How to Craft a Freelance Pitch and Get Your First Byline

Unfortunately, there's no "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" guide to freelance writing.

Succeeding as a freelance writer — particularly in the fashion and beauty sphere — takes talent, perseverance and, yes, trying. It's possible to do so without real connections or mentorship, but you do need some knowledge on how to land a pitch.

If you believe you've got the passion, creativity and writing chops, allow us to guide you through the rest, starting with: how to craft a pitch and get your first byline.

How to catch an editor's eye

Let's begin with some tough love: A clever idea is useless if it isn't presented in a well-crafted pitch. We shudder to think of the graveyard of incredible stories that never got written, all because the writer didn't send a strong enough pitch to catch the eye of a potential editor.

Irina Grechko, fashion director at Refinery29, has a valuable checklist of essentials: "A freelance pitch that catches my eye has three things: (1) a strong headline, (2) a succinct thesis/angle of the story and (3) a list of sources that the writer wants to consult for the piece, should it be accepted."

Indeed, the subject line of your email should have a little more spice than just "Pitch Request" or (shudder) "Quick Question." "If the headline of a pitch caught my eye, I'm going to think that it's likely to be compelling enough for a reader to click on, so spend some time thinking about it and what would make you want to read the story as a reader," Grechko says.

"I've received a lot of pitches with no body text or subject line, which isn't a deal-breaker, but it does give an unprofessional feel," shares Kelsey Stiegman, senior fashion editor at Bustle. A truly great pitch, she says, is "short, sweet and to the point, but also professional."

"As long as your pitch answers the five journalistic Ws — who, what, when, where and why — and has an angle that hasn't been covered before, you don't need more than a few sentences or a short paragraph to make a case for it being a great article," Grechko adds.

What information to include in your pitch

Brainstorming an e-mail subject line and working headline (or hed) is an essential first step. From there, draft a few sentences keeping Grechko's aforementioned five journalistic Ws in mind: what is the story about, and who are your sources.

"I especially appreciate when the writer explains who they'd interview, if it's a reported piece," Stiegman says. "It gives me confidence that they have the industry connections needed to create the story."

"When" and "where" come next. This is the point at which you must decide whether your story is timely or evergreen: Timely stories relate directly to trending topics happening right now, while evergreen stories are eternally relevant. For example, Sofia Richie's wedding wardrobe recap might be timely during the week of her marriage (and would feel too late for most publications after that), while a deep dive into Old Money aesthetics and quiet luxury brands leans more evergreen.

Finally, the "why", which I'd argue is a two-parter. The first is why you think the story is worth telling, and why you believe it would appeal to the publication's audience. The second is why you're the perfect writer for the job, whether that's expertise in the field, a connection to sources who will strengthen the piece or simply a deep passion for the subject matter. Whatever your "why" may be, it's on you to prove it to the editor in a few concise sentences.

What to consider when pitching

With this, it's important to bear in mind that editors often have a small budget to divvy amongst freelancers, as well as a slew of on-staff writers that can tackle assignments at no cost to the editor. When making a case for your story, your goal should be to convince the editor that it's a story worth paying for — so don't expect to land a pitch if you're sending through uninspired ideas.

It wouldn't be realistic for us to talk about pitching without acknowledging the very real disappointment that comes with not landing a pitch you feel confident in. Oftentimes, there's a reason completely separate from the strength of your pitch: Perhaps multiple writers are pitching the same type of story; sometimes, it's the kind of thing an editor would assign in-house. It can even come down to the publication already having too many pieces on a similar topic.

To give your pitch a fighting chance, you have to do your research on whether or not your topic has been covered by a particular publication — and if it has, ensure your angle feels fresh and different. Adding in specifics and sources is a great way to make your pitch stand out. Referring back to the Sofia Richie wedding wardrobe angle, a generic roundup is significantly less likely to get picked up than an interview with the designers behind her looks, or a chat with bridal stylists detailing how her wardrobe sparked new trends in the wedding world.

