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Tag Archives: pitching

Take a Class with Me in 2016

I’m pleased to announce that I am now an instructor at Writers.com, and I have two classes coming up:

Pitch Like a Honey Badger

and

The Nuts and Bolts of the Freelancing Lifestyle.

Pitch Like a Honey Badger” is intended for freelancers who want to improve their pitching skills and, by extension, their rate of acceptance and number of assignments. The class starts January 20 and is asynchronous, meaning there’s no set meeting time; you can work through it at your own pace.

In “The Nuts & Bolts of the Freelancing Lifestyle,” I’ll be teaching something almost no other writing course teaches: the finances of freelance writing. This course is designed to help you define what financial success looks like for you as a freelancer and to assist you with developing a concrete, practical plan for achieving it. It starts March 9 and is also asynchronous.

If you’ve ever worked with me before, you know that I’m very hands-on with students and colleagues, offering honest, useful feedback and support that’s rooted in the values of transparency and giving.

I hope you’ll consider registering for one (or both!) of these classes. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me directly at writingjulie [AT] gmail [dot] com.

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How to Sell a “Cold Case” Article

“What do you do,” a colleague asked recently, “when you have a piece you just can’t seem to sell?”

It happens. It’s frustrating when an idea or article you’ve worked on so hard becomes the journalistic equivalent of a cold case, but that doesn’t mean all the work you’ve put into an assignment is for naught. Here are a few strategies worth trying before giving up on a piece.

1. Use your running pitch list to your advantage.
If you don’t know what I mean by running pitch list, read this post and take a close look at the visual. A running pitch list allows you to track the progress of a piece continually, and if you get in the habit of scheduling one day a week on which you dedicate an hour or two to pitch follow ups, you’ll whittle away at your cold case rate.

Every time you pitch an article, be sure to fill out the field on your pitch list that indicates the other outlets and editors you’ll try if your Plan A publication doesn’t pan out. I put that information in the “Other” field. If you haven’t heard from Plan A, move on and pitch the back-up publication. Exhaust all possibilities.

2. Turn to colleagues.
Tell your colleagues where you’ve pitched and ask for other suggestions. They may have outlets you haven’t considered or ones you don’t even know.

3. Call in a favor.
Ask a trusted colleague to read a pitch that’s gotten nowhere and request her input. Is there something you’re missing that a second set of eyes might help identify and correct to strengthen the idea that hasn’t yet found a home?

4. Take feedback to heart.
Sometimes we’re too close to our ideas and stories to understand what may be missing for a more general audience. If your trusted colleague gives feedback, take it into consideration and rework your pitch accordingly.

5. Relax– sometimes it’s all about the timing.
You may have an incredible article idea, but if no editor’s picking it up, consider the possibility that the timing just isn’t good for some reason… and there can be lots of reasons why it might not be. That doesn’t mean the idea or the resulting story will never sell; it may just mean that you need to sit with it for a while and wait for the timing to be better. For an example of this, check out my guest post on Jordan Rosenfeld’s blog; it’s about a story idea I sat with for seven years.

Hold it until it’s sellable and peg it, if you can, to a timely event or news.

6. Rework the angle.
Let’s say the story idea you’ve been sitting on has suddenly been done to death. Maybe you had a story about the famous chef Rene Redzepi, but it feels like you’ve been seeing stories about him everywhere and maybe your idea has been played out.

In these situations, see if you can tweak your angle. The question to always ask yourself about a person, place, or phenomenon that’s been hyped ad infinitum is this: What’s the story that hasn’t been told? How can you offer a fresh take? In our Redzepi example, can you focus less on the food and more on his family? Some new entrepreneurial venture that’s underreported? His right-hand man (or woman)? Tell the story no one else is telling.

7. Put it into a package.
If you’re having a hard time selling a piece as a stand-alone, figure out a way to put it into a bigger package. Using our Redzepi example again, turn what you intended to be a profile of him (done. tired.) into a package. This isn’t always ideal, of course– none of us wants to kill off our darlings, the original ideas we had about how we wanted to frame a story–but if your goal is to sell, then you have to consider this as an option.

How do you do it? Consider all the material you have and pull out pieces that can be rolled up into another package. It may be a single sentence or idea that then gets pulled into a round-up style piece. You may need to do a little more reporting to fill out the new article.

Have some other tips about how to give new life to cold cases? Please share them in the comments.

How to Make a Running Pitch List

A few colleagues have asked if I’d share the strategy I use for logging and tracking pitches.

I’m happy to do so here and you’re welcome to share this widely.

