2020 was my first full year freelancing. During this hell year, I’ve been published in Bitch Media, VICE, Apartment Therapy, NBC Think, Refinery29, The Guardian, and, of course, GEN — all while juggling a full class schedule.
It’s no small feat: freelancing while writing two theses and taking 20 credits in undergrad during a pandemic was nightmarish. Freelancing now as I trudge through a science journalism program proves to be arduous and a test in time management. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother, given the stress. But freelancing is the one thing in my life that brings me comfort and relative financial stability. (I have yet to freelance full time.)
I began freelance reporting during the summer of 2019 after I quit my part-time social media job, which had me working weekends starting at 4 a.m. The job was spectacular, but it was incompatible with my class load at the time. So I left and went down the freelance route with very little help or assistance. I needed a way to report and write essays without necessarily succumbing to lower pay. (Why I would I go from $22/hr to an unpaid internship?) I also desperately wanted to be the arbiter of my own time so I could recover from the workload burnout. Freelancing seemed like the right move. For me, it was.
In the past year and a half, I’ve learned that, yes, freelancing as a student can be done. For my fellow student reporters and essayists, here’s how I managed it all and with finesse.
Get to know the publications you want to be in
Nothing is worse than pitching a story that’s not a good fit. You spent all that time thinking up your idea, crafting the perfect email, and then bam! Rejection. That’s not to say that rejection isn’t a normal part of the process. You should get comfortable with rejection. However, you’re a busy person! 30 minutes wasted on a bad email could’ve been spent on organic chemistry homework. Your emails need to be going to the right place and the right person. Understanding the difference between publications like Into the Gloss versus, say, The Strategist is key. While they have similar beats and interests, the kind of work those two publish vastly differs. The only way you’d know that is by becoming a voracious reader.
I know that the inclination is to send an email or DM to an editor at your dream publication you admire, but let me tell you why that isn’t an efficient use of your time. First off, they’re way too busy to give you any meaningful advice. Not to mention, it’s just plain awkward. I think what makes more sense is networking with people who are right at your level, producing similar work as you.
By networking horizontally, you not only get to build community, but you’re sharing knowledge. Maybe Tess from your creative nonfiction class has tips on what an editor at Harper’s is looking for next month. We all benefit when we share opportunities with each other.
Understand your editors
Your editors are people. They get tired reading long emails. Sometimes they forget a task. Perhaps they have a particular email pet peeve. The best way to circumnavigate all that is to know your editors. I like to keep up with the work they write and their tweets. You can get a sense for an editor’s sense of humor or their workload that way. That information will be really useful the next time you send a pitch email or follow up. It’s almost like you two are in sync.
Mastering the three paragraph pitch
No pitch should be longer than three paragraphs, in my opinion. And I’m talking short paragraphs. Here’s how I divide up my pitch emails:
- GRAF 1: Greeting, who I am, and my pitch in six words or so. If someone is connecting you, you should mention that here. (“Hope you had a lovely new year! I’m Izzie Ramirez, a freelance culture reporter. So-and-so mentioned you’re interested in stories on _____. I’m wondering if you’d be interested in a story on _______.”)
- GRAF 2: Hit the “What was? What’s new? What’s now?” in three to four sentences. I had a journalism teacher drill this into my head, and unfortunately, she wasn’t wrong. Essentially this second paragraph is the email equivalent of your nutgraf.
- GRAF 3: What you envision the story to look like/why you. How long is this story gonna be? When can you turn it in? Who have you already talked to? Why should we hire you to do this story? Answer these q’s here! (“I imagine this story will be a 1,200-word feature and I can turn it in to you by next Monday. I’ve already spoken to _____ and ______.”)
When you’re starting out, you may want to try playing around with mentioning you’re a student, especially if you haven’t published anything anywhere else. You can attach a sample, but that’s not always necessary. Personally, I haven’t mentioned that I’m a student in my emails, but that’s because I had several internship clips that I could use to establish myself.
Another thing: avoid sounding stiff! Don’t take yourself too seriously. Read your email out loud to your friend. Are they bored? They shouldn’t be. The pitch is a moment for you to flex on your writing skills and show your voice. Just don’t get too carried away.
Kill two birds with one stone
If you are working on something for school that is timely and/or fits a submission call, honey, go pitch that piece! Check in with your professor to see if it’s okay, but it usually will be. But also…don’t wait on their permission. Trust your gut.
One exception is if your story has sensitive material (i.e. you had to get IRB approval or your sources didn’t agree to be published to the masses). You should absolutely circle back with your professor and anyone else involved in the work. Another exception is if your piece is part of a larger project. You don’t want to sell what will eventually be part of your book right now. Freelancing contracts are notoriously bad, and you might end up selling all your rights away a bit too early.
Put every deadline in Google Calendar. Your brain will fail you in moments of distress. Next thing you know, you have four readings, a pop quiz, and two articles due. Don’t be that person. Professors will expect to be the number one priority in your life. You already knew that, but remember it before you pitch 10 stories right before finals week.
Save 30% of your earnings
After you’ve invoiced your editors and got your paycheck — you can learn more about that from The Writers’ Co-op podcast or Study Hall—plop 30% of your earnings into savings if you’re based in the U.S. You have to pay taxes on that income since you’re not an employee and the taxes aren’t deducted from the start.