What I've Learned From 1 Year in Freelance Journalism ✍️✨
my guide to freelancing, pitching, writing & more - welcome back to The Slush Pile!
Welcome one and all to Issue 03 of The Slush Pile! I hope y’all had an amazing Valentine’s Day yesterday if you celebrated and that your February’s are going well. It came to my attention recently that the first pitch I got accepted by an established magazine was published as full article on January 19, 2021, and that the first time I got paid for an article was published on February 2, 2021, which means I have been in the freelance journalism game for over a year - and I forgot to celebrate the anniversary! That’s what this newsletter is all about this month: how I first got into freelancing, what I’ve learned during my time in this industry, and what else I hope to accomplish moving forward into my second year.
I won’t lie to y’all; from a young age, I considered journalism a rather sleazy profession, probably because I grew up in the height of the 2000s teen magazine era. Back when Teen Vogue was publishing Would-He-Date-You quizzes, when J-14 came with those removable, unfoldable posters and the latest tabloid celebrity gossip we poured over at sleepovers (they still do but I doubt anyone reads it these days). Since then, I’ve continued to witness journalism failing its readers and the integrity of the job, from misleading headlines crafted solely for clicks, to reporting strategies that invade people’s privacy and personal life.
But I’ve also seen how journalism is an intricate collection of genres within itself - listicles, personal essays, interviews, reviews, think pieces, etc. that can appear in print, online, and/or TV - as well as the wideness of its reach, effectiveness as an outlet for personal expression, and potential for change. And really, it was seeing other amazing freelancers like my friend and brilliant music journalist Danielle Chelosky publish their work that made me believe I could do the same, just in my own way.
So back in 2020, I realized that I had something to say that wouldn’t suffice in any other medium, and began my journey as a journalist at my alma mater’s newspaper The Phoenix. But whether it was an album review of Ariana Grande’s then-just released album Positions or a student spotlight to expose both the joys and struggles of studying abroad during a pandemic, it was a given that my pitch would be accepted. If I wanted to enter and succeed in the world of freelancing, I had to learn how to share my idea knowing it could be rejected, how to make others care, where best to place it, and how to get paid (most of the time).
Where & How to Pitch
Oftentimes, the pitch is just as important as who you pitch it to. When I started pitching formally, I first set my sights on Unpublished Magazine, an outlet I gravitated towards because of its respected reputation and young adult aesthetic, writers, readers, topics, and team. Yet it wasn’t the first or second or even third pitch that got accepted but the fourth: a think piece about what President Biden owes to the Latinx community during his term and why. Compared to this one, all my other ideas had been 1) too specific to fill the magazine’s 600-word minimum, 2) not related to or in line with what they had previously published, and 3) not timely or relevant enough to their readership, let alone anyone else’s.
The next month, I was lucky enough to have the perfect outlet fall into my lap when they called for pitch submissions on Twitter: LatinaMedia.Co. With the exception of a few, all of my pitches have been accepted there because I’ve learned: 1) how to pitch with a specific angle in mind, 2) what they’re most likely to publish according to their manifesto and frequently published topics, 3) how to explain why I’m the one to write the article, 3) how to stay in tune with what’s culturally relevant, and 4) how to pitch ahead of time so the article’s published at its most timely.
Of course, this isn’t to say to pitch what’s most popular or what’ll get the most clicks just so you get published. Instead, craft an idea with what’s most important to you in a given moment and tailor it to the magazine. If they say no, keep pitching to others until you get a yes.
So when looking for outlets to pitch your ideas to, it’s so important to:
read a few articles (or at least glance at their headlines) to get an overview of what topics and sub-genres they’re interested in publishing
look at their pitching guidelines to see if they want a pitch or a full article and where they want the pitch sent to, along with their word count requirements and pay opportunities
NOTE: if you’re looking to get paid, only pitch to outlets that explicitly state their pay rates either on their social media or website. And be vigilant and knowledgeable about payment! Send an invoice right away if they ask for one and don’t be afraid to follow up if a lengthy amount of time goes by - as long as you’re professional about it!
check their page to get a feel for their vibe and see if it would be a strong fit for you and a good home for your work - what is it about this magazine or outlet that calls you?
Once you’ve picked one or a few outlets you like, it’s time to pitch! There are a million and one articles out there about how to craft the perfect pitch, as it truly is an art form. But based on my experience, here’s what I’ve found works for me:
briefly introduce yourself in a way that’s a little different from your third-person bio. Be friendly and excited, but professional! Say: Where are you based? What do you like to write? How did you find the magazine? If it’s your first time pitching, say so!
explain the idea in no more than a paragraph. Editors are busy so be sure to grab them from the first sentence! Say: Why are you the one to write this article? What experiences led you to this road of thinking? Why would this be a perfect fit for the magazine (if you cite similar/comparative articles they’ve published, explain how your take is different!)? End with a headline suggestion or two - help them envision the article before you’ve even written it!
include a shortened version of your third-person bio
thank the editor for the opportunity to pitch and that you look forward to hopefully working together on the piece
Putting yourself out there in any capacity can be really intimidating, let alone with an idea that you care deeply about. But over the course of the year, after all I’ve learned and experienced, I’ve found that there are few things more rewarding than sharing my voice in the medium I love best - through the written word.
