If you fancy pitching an idea to a newspaper or magazine, here are a few pointers.
Selling your idea
Some people prefer to phone the features desk, but I find that harassed and overworked editors (yes they are – really!) are less likely to give you a commission that way. If they have to make a snap decision it’s far more likely to be a ‘no’. Find out their email address. Don’t send your precious idea to editorial@blah, even if that’s the ‘contact’ address given. It’s not hard to find out the features editor’s name. Always send your idea to a person.
Take a quick look at the magazine you’re trying to sell your idea to. You don’t have to read it from cover to cover but you do need an idea of the demographic (age range of the reader), and tailor your idea accordingly. Suppose you want to write about the size zero debate? For Heat magazine which is heavily celebrity led, (duh) and aimed at roughly 18 – 35 year olds you could take the ‘Are skinny celebs responsible’ angle but for Good Housekeeping which is aimed at older readers (sorry, middle youth), you could tap into the fears of mothers, worrying about the pressures to be skinny that their daughters face. Work out the demographic and angle your piece accordingly.
Write your email. Keep the pitch short – down to a paragraph. Say you want to write a piece about the size zero debate and that you will cover x, y, and z points. Don’t blah on and on. With most pieces you will also need an ‘expert’ point of view. So with size zero, depending on your angle you might need to get a quote from an eating disorders expert. Don’t worry about that for now. Just mention in your pitch that you’ll be talking to an expert.
Second paragraph, do a short cv. Mention any other magazines or newspapers you’ve written for. Don’t attach a cv – features editors couldn’t give a stuff how many GCSE’s you’ve got. Don’t forget to add a contact number.
Suppose you’ve been commissioned? The next thing is to make sure you’re both on the same page. Once you get to know a commissioning editor and he or she trusts your style you can be more casual about it, but in the beginning, get it all in writing. The reason for this is two-fold.
If the commissioning editor isn’t crystal clear about what he or she wants, they won’t be happy with what you deliver.
And then it will be easier for them to refuse to pay your or offer you a crap kill fee.
Let me explain. I was once commissioned to write an article. We had an email exchange. I expanded my original idea and planned out my article. I then sent it to the editor saying ‘This is what I’m going to write about, is this ok with you?’ so she was clear about the tone and the direction of my piece. She agreed with it and off I went to write it. When I submitted the piece though, the editor phoned me up and said she wasn’t happy with it, but she couldn’t tell me why. I offered to rewrite it but she said that wouldn’t help. I pointed out she’d been happy with the plan of the feature I’d sent her and in my feature I hadn’t deviated from it. We had a very awkward conversation but she agreed to pay my full fee. Not just because she was being nice but I had submitted a plan of what I was going to write so if things got nasty she wouldn’t be able to say I had not fulfilled my side of the contract by not writing what I’d said I was going to write.
So be warned. Some magazines send you a very tight brief, which is good. You know exactly what they want: (200 words on x, followed by top tips to avoid y, and two quotes from an expert). Much better than a vague: ‘Ok just write about 1000 words on y’know . . ‘If you get this, then always submit a rough plan, so they know what to expect and you’re covered.
Don’t be intimidated. Most articles have quotes from experts who are usually trying to flog a book at the same time. The British Psychological Society: http://www.bps.org.uk/ has a media centre where psychologists, and other assorted experts are ok about giving quotes, usually in return for a mention of their latest book. Ring the centre and say ‘I’m writing a piece about size zero and I need to talk to someone about eating disorders’. You’ll be furnished with a couple of numbers. Most are incredibly nice. If you are using direct quotes, make sure you’ve got them right. Write them down and repeat them back. It sounds ‘duh’ but nobody wants to be misquoted, or have what they’ve said in good faith, twisted to suit the purposes of your piece.
The National Union of Journalists http://www.nuj.org.uk/ has lots of excellent advice about freelance pay (you don’t have to be a member) and an area where you can see what other freelancers have been paid, so you can compare rates. You have to be quite tough on this, because it’s a universal rule that EVERYONE WILL TRY TO GET YOUR SERVICES AS CHEAPLY AS POSSIBLE. Your fee should cover your research and the fact you’re not getting any full time worker benefits. There is also a good section on copyright.
If a magazine with a circulation of say 300,000 asks you to write a 1000 piece that requires a few days of research, chasing experts for quotes, and offers you £100 you are being roundly ripped off. But for a tiny magazine with a circulation of 5,000 £100 might be seen as quite generous. And remember if you accept really crappy rates, you’re driving down the price for everyone else. Don’t sell yourself short.
Never miss a deadline. Never ever. If someone dies (you) that’s an excuse but that’s about it. Actually, if you think you might miss it, please ring and tell them. Most editors will give you a bit more time if you tell them in advance. The important thing is to give yourself enough time to write the bloody thing. Don’t get all excited at the commission and say ‘I’ll have it done by tomorrow’ if that means you staying up all night, panicking. Especially if this is new to you, give yourself a generous amount of time. It’s far far better to under promise and over deliver.
Again the NUJ has a very good section on what to do if you don’t get paid on time. Make sure when you invoice when you deliver the article and that you’re clear on where and to whom you do invoice. And type in BIG letters ‘Payable within 28 Days’. Most big magazine companies have outsourced their finance section to somewhere aggrieved journos can’t just turn up and scream (Like Peterborough).
If you want some tips on sending radio scripts to the BBC, there's some advice here:
Offering stuff to the BBC