Advice about pitching freelance stories to editors

To be a successful freelancer, you really have to focus on networking and marketing. I met my primary editor at a financial services convention, and saw her again at other industry events, and when I had quit Computerworld she called me right up and offered me a regular column.

I also do cold-calls and cold-emails to editors to round out the number of articles I do. I haven’t had reason to complain about the volume of work I have — only that, in my experience, the articles I freelance tend to be very formulaic. Editors want to know what they’re getting, and they want something very predictable and reliable. They also only want to see the stuff that you’ve done a lot of, whereas when you’re on staff, you write on a wider variety of topics.

So, for example, I write about web services on Wall Street, Web services as a technology, Web services in corporate finance departments, and now I’m pitching Web services in the insurance industry. Same exact story each time, except with a slightly different focus. So the more often I do an article, the easier it is to sell another one just like it.

As you can imagine, the rut wears pretty deep pretty fast. Doing all my interviews by phone doesn’t help either.

Anyway, I’ve been freelancing for three years now, and was freelancing for about four years before going to Computerworld. My advice? First of all, set up a website. If you do, it means you can email pitch letters without having to put your resume and clips into attachments — you can just put in links to all the materials you want the editors to see.

Then, for pitching, I use a “T-shaped” approach (think of a bunch of capital T’s, stacked one on top of the other in a tall, and vaguely unsteady column).

You take your starting point. Say, you’ve got a story about a sick horse that was published somewhere. Now you try to sell a variation of that story to as many places as you can find — parenting mags, kid mags, outdoor mags, horse mags. That’s the tall part of the T — you’re writing sick horse stories over and over again.

But, now that you know those editors, you can pitch a wider variety of horse stories to them. Horses and kids, horses and vets, horses and transportation, what have you. You’re on the outstretched wings of the T.

Now, let’s say that the vet story rang a bell with you. So you can go up that vertical, selling horse vet stories to a bunch of different magazines. Then you go out horizontally again — doing a variety of stories about vets. And then you repeat the cycle, each time adding more columns to your tree of T’s.

At least, that’s the theory. I’m actually too lazy to put everything in practice. (Visualize me kicking myself in my own butt.)