The Freelance Journalist Starter Kit, Part 1: Getting the Gig

You want to start freelance writing, but you’re not sure where to start? Well, this is the post for you. I’ve gotten a lot of questions this past year about the freelance process and this post is designed to answer them.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to land a pitch every single time (I wish I knew the secret to that). I also assume if you’re here, you already know all the journalism basics about finding stories and AP Style. So let’s skip ahead to the freelance process itself—a process that varies wildly and can often get pretty complicated.

But this series of posts’ goal is to help demystify it in a basic overview of what to expect, so you can concentrate on landing those great pitches, rather than wondering, “How do I make an invoice?” (That’ll be in part 2)

Why should you listen to me? You don’t have to! I’m just trying to help during a time when I know a lot of people are being thrust into freelancing due to job loss and other circumstances due to the pandemic.

I was similarly thrust into freelancing due to a job loss (not during a pandemic, though). I started freelancing in 2012, but made the majority of my income through it in 2014, after I left a job with a toxic workplace. I continued freelancing successfully for four years, then was hired full-time by two of my clients (Bustle in 2018, and Parcast Studios at Spotify in 2020).

So, let’s get started…

Table of Contents

Stay Plugged In & Connected

So which editors are looking for pitches? How do you know? These questions have a simple answer: Check Twitter. It’s not everyone’s favorite app, but it is the media industry’s fave. Editors commonly post calls for pitches there all the time. Make sure you follow Twitter accounts like @WritersofColor to keep up with all the editors who are on the hunt for great stories like yours.

You can also network with the intention of genuinely wanting to learn and get to know people (not just for a gig recommendation). Get connect with other freelancers and that friendly publicist and hear what they’re working on. Take your time making connections.

And be vocal. Tweet about your articles and don’t be shy about self-promotion! Tell your friends and family that you’re taking on new clients. Most of the clients I’ve had came from my own personal network and someone I know recommending me.

Strut Your Stuff in An Online Portfolio

My second biggest client referrer as a freelancer was, unexpectedly, my portfolio website. I learned that people really do use Google to search for freelance writers in [insert your location here]. The power of Google can be on your side.

Make sure your portfolio website has information about you, links to your clips, and any other pertinent information. Also, make sure you write whether or not you’re available for assignments and how you can be contacted—believe me, it makes a difference.

Don’t know HTML or WordPress? No problem! There are so many easy ways to make your web presence known in stylish ways—no advanced knowledge required (see below).

  • Information about you! Education, awards, experience—you name it.
  • Links to clips, work samples, and projects you’re proud of
  • Links to your social media profiles
  • Your resume or a link to your LinkedIn profile
  • Indicate if you’re a freelancer and if you’re currently available for assignment
  • Ways to contact you! You can use a form or, if you’re comfortable, list your email address (just beware of spam)

Do Your Research

You’ve got a great story. You’ve laid the groundwork. Now, it just needs the perfect home. Time to research outlets where you can pitch your story!

Think about the subject, format, and tone of your story. Determine if it’s an essay or it’ll be a reported piece. This will be important once you get to the pitching process.

Next, think about where you’d want this story published—but use a critical eye. Many of us dream of landing a pitch at the New York Times and hey, it’s always worth a shot, but also make sure to give yourself other options. You never know who might be interested.

So research not only your favorite media outlets, but ones that might not have been top of mind. Take a look at Twitter and see which editors have posted calls for pitches. Twitter is a great place to discover new outlets and editors who are just might be the right home for your story.

  • Make a list of your favorite publications—then figure out which ones could be a good fit for this particular story
  • Read, read, read. There are tons of publications out there—go forth and explore them!
  • After picking some publications, look at similar ones and see if they’ll be a good fit, too.
  • Google, of course.
  • Twitter. Check out accounts like @WritersofColor for editor pitch calls.
  • Newsletters. I’ll admit that West Coast Media Jobs doesn’t list as many pitch calls as I would like, but that’s because so many other newsletters are better at it! Subscribe to Study Hall, Mandy Hofmockel’s Journalism Jobs & a Photo of My Dog, Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week, and Tatiana Walk-Morris’ The Freelance Beat.
  • Are the editors taking pitches?
  • What kinds of stories do these publications tend to cover?
  • What are the voice and tone like?
  • Have these outlets covered stories like yours before?
  • How is your story different than what has been previously said about the topic?

Making the Pitch

Here we go…it’s time to finally get all of those thoughts into a pitch! This is a big one. This is what gets you the gig. Craft a well-thought-out, professional pitch. Make sure to include links to past clips you’ve written and a link to your portfolio website. And don’t send a finished draft to the editor unless they requested it.

I think it’s also important to note that pitches can vary, depending on how well you know the editor or what kind of story it is. I’ve landed stories based on well-thought-out pitches, as well as through a smidgen of an idea and a laundry list of random ideas. In my experience, pitching doesn’t always have one exact shape.

Slideshow: The Anatomy of a Pitch