The sample you’ll see below is a cut and paste demo from part of my 2015 pitch list. I’ve removed editor names and contact information and rates, but otherwise, you’re getting the straight dope.

It’s pretty, simple, really: I set up a spreadsheet on Google Drive, adding the categories you see below. Every single time I sit down to pitch, I log the information. I update it when I receive an assignment or rejection. I make notes about other possible outlets in the “Other” field, as well a notation if a friend or colleague tipped me to an outlet or editor. If I get the assignment based on their introduction or recommendation, I always send a thank you note. And I have a weekly alert on my gmail calendar that reminds me to follow up on quiet pitches.

Here’s the color code scheme (obviously, do whatever works for you):
GREEN: Assigned
RED: Rejected (preferably with a note about why)
BLUE: No response (colored after at least one follow-up attempt)
YELLOW: In some sort of limbo

That’s really all there is to it.

I manage invoicing and payments through Wave Apps, a free program you can find online. It’s not 100% perfect, but I’ve found it incredibly useful so far (and I reviewed it here).

If you have questions, please leave them in the comments and I’ll reply.
**

This is an excerpt from my pitch list.

This is an excerpt from my pitch list.

Tough Love Talk: Your Story (Probably) Isn’t Special

I know you’re settling in to read this, especially if you’re new or newish to writing, with some degree of resistance. Maybe you even thought about just not reading it at all. You believe–absolutely believe in your bones–that your story is special. That there’s nothing like it. That what happened to you, whether it was good or bad or in between, hasn’t happened to anyone else. That it needs to be written.

As a former editor, writing instructor, and a lifelong voracious reader of nearly every genre, I can assure you with almost complete certainty that your story is nothing special. Even the experience that seems utterly obscure has likely happened to someone else. What’s more, the world is littered with narratives about those experiences, and the majority of them are written poorly.

I know this is uncomfortable, but stay with me.

I was contacted recently by a young woman who wanted to know where she should pitch a story about falling in love with a man from Cuba. She had met him while she was on vacation, fell madly in love with him, and in short order, they started the paperwork that would lead to them getting married and bringing him to the United States. Because the story was unique within her circle, she was absolutely convinced that it was unique in the world. It wasn’t. I can count a full handful of women I know personally whose story is nearly the same. Sure, some particulars are different, but the broad strokes are nearly identical.

Because she was convinced it was unique, period, she was also convinced that pretty much any editor should be interested in a story about it. She didn’t say how she planned to tell her story, how the narrative would arc, distinct from the way you’d tell the story at a bar or over dinner with some good friends. She didn’t say who she thought the ideal audience would be. She was just so excited, so sure that this story, her story, was so good that it needed to be published.

This is just one example; I could come up with a dozen others, easily. When I was an editor, I received pitches on a daily basis from passionate writers who wanted to convince me that no one– no, really, no one–had ever written a story like theirs.

Only the thing was, I’d just received another pitch on exactly the same topic.

**
To say that your story (probably) isn’t special is tough love talk, I know. It chips away at the foundation holding in place some of the most cherished reasons why you write: to tell your truths. To make sense of them. To seek–and hopefully receive–catharsis, redemption, validation, identification, or some other psychological need of which you may not even be aware. To share this experience that feels (and is) so precious and particular.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that.

But what makes your story special is how you tell it, what details you bring to it, what observations. The struggles and the lessons and the unanswered questions. The doubts that niggle at you when you can’t sleep at night, or the ones that pester you when you’re writing. Don’t try to convince an editor that your STORY is unique because most likely, it’s not. It’s how that story reaches and affects a reader through your skillful telling of it: that’s where you need to be investing your energy and your skills of persuasion when you’re reaching out to an editor. Rather than insist upon the novelty of your story, push yourself harder to answer the question: How can I tell this in a new way, a way that no one has told this kind of story before?

Tips for the holiday slump season

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo

**
Many of my writer friends agree: the holidays are a writer’s most and least favorite time of year.

Most because they finally get to take a breath and peel their fingers away from the keyboard as work slows down; few editors are reading pitches and queries.

Least because few editors are reading pitches and queries, making that month-long stretch of winter a financially uncertain time.

Typically, I’ve been of the same mind (in fact, I think I even wrote something about this last December), but this year I’m in a good place; I’ve got plenty (too much, probably) of work to keep me chugging through the holidays and into 2013.

If that’s not the case for you, though, and you’re feeling on edge about the slow season of the freelance life, here are a few pro tips for housekeeping that will set you up for a successful new year.

Thank the editors you've worked with in 2012.

