I’ve been working as a journalist for five years. In that time, I have
learned just enough to fill a 90 minute talk, which is lucky, because
I’d agreed to give a 90 minute talk to journalism students at the
University of Cardiff last week. I spoke without notes, and a lot of the
most interesting stuff came out of questions at the end rather than my
main talk, so this write-up is a patched together version of the advice
I’d like to give to young writers. Following this won’t necessarily make
you successful (you can ask to see my bank statement if you’d like to
gauge exactly how successful it’s made me) but it will help you avoid
some of the stupider mistakes I’ve made.
Rejection is part of the process, so pitch a lot
When I started freelancing, I would send in timorous pitches with
extensive hedging and a lot of information about my CV. Hey, I didn’t
want to look cocky by making my idea too obvious. Then I would wait, and
fret, and chew my hands, and go from having great hopes for this idea
to utter despair, all without ever knowing if my email had been opened
by an editor.
Here is what you need to know about editors: most of them are busy.
They get a lot of emails, and don’t always have the time to respond with
detailed feedback on how you can improve your pitching technique, so
present your idea clearly and directly. They don’t want your CV, they
want your idea. Make sure you’re sending your pitches to the right
person: the editor who can commission you might not be the most famous
name in that office, but they’re the most important person to you. If
you’re not sure who deals with commissioning for the section you’re
interested in, ring the office and ask.
There are plenty of reasons why your idea might not get picked up,
and most of them have nothing to do with the quality of your pitch. Your
brilliant idea might be so good that the editor has already
commissioned it from someone else. You might be pitching the day after
that magazine’s biannual features meeting, and they’ve got everything
they need for the next six months. Maybe you’ve got a wicked idea about
romcoms, and the magazine you’re pitching to is organising a themed
Luck plays a big part in the success of your pitches when you’re
starting out, so play the numbers: once you’ve got an idea, think about
how it could be packaged for many different titles, and pitch it to all
of them accordingly. No title owns your pitch until they’ve commissioned
it, so if two titles are interested in similar takes, you get to choose
which one you write for – pitching isn’t about passively skirting the
ballroom floor, waiting for your dance card to be marked.
Decide who you are and what you can do
I have asked for, and received, loads of advice as I’ve pursued a
career as a writer. It’s worth mentioning that my ambitions are towards a
specific kind of writing: when I was a kid, I used to splay my parents’
Observer across the living room floor each weekend, crawl over the
comment pages and think, “I want to be one of you guys.” I want to write
columns with my face at the top, and I want to write novels with my
face on the dustjacket. Modesty is a rare virtue in writers. You’ll need
a sturdy chunk of ego to shoulder the rejection discussed above, and if
you don’t get that rejection, your high opinion of yourself will have
been confirmed anyway. Sorry. There isn’t really a way round it.
Anyway, the best piece of advice I ever received came from Times
columnist David Aaronovitch, who very kindly had a coffee with me and
answered all sorts of idiot questions. This was his advice: “Decide who
you are, and what you can do that no one else can.” Who you are means
fixing on a character for your writing. In all likelihood, that
character is going to be a lot like your actual character, because going
Stanislavsky every time you sit down to write a column is a bit of a
pain in the arse. My character, suggested Aaronovitch, was “warm. An old
young-person.” I stopped trying to carry myself like a hardy old cynic,
and worked my way into a voice that flowed more naturally from the
observations I make.
As for what I can do, I found that a bit trickier. At the time I
started working in journalism, I’d bailed out of a stillborn academic
career in English literature, and the only thing I thought I knew about
was George Eliot. This did not seem like a very promising lens through
which to view the world. But it turned out that what I am good at is
close reading: looking at words and weaselling out their buried meaning,
trying to understand better.
Lots of my most successful columns start from a small noticing that
opens up a way of looking at something. It’s not quite as impressive as
being an economist or gay dad of a blended surrogate family or
something, but it’s my thing and goddammit I can do it. (By the way,
when I thanked Aaronovitch for his time, he said, “Well, if you’re a
success, I might get some sort of public credit for helping you.” See?
Writers: ego-y, in the nicest possible way.)
Hurrah! Your brilliant pitch has been picked up by an editor. They’d
love you to write it for them, but – oh dear, this is embarrassing –
they don’t have the budget to pay you. Would you like to do it for free?
After all, you’ll get a byline and a link to your blog, so there’s
exposure to be had and you’re building a relationship with an esteemed
Let me answer this for you: no, you would not like to work for free.
If this title doesn’t have the budget to pay you now, they won’t find
the budget to pay you in the future. Remember, if there are ads on a
website, someone is making some money from it: if none of that is
trickling down to you, you are being had.
There are exceptions, of course. Perhaps you’re not a writer by
trade, but a campaigner or a PR hawking something or a person with a TV
show to promote: for you, exposure may be recompense enough. Or perhaps
you’re a writer at the start of your career, and this unpaid copy is
part of a work experience stint in which you’re receiving detailed
advice and feedback. That’s OK too. Or you’re writing for a blog rather
than a revenue-turning title (but in this case, consider trying your
idea on someone who can pay you first).
Don’t let any editor guilt you by saying, “No one really knows how to
make money on the internet,” or something similar. It’s not your job to
work out how to make money on the internet, it’s their job (or more
accurately, their publisher or business manager’s job) – your job is to
write, and you should get paid for that. If none of us are getting paid,
then we’ll all just have to go and get different jobs, won’t we?
I should add that I have supplied copy without the expectation of
payment, once: after publication, when the piece had obviously been
quite successful, I went back to the editor and negotiated a fee for the
work. I got my money, but it was a dicey strategy and not one I would
recommend. If you want to write for a living, you must focus on the
making a living part as much as on the writing. If there’s one thing I’d
like to impress on young writers more than anything, it’s that.
One more thing
You’re about to embark on one of the most radically sedentary careers
known to humanity. Your working day will involve mostly sitting down,
with the odd exertion when you need something from the kitchen. For the
love of God, before you wake up one day in your mid-20s and realise
you’ve become a grey-faced, wheezing beanbag, take up some kind of
- Robin Whitlock
- Weston Super Mare, Somerset, United Kingdom
- Hello and welcome to my blog. My name is Robin Whitlock. I am a freelance journalist with a special interest in environmental issues and renewable energy. I have numerous published articles to my credit and write regularly for a number of renewable energy websites. I am also a writer for Renewable Energy Magazine and a sub-editor for Renewable Energy Focus. I am currently based in Bristol, UK. Besides renewable energy and green issues I have a wide variety of other interests which includes World War 2, mythology and folklore, gardening, railways and lots more besides. You can also reach me on either of my two email addresses, which are: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com Thanks!
Hire Me!! - Freelance Journalist specializing in environmental issues and renewable energy
Writer for Renewable Energy Magazine
Sub-editor for Renewable Energy Focus
Contributor to Holmes Digital Media websites (Solar Guide, Renewables Guide, Boiler Guide, Builder Guide)
Contributor to Cleversolar blog and Find Energy Savings
Published in numerous national magazines
See below for writing samples