"I always pass on generic pitches," says Stiegman. "For example, I'm not likely to assign 'fall fashion trends' to a freelancer — that's something most editors would do in-house with their own team… The freelance pitches that really stand out to me are really personal stories about a person's relationship with fashion."

You also want to do research on the publication you're pitching. Seventeen, which is aimed at younger readers, isn't likely to accept your roundup of "The Best Glowy Foundations for Mature Skin," while a title with luxury advertisers might not be as inclined to run your story damning said specific luxury brands' money-hungry CEOs.

While it's essential to ensure your pitch is on-brand, be sure it isn't on-brand to the point of already being done before by the very publication you're trying to pitch. Not only does this demonstrate a lack of creativity, it also feels unprofessional.

"It always makes me question a writer's thoroughness if they pitched me something Refinery29 already published," says Grechko. "Even if you don't read the publication you're pitching daily, it's so easy to Google and see if they touched the subject in any way. My thought process is: If a writer doesn't do their due diligence when pitching, why would they when reporting a story?"

How to format your pitch e-mails

If you're looking to land a particularly timely piece, sending it out as a solo pitch (i.e. it's the only story in the e-mail) to an editor is likely best. However, if you're focusing primarily on evergreen topics, you can send a handful of pitches at once, with three to five as an appropriate max.

"[Pitching multiple stories at once] makes it easier for editors to see what the writer likes to focus on and open up a conversation," says Grechko, who notes this can even lead to editors assigning stories based on what they perceive the writer to be a good fit for.

Add a line clarifying the intended format (Is it a Q&A? A reported feature? A styling story with imagery? A first-person essay? A shoppable roundup?) and a desired payment rate and turnaround time (i.e. when you could file a first draft). Last but not least, Stiegman and Grechko both agree that including a bit of information about you makes a cold email feel more personal.

"Always include links to your previous work (or clips) and note which publications you've written for," says Stiegman. "It's certainly reassuring to see a writer has been published elsewhere, because any time you're working with someone new, without a personal reference, it's a risk. You never know if they're a good writer or if they just had a good editor who spent hours correcting their copy. Listing experience also offers the opportunity to reach out to previous editors for a reference. A good reference from another editor basically makes you a sure thing."

If you're working to secure your very first byline, use this space to detail yourself in ways that legitimize your knowledge beyond bylines, be it what you studied in school, what field you work in or any other relevant experience that might deem you a good fit to write the story.

"Not having any [past bylines] has never prevented me from assigning a story if the pitch was very strong or the writer came recommended," shares Grechko.

So, let's take Stiegman's earliest example of a generic pitch and brainstorm a few ways it could been personalized: Instead of "The Five Biggest Fall Fashion Trends to Shop Now," you could instead try...

  • "I Styled Fall's Biggest Fashion Trends, and These Got Me the Most Compliments," in which the writer creates shoppable outfits based on runway and social media fashion trends, photographs themselves in them and shares insight into the experience of wearing them out.

  • "Wear-Tested: Three Fall Boot Trends That Are Wide-Calf Approved," in which a writer reviews and styles multiple pairs of these wide-calf footwear styles in trending fall silhouettes, from the POV of someone with wide calves.

  • "Fall's 'Blokecore' Trend Has an Unexpectedly Sporty Fashion History," in which a writer interviews experts, such as fashion historians, about the blokecore trend's roots and its evolution.

  • "A Minimalist Dresser Takes On Fall's Most Maximalist Trends," in which a writer styles shoppable ensembles that are a departure from their usual wardrobe, perhaps with input from a stylist.

  • "I Asked Celebrity Stylists Their Fall Fashion Essentials," in which a writer interviews celebrity stylists about their shopping picks for the season, and shares their product recommendations.

All it takes is a personal angling or a unique perspective to upgrade an evergreen topic to a story worth telling.

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