And here’s a fun numbers game: since I sent my initial first pitch to Unpublished Magazine back in January 2021, I’ve written and published 23 articles, with 5 forthcoming within the next month - just counting that outlet alone.
From the Seed of an Idea into a Published Piece
Just as there’s no one right way to live, there’s no one right way to write. Whether in a journal or on your laptop, the important thing is that you write.
For me, given the lengthy nature of many of my pieces, I do all my freelance work on my desktop or laptop. Something that I’ve found helpful for me is taking notes on a document separate from the one I’ll write my article on, which can take many forms depending on what I’m writing. If it’s a trending news piece, I’ll compile a list of quotes with names, the most important pockets of info, and keywords that I’ll know I use to link back to other articles on the media outlet I’m writing for. If it’s an interview, that’s where I’ll have my questions and relevant info from the press release if I received one. For reviews and opinion pieces, it’ll be a place to dump all my fragments of thoughts and ideas, including opening and closing sentences, and headlines. But for every piece, it’s where I’ll always save the original pitch so I can remember the thesis/question I want to return to and watch as the article in the second document stays true, or in some cases, evolves and changes.
Once I have the full piece ready to go, I send it off to the editor and for me anyway, that’s where the real magic begins. So many of the pieces I write are just huge rants I need to get off my chest and it’s the editor’s job to condense and cut, rearrange and perfect. Even though every piece is in a way a part of me, it’s important not to get so attached that I reject their suggestions outright. Not only do they know what they’re doing more than me, but they’re also able to look at work with an unbiased eye that is critical to making it the best it can be. So be open to change, even if it scares you! Because once I see my work on the big (computer) screen, all my worries go away to make room for the re-reading and marveling and sharing and celebrating.
An Editor & You
Hands down, one of the most important things I’ve learned in my time so far as a freelancer has not been to aim for the most popular outlets like the LA Times or Huffington Post (but we’ll get to that more in a moment) or write only what’s most trending but to build relationships with editors.
I’ve been able to return to the same outlets for my pieces time and time again, get extensions on deadlines, be offered bigger opportunities like attending movie premieres/concerts and running exclusive interviews, and even get requests to write about certain topics because editors get to know my work and work ethic and productivity habits, what I like to write, and what will be both relevant and perfect for my strengths. It’s not so much about the name of the media outlet as it is about producing good work and not having to re-introduce yourself in an email every time you have an idea.
Think of it this way: an editor who knows you and your work, even if their outlet is small, is 100x more valuable than an editor at a well-known outlet who doesn’t.
Moving On & Looking Forward
That said, there’s no shame in wanting to see your bylines in big places like The New Yorker or The LA Times if it works for your piece. I have ideas for several investigative journalism pieces that just wouldn’t work for the outlets I’m writing for now. But because of the nature of those big-name sites, I have to be prepared to wait a little longer at every stage of the process, from the editor accepting the pitch to seeing it published on the website. Right now, I can get an article written and published on the same day - places like The NY Times can take months.
It’s definitely on my bucket list to see my name printed in places like that. It’s important to remember, however, that hierarchies and ego exist in this industry as well as white-centrism, all of which dictate so much of whose stories matter most. I enjoy this job but I don’t even know if I want to do journalism forever or if it’s only my meal ticket until my creative work kicks off full-time.
For now, I’m happy right where I am. Writing what most excites me in a day, reading and re-reading my published words in places I love by editors I admire even more, seeing readers resonate with my work online - that’s what keeps me going. I’m beyond lucky to do the job that I do, and I surely hope, even if I leave it someday, that I never forget it.
notes from the writer’s desk ✍️
my favorite recently pub’d pieces:
The New Voice of Gen-Z: Lexi Jayde Live at the Fonda, Unpublished Magazine
Q+A With Crystal Maldonado, Author of 'No Filter and Other Lies', LatinaMedia.Co
At the beginning of the month, I finally returned from my UTV writing residency in Tepoztlán, Mexico! I miss the city so much already but it was time for me to return home to the States. Talk about homesickness!
I’ve also resumed my work as a digital content coordinator for WriteGirl, a non-profit right here in LA dedicated to uplifting the voices of girls and nonbinary teens (aged 13-18) through writing workshops and empowerment opportunities, all entirely online. If you or someone you know is interested in joining or volunteering, learn more here!
Later this month, I’ll be leading a poetry workshop around the theme of love in collaboration with Unpublished Magazine! Keep an eye on my social media channels for full details and Zoom link <3
Because you made it this far, I’m including a link to an exclusive spreadsheet I made of places you might consider pitching to and writing for, with links, notes on pay if applicable, and the genre(s) each one publishes
If you identify as BIPOC, follow @WritersOfColor on Twitter to receive notifications about job listings in publishing and pitch + submission opportunities with explicit pay rates
For all writers, check out Poets & Writers for a much lengthier list of opportunities for employment and submissions
Subscribe to Notes From Eva, a newsletter from writer Eva Recinos with grant and scholarship opportunities, contests, fellowships, etc.
NOTE: Like this newsletter issue, these resources are by no means exhaustive but hopefully are a helpful starting place!
other stories i’m loving 📖
Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez
Season 1 of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody
currently listening to:
teenage diary (album) by Lexi Jayde
all my love,