For a journalist having a great idea for a story or feature isn’t always enough. So how do you ensure the commissioning editor opens your email rather than others from her bulging inbox?
Louise Bolotin, one of the tutors on the NUJ’s Get Started as Freelance and Pitch and Deal courses, has a few tips. At an NUJ/Union Learning Fund event in Liverpool, she provided some very practical advice, with examples, to students and seasoned journalists alike.
You have to be able to craft a very good subject line. Keep it to about 160 characters and make it very arresting, like the billboards you see advertising newspapers."
Once the email is opened it is your job to sell the idea and why it should be you who writes it. Again, brevity is essential with well-chosen words, a brief biography and an indication that you have the contacts and case studies to make it an interesting and exciting feature.
Louise gave an example of one of her pitches. She said:
You need to understand the publication, the section it is in, the editorial style and who it is aimed at. I sent a pitch for a ranty opinion piece saying why I hated Bake Off which reflected the style I would be writing it in. The commissioning editor came back to me within minutes and thanks to the way I had set out the pitch, I had written a good part of it already."
Chris Frost, emeritus professor in journalism at John Moore University (JMU) and chair of the NUJ's ethics council, introduced the event by saying journalism is increasingly becoming a freelance trade.
It is not enough to be a talented writer, editor or photographer; to be a successful freelance you need a range of other skills to survive,” he said.
Nick McGowan-Lowe, chair of the NUJ’s freelance industrial council, said:
You need to be able to sack your clients. You have to learn that there is a point when you must walk away - if they are not paying enough or you are not happy with the deal, you have to say no.”
The golden rule for a freelance, he said, is to get it in writing.
Say what you are going to do, agree the rate and the time it will take and then do what you say you are going to do. But even if it is on a napkin, get it in writing,” he said.
Mark Whitehead is a journalist who now works in PR. He said the skills journalists have are all skills that are needed to get work in PR.
We can provide material that is properly written, in the right format for the right audience and we can do it quickly. Companies are beginning to understand that to have the right copy for their websites they need to use a professional.”
Tim Dawson, NUJ vice president and author of “Make ebooks Pay” ( free for NUJ members) believes ebooks are a format that journalists can use easily to self-publish their work and they are ideally suited to the trend of long-form journalism. His book provides a number of case studies showing how journalists have used ebooks to make money and how they used different techniques, such as crowdfunding and social media, to persuade people to finance their work.
Abbie Rooney, Ariane Sohrabi-Shiraz and Ashely Cusick are studying an MA in journalism and international relations at JMU. They were all enthusiastic about the event.
Our course is very theoretical and today we learned really practical information and tips,” said Abbie.
Louise Cahill is an experienced travel writer and freelance journalist, but she said she learned a lot from the sessions. She said:
It was excellent, it made me think about different options and I will certainly be investigating ebooks now.”
Joy Lewis, said:
It is difficult freelancing, there are fewer publications and rates are going down. The day has given me a real boost. It has given me the confidence to value the skills I have and it has been good to meet others and swap notes.”
Kevin Murphy and Johnny Becker are photographers who had just taken redundancy from the CN Group, formerly Cumbrian Newspapers group. Johnny had been a staff photographer for 27 years and they were both looking for advice as their careers took a new turn.
Top tips of the day
- Use LinkedIn to find out who are the commissioning editors. If you notice they have recently updated their entry, watch out they are probably looking to move on.
- Get everything in writing.
- Use networks such as the NUJ to compare information or join forums such as Journobiz
- Work out your day rate by deciding the annual income you are aiming for on the basis that your working year will be 40 weeks (to include holidays and Bank Holidays). Factor in pension and other costs.
- Always keep tabs on the money you have in the bank, in invoices yet to be collected and future commissions.
- If you are pitching on the telephone, stand up while you are speaking and smile.