Normally the freelance journalist’s life is an endless cycle of pitching, waiting, scrambling, panicking and pitching again. This year I’ve been spoiled with ongoing engagements with select editorial and corporate clients that have allowed me to mostly avoid pitching panic altogether. I dare say it’s been the best year of my freelance career so far, in terms of both finances and fulfillment, and I hope 2019 continues just the same way.
I love how everything slows down at the end of December anyways (and after being full-time freelance for six years, I know to lean into it and prepare for it rather than fight it). I’ve been looking back at what I’ve accomplished in the past year and thinking about what I want to achieve in the next. Here are some highlights for me from 2018:
My favorite stories I wrote
All of my favorite stories this year appeared in the English edition of Handelsblatt, where I’ve been a freelance editor since last summer. Handelsblatt is Germany’s leading business daily newspaper, and my editor there has given me a lot of room to explore topics interesting to me and other expats:
- The Berlin way of urbanization: This four-part series explores the urbanization and gentrification of Berlin, an endlessly interesting topic. My editor supported my obsession as I over-reported this for six months.
- The German war against drafts: On the other hand, this story I wrote in half a day and received more emails in response than anything else I’ve written all year.
- Fraktur and the psychology of type: In a way I had been preparing my entire life to write this article about the intersection of historical typography and German politics.
- Expats beware: Germany uses dodgy tactics to snatch church tax: My own experience led me to write this story about how Germany’s church tax system confuses expats.
- Why Germany’s two-tier health insurance system is so complicated: And again my own trials with the health insurance system led me to create this guide for expats that includes a flowchart for better decisionmaking.
My favorite stories other people wrote
- The Cut: “Maybe she had so much money she just lost track of it” by Jessica Pressler. Like everybody, I was obsessed with this story about a woman who faked her way into New York society, kicking off the summer of scammers. I still want a Fake German Heiress T-shirt.
- New York Times: “What is Glitter?” by Caity Weaver: This wins the distinction of story I most wish I’d written this year.
- The Atlantic: “The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t” by Rachel Monroe. Another scammer and incredible long-form storytelling.
- The Verge: “Bad Romance” aka Cockygate by Sarah Jeong. This story about algorithm-gaming romance authors on Amazon is thrilling and ridiculous.
- Daily Beast: “How an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monopoly Game and Stole Millions” by Jeff Maysh. I wouldn’t say I’m super into true crime, but this list is sure saying otherwise.
- New York Times: “The Baby Formula Crime Ring” by Chris Pomorski: Once again with the true crime!
- New York Magazine: “Worst Roommate Ever” by William Brennan: True crime and real roommate nightmares!
Assorted other favorite things from 2018
- Bruno Bartlett, the very thicc cat: I was here for Bruno from the moment the Chicago-area animal shelter posted a picture of him standing on his hind legs that went viral. His instagram is one of the best things to come from 2018.
- The raccoon that scaled a skyscraper in St. Paul: A harrowing tale!
- Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Always a delightful show, with extremely crafty costumers and set designers.
- How to F*&@ up an Airport: A four-part podcast from Radio Spätkauf detailing exactly why Berlin can’t have a nice airport.
- Wild Wild Country: I love a good cult story, and in addition to watching the Netflix documentary, I devoured the Oregonian’s original reporting on the Rajneeshees from the 1980s.
The best books I read this year
- John Carreyrou, “Bad Blood“: The true story about the rise and fall of Theranos — yet another addition to the scammer canon.
- Ijeoma Oluo, “So You Want to Talk About Race“: I want every American to read this book.
- Michael Idov, “Dressed up for a Riot“: A very funny memoir about a Russian-American who moves back as an adult to run GQ in Moscow.
- Virginia Eubanks, “Automating Inequality“: Real talk about how algorithms perpetuate existing subconscious bias.
- Camille Perri, “When Katie Met Cassidy“: It’s a romantic comedy about two women, and it’s just begging to be turned into a movie.
What were your favorite things you read this year? Let me know in the comments — I have not yet maxed out my browser tabs.
The earliest sign I was meant to be in magazines came in junior high school. One of the English teachers’ flagship assignments was the magazine project: Each of us had to create (in the pre-computer era) a 24-page magazine on a topic of our choosing with articles and advertising. I made mine a music magazine from 1985.
The cutting and pasting really resonated with me, and I started making a monthly music zine, which I continued for two years, eventually reaching a circulation of about 30, including the school librarian.
When I was home for Christmas, some high school friends brought up Music News and asked if I still had any copies. Oh boy, do I ever. I scanned the whole shebang and post it here for you as an annotated PDF for your enjoyment.
I’d describe Music News as a time capsule of what it was like to like alternative music as a teenage girl in the Cleveland area from 1996 to 1998. It also includes some really bad clip art. But looking at the back issues I’m blown away at how much of a writing voice I already had as a teenager. My punctuation and style have improved, surely, but it still sounds very me. And my taste in music hasn’t changed that much, either. I made a Spotify playlist of the best 1996-1998 jams mentioned in my zine. Hope you like time travel!
And PS: I started making zines again a few years ago. Check ’em out here!
Back when I was a baby freelancer, pitching felt like a mystery. I knew in theory how to write an article pitch, sure, but they were usually half-baked. I usually didn’t know what the what was yet and wanted an editor to tell me what to do.