Thank the editors you’ve worked with in 2012.

Thank the editors you’ve worked with this year.
Undoubtedly, you’ve had moments where you’ve felt frustrated with your editors, but they’re also your champions– the ones who fight for your words and carry them to a wider readership. In the best situations, they’re the folks who help you grow as a writer. They’re also incredibly undervalued and rarely thanked, so sending a note, whether via snail mail or e-mail, to express your gratitude for their support is one way to busy yourself during the slump season and continue building the relationships that are so crucial to your career.

Similarly, you may want to write a note of thanks to some of your sources, especially those who have offered their knowledge and insights repeatedly.

Organize your receipts.
If you view writing as a business (and there are many reasons why you should), then now is the time to finish organizing your 2012 receipts and set up your organizational system for 2013.

There are systems that are far more sophisticated than mine, which is a simple file-by-expenditure-type system. I make envelopes for about a dozen different categories (including transportation; lodging; postage; books/magazines; conferences and professional membership fees; clothing; tech and services; and utilities) and all year long, I file away my receipts as they accumulate.

One simple system for organizing receipts for tax deductions.

One simple system for organizing receipts for tax deductions.

At the end of the year, I seal them all up in a larger brown envelope and then deposit the whole shebang on the desk of my accountant come tax time.

Set up your tracking systems.
I’m good at keeping track of my receipts, but my records for incoming payments are decidedly less organized, and in 2013, I’m determined to make a better effort at keeping tabs on the money I’ve got coming in. I’d love to hear what your own tools are for tracking income; some friends use Quickbooks, others set up a simple Google docs spreadsheet, and I suspect plenty have a non-system like mine.

Sort your clips.
What, where, and how much did you publish in 2012?

You may have a sense of what you accomplished, but until you see it all in a single place, organized, with links to any clips available online, you may not really know just how much work you did in 2012.

And neither will anyone else, if it’s not organized.

There are plenty of different ways to present and share this information; here’s how I manage mine.

If you already have a section on your blog, website, or other platform (like MediaBistro), then make sure links are all functional.

Draft your 2013 publication goals.
Where do you want to be published in 2013?

What types of pieces do you want to be writing?

How do you want to expand your subject repertoire?

Write them down.

Draft your 2013 financial goals.
As with publication goals for the incoming year, draft your financial goals. How much do you want and need to make? What will it take to achieve that goal?

Get offline.
Take advantage of the slump season to spend time with family and friends, those who are often neglected by us when we’re up to our eyes in work.

And if you just can’t stand not feeling productive, schedule coffee or drinks with colleagues you’ve been meaning to see.

Getting away from the computer for a while is really restorative.

What do you do during the holiday slump season? Share your tips below.

Why rejection just might be good for you & other lessons I’ve learned this week

Of nine pitches I’ve sent out this week, I’ve received three rejections (the remaining six pitches haven’t had a response yet).*

I don’t like rejections, of course, but all three of these made sense:

-Rejection One:   The editor liked the idea but the particular department I was pitching within the magazine is about to be eliminated.

-Rejection Two:    The editor thought the idea was a bit too hyperlocal.

-Rejection Three:   The editor thought the idea was too specific.

As several friends and colleagues have recently noted, rejection is vastly preferred over the silent treatment, so the very fact that I received a response was enough to make me satisfied. I could rework my pitches and move on. But in two of the three cases, the editors went a step further, really taking time to interact with me in a meaningful and helpful way. One of the editors, with whom I’d worked before, told me that he knew the quality of my work and that even though this piece wasn’t a good fit, he remained open to me vetting other ideas.

The third editor, who I was querying for the first time, parsed my pitch in a way that helped me understand something about my own idea that I hadn’t quite realized before. We went through a couple rounds of email before he decided that the story wasn’t quite the right fit for his magazine, but the process was extremely valuable and I really appreciated the time he took to talk through ideas. I know that his insight will make my trip back to the drawing board both easier and more productive.

The take-away? Rejection is disappointing, but sometimes it can solidify your relationship with an editor and, in the process, help you clarify your own story ideas. Can you take their feedback gracefully and gratefully? Try it- you’ll be all the better for it.

*

The other take-away lesson of this week is something that contests my long-held belief that you should never pitch on a weekend (and that includes Friday). For the longest time, I thought Fridays were unproductive days for editors. I also followed the advice of writers with more experience, who suggested it wasn’t wise to pitch on the weekend or at some odd hour of the night (truth be told, that’s my most productive time, as everyone’s asleep and I have limited distractions).

