly Archie about Riverdale, how the classic characters remain themselves in the face of all that darkness. If Twin Peaks was about finding the darkness at the heart of wholesomeness, Riverdale flips that around. It's about finding the wholesomeness at the heart of darkness."

That's 94 words. I could probably do better, and could probably cut the last two sentences, but I like those two sentences, so whatever.

4) Keep your total email under 500 words. Under 300 words is even better.

You want to expand on your ideas from here, and you want to give some sense of what the article will look like in total, but you also don't want to rattle on forever, unless you and the editor have a long-lasting working relationship. (I just sent my editor a long-winded Slack message at 9:50 pm on a Monday, because I am The Worst Employee.) The best process is to follow up the nut graf with a quick graf outlining a few major points you'll cover in the article, then another graf outlining your qualifications or pointing to previous work you've done. Definitely keep it under 500 words. Try to keep it under 300 words. Somewhere in there, include a proposed word count and maybe even a proposed deadline.

Here's how we'll finish out my Riverdale pitch.

"My essay will look at how Riverdale and Twin Peaks inform each other by drawing lines between the classic teen archetypes of Archie and the subversions of those archetypes on Twin Peaks. The piece will take as its center the four major Archie characters, with a section each for Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica. In each section, I'll point to their Twin Peaks analogue, before examining how Riverdale reasserts the strength of the original archetype, in spite of everything. That's an ambitious pitch, I know, but I'm confident I can do it in 1800 words or so. I'm open to paring that back if need be. If you're interested, I can submit by the end of the week.

"My writing has appeared at Vox, The A.V. Club, Grantland, Salon, and the Los Angeles Times. A selection of links (note to readers: never send more than three) follows below. I look forward to hearing back from you and hope we can work together on this!"

5) Don't work for free: Never, ever, ever. I got paid terribly for several years at AV Club (though I managed to put together livable paychecks through sheer scale), but the publication always paid me, and if it hadn't, I would have left. Your writing is worth something, even if you're just starting out, and you should do a little research to determine just what you think it's worth. (For an essay like this, if I were starting out, I probably wouldn't accept less than $150, and even that strikes me as a touch low. But I may be out of touch with current market rates, since I haven't freelanced in years.) If the editor responds, interested in the pitch, and doesn't mention how much you'll be paid, make sure to ask. No exposure is worth working for free.

I hope this has been at least somewhat helpful. If it hasn't, please ask any questions you have. I may answer them in future newsletters!

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New feature! If you haven't noticed, I struggle to come up with good ideas for three newsletters a week, which means the Friday newsletter is usually just a mess. In the interest of having you do work for me, I'd like to turn that Friday newsletter into a mailbag. Please email me your questions over the course of the week, and I'll pick a few I find interesting and go from there. I always wanted a mailbag column at AVC, so this will be a massive ego boost.

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.