David Hill Tells How to Pitch a Freelance Story

NWU First VP David Hill gave writers a powerful tutorial on working as a freelance journalist last night at the UAW conference rooms in NYC. He laid out in clear, concise language how he goes about pitching articles, how he builds long-term relationships with editors, many of whom move from publication to publication, and how he has gradually been able to obtain higher fees after years of “paying his dues” writing for low-pay pubs.

Some of the highlights of his talk include:

  1. You pitch the idea, not your writing. Editors are looking for a fresh idea, they will fix your writing if it has weaknesses, they want a fresh slant on a topic. Good ideas are more important than good writing, so you need to exercise your imagination and come up with story pitches that an editor hasn’t heard before.
  2. Find story ideas in the real world, not the internet. Many of his best pitches came from hanging out with people, traveling, asking questions. An auto worker from Tennessee (UAW steward) told him how, when auto workers had to move from Michigan and Wisconsin to Tennessee after their plant up north closed, they started a high school hockey team, even thought there weren’t any frozen ponds. The team became a powerhouse and developed a love of hockey in the south—a unique story that Dave pitched and sold to the first editor he offered it to.
  3. You need to find a niche and develop expertise in an area, that way you develop credibility in the field. Your expertise convinces an editor you have what it takes to research and write the story.
  4. Freelancing is a business. You need to determine what your work is worth and not give it away.
  5. Rights Matter. Don’t forget to secure your rights, try to avoid the “all rights” contract, which gives the publisher the right to sell and make money from your story in any format they choose, even formats not yet invented. For example, be sure you get a cut from the movie rights, don’t  give them away for nothing in an “all rights” contract.
  6. Ask for a standard contract, not an all rights one. Often publishers will keep their old boiler-plate contract and will agree to sign that one, which grants the writer many of the subsidiary rights. Sometimes you might choose to accept an all rights contract if getting the story placed in that specific publication means a lot to your career, or when you are trying to build goodwill with an editor. There is no shame in taking the bad deal, it’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons.
  7. Relationships matter. You need to get to know editors, not personally at the bar, but get to know who they are, know what they like, and follow them when they move from publication to publication. A junior editor in a big firm might become the chief editor at a smaller publication; your relationship will help you place stories.
  8. Get onto Twitter, because editors will look you up on Twitter when you pitch a story. Your goal is to get editors to read your work on Twitter so you develop your name. Twitter offers an opportunity to reach a larger audience than Facebook. It takes a long time and a lot of work to develop a large twitter following, but if you can do it it will help you sell stories and even a book, because editors will be happy to sign a book contract if they see you have thousands of Twitter followers, because they figure 100 or more of whom will buy your book.
  9. In selling a pitch, how do you convince the editor that you are the only one who can write it? One reason could be exclusive access to the principles, or a unique avenue into the story, some special knowledge that others don’t know. Or you may be the only one who knows about it or has access to it. Try to find some exclusive access, or the editor may take your pitch and give it to another writer to take on.
  10. WHY them? Why is this the publication the right one for this story.  You need to know that in advance and use it in your pitch to the editor.
  11. List all the publications who might take the story, rate them, and pitch to the first one first. Pitch it one at a time. If rejected, go on to the next.
  12. Long-form articles should be about topics that are not timely, more enduring; short form is suited for timely topics.
  13. Success in freelance writing may lead to an offer to work as a staff writer. There are pros and cons to both occupations, so consider what you need to pay your bills and remember that staff writers are frequently laid off as well.
  14. Join the National Writers Union, we are fighting for the rights and economic security of writers, and we need more writers to join us to advance the cause of writers’ rights.
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