Lately, I’ve been looking at my pitch and reply patterns, though, and an interesting trend has emerged. I’m getting far more replies on Fridays and weekends than I am on the pitches I send out on Tuesday or Wednesday, which I once thought were the best days to pitch.

There’s no science to this, of course, and my experience is exactly that– my experience. It may not be similar to yours and just because I’m getting responses at these “odd” times may not mean that the same would be true for you if you suddenly switched from early/mid-week pitching. But the take-away for me is that I don’t have to hold off on pitching until the supposedly “good” moment. When the pitch is solid and well-crafted, I’m going to fire it out of my writer’s cannon, regardless of the day or time.

 

What lessons have you learned from pitching lately? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. 

*In terms of response time, one week is really good (and two of the three rejections were received the same day I sent out my pitch), so the six no-replies don’t concern me yet.

 

Pitches that worked: Guantanamo Bay research story for DISCOVER Magazine

Months ago, in response to my post “The long tail of the writer’s pitch,” Simone Gorrindo (herself a very gifted writer) left a comment asking if I’d be willing to share a pitch that worked.

I said I would… it’s only taken me 8 months to get around to doing it.

My piece about scientific research at Guantanamo Bay was published by DISCOVER Magazine’s online division last week, so it seemed like a good time to dig up the original pitch, and talk a bit about the conversation that ensued with the editor that led to the final piece, which can be seen here.

Before I lay out the pitch, I want to mention that I specifically decided to query DISCOVER’s web editor rather than the print magazine editor; the idea I had in mind seemed to fit better within the web departments, and I suspected that it would be easier to break in as a freelancer with limited science credentials through the website (which tends to have shorter articles) than in the print magazine. *PITCHING COMPANION SITES OF PRINT MAGAZINES IS AN EXCELLENT WAY TO WORK TOWARD SEEING YOUR BYLINE IN PRINT. Many print magazines have companion sites that publish original content separate from or in addition to the digitized versions of articles that appear in the print mags.*

Here’s the pitch, which I sent on June 18:

Hi, Amos-

In October 2008, I traveled to the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to visit the controversial facility where alleged terrorists have been detained in America’s “War on Terror”. One of the few journalists given access to the facility in 2008, my intention was to interview administrators, guards, and other civilian employees about detention policies and their own experiences at Guantanamo. Though I did conduct numerous interviews on this subject, I quickly identified two categories of narratives I hadn’t expected to hear: the stories of immigrant civilian employees on the base doing work ranging from food service management to land mine clearing, and the stories of researchers conducting scientific studies on the base.
Because of its relative isolation, Guantanamo Bay is, according to numerous experts I’ve interviewed, one of the most pristine marine and terrestrial habitats in the world, and offers unparalleled opportunities for scientific study in disciplines as diverse as herpetology, paleontology, and botany. Its natural environment also offers opportunities for military personnel, including exceptional recreational snorkeling and SCUBA diving, as well as serving as a site for physical rehabilitation of soldiers injured in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I am interested in writing an article for Discover’s website about the research that is being conducted on the base by American scientists. I have ongoing access to herpetologists, paleontologists, and botanists who continue to conduct their research in spite of the uncertain future of the base. Having researched this topic, I can say with confidence that little has been published about scientific work at Guantanamo outside of academic journals and institutional newsletters. Nevertheless, the subject is compelling, the work is significant, and the research itself indicates how the complexity of the base has been reduced to a single aspect of activity, albeit an important one.
Photos are available to accompany the article.
Thank you in advance for your consideration,
Julie Schwietert Collazo

The editor to whom this pitch was addressed forwarded it to the specific editor who handles the website, who replied to me within five days of my initial email. It was that editor who expressed interest and suggested that the topic be presented as a photo essay. I’d shot enough photos while at Guantanamo Bay to support the number she required for a photo essay– 8-10–though I ultimately supplemented my own shots with a couple shots from sources (including the amazing 1909 photograph from the New York Botanical Garden) and one shot from a contact I’d made while on the base and with whom I have stayed in touch. I told the editor I liked the idea of the photo essay, and she set a deadline of three weeks. I filed the piece on July 16, and it ran on August 6. This is the other benefit of publishing on the companion site of a print publication; you’ll often see your work published more quickly.

As I already mentioned in an earlier post, this assignment was a thrill–and not just because of the byline. I was truly stoked by the scientists I interviewed for this piece, and the assignment has definitely amped up my interest in science-related topics.

I’m happy to answer any questions about this pitch. If you’d like to “workshop” one of your own pitches, please feel free to email me at writingjulie[at]gmail[dot]com, and I’ll feature you in a future post.