In the last nearly two years as a full-time freelancer I’ve come to appreciate how much research and tailoring needs to go into a pitch if you want to place an article in a major magazine. Not only do you need to know why you’re pitching the story to a particular editor at a particular magazine, but you need to have a convincing case as to why they should care. This takes a ton of time to prepare, but when all those elements align, you’ll have a much better success rate.
When you’re just starting out as a journalist, it’s also hard to find good examples of successful pitches. So I thought I’d share this recent successful magazine article pitch of mine:
Hi, [editor’s name],
I’m a freelancer here in Cincinnati, and [mutual acquaintance] suggested I get in touch with you about this story I’m working on.
A man trained as a kosher butcher emigrated from Lithuania in 1886 to serve an orthodox Jewish congregation in Cincinnati. Behr Manischewitz eventually became the patriarch of a mechanized matzo empire that led the world in matzo production — and ruffled rabbinical feathers. The family’s history illustrates the story of Jewish life in Cincinnati: Like many Jews, they settled in the West End in the late 1880s and moved to Avondale as they became more affluent in the 20th century. Eventually, the Manischewitz headquarters moved to New Jersey in 1930, and Cincinnati’s matzo fame waned. But Behr and his wife remain buried in Covedale.
I’ve done extensive research on the family in local archives and would love to tell the Manischewitz story for Cincinnati Magazine. There’s a wealth of interesting historical imagery and maps to go with the story, and I have a few ideas for interview subjects.
My writing credits include Wired, HOW, Family Tree Magazine and other national publications. This story could be great for April 2014 to coincide with Passover. What do you think?
- I had already done about three months of research by the time I wrote my pitch.
- This was a cold pitch — I had never worked with Cincinnati Magazine before.
- I sent this pitch in June 2013, proposing it for the April 2014 issue. That might seem excessively early, but I got a call back within a week and sold the story. It was due in January 2014, which gave me even more time to research.
You can read my piece about the Manischewitz family in Cincinnati Magazine’s April 2014 issue.
A consumer packaged goods expert recently divulged to me that she never, ever looks at her competition. That really took me by surprise, because I always over-research everything. (My local branch librarians know all about me and my extensive interlibrary loan requests.)
Instead of looking at the competition, she told me, she examines parallels. What else do people in the target market desire? [Related: this customer profile worksheet from my book.] How can she make the product remind them of those other things, or draw on the best qualities to incorporate into her own design? For a high-end chocolate product, for example, she might look at Sephora’s prestige cosmetics packaging for inspiration. She pays no mind to Hershey and Nestle.
She confirmed what I’ve been thinking lately, that the best ideas come when you’re looking where no one else is. I love trolling through old books and magazines. You might love hiking in the woods or beachcombing or looking at art or gardening or visiting factories. All of these places are rife with things that could inspire you to make something you’ve never made before. Chris Glass refers to this as grazing. Cows do nothing but chew on grass all day. It doesn’t seem like they’re doing much of anything. But if they didn’t graze all day, they couldn’t produce milk. It might not feel like you’re working when you graze, but without taking that time to browse and nibble and ruminate and digest, you can’t make anything of value. This video of Chris Glass’s talk from Creative Mornings Cincinnati (which includes his bit about grazing) is 43 minutes of awesome:
I know a lot of writers, artists and designers who straight up don’t read blogs about their industries. When you spend a lot of time “keeping up” it can start to feel like an echo chamber. There’s a difference between keeping up on the news and falling into a state of obsessed self-flagellation. This is even applicable to journalists. Sure, there are lots of interesting blogs about the journalism business, and it’s important to follow your competitors to make sure your coverage is on point. But staying inside your bubble of contemporaries isn’t going to help you find great story ideas. Lisa Congdon recently illustrated this quote from Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
Hunting down your inspiration should also help with avoiding committing plagiarism and following trends. Craft trends bug the hell out of me. It’s not that I hate mustaches (except that I totally do) — my problem is more with the idea that some crafters feel like they have to jump on a bandwagon to be successful. It’s much better to be a trendsetter than a trend follower, and to do that, you have to look outside your field. If you’re a crafter, stop scrolling endlessly through Pinterest. When you’re trying to develop a new product or design, look at anything other than other crafters: grocery store displays, florists, flea markets, old magazines, architecture books — whatever gets you going.
I also kind of hate pre-packaged “inspiration” for crafters, designers and artists. The idea that someone can hand you a pile of stuff to be inspired by seems counterproductive. It just keeps the same aesthetics and motifs circulating. (I also really really have no patience for step-by-step craft books. Partly because I hate following directions, but also because I don’t see the point in making something to look exactly like something someone else made. You feel me?)
We recently had an Etsy #craftparty here in Cincinnati, and as people were arriving, I made examples of what people could do with the materials we had. But I wasn’t making things for people to imitate or really following the provided instructions at all. I let myself go with the flow and make whatever felt right at the time. Being truly inspired is allowing yourself to be in the moment and do what you feel. And all of what you’ve seen and read and digested before helps you find your way.
Michael James Brody Jr. made the news in January 1970 as he offered to give money from his $25 million fortune to anyone who needed it. Newspapers called him a “hippie angel,” a “giveaway millionaire.” But as the attention grew overwhelming and checks started bouncing, he withdrew from the public eye, resurfacing only occasionally amid legal problems, killing himself three years later in Upstate New York.
When turned 21 on Oct. 31, 1969, Brody got access to his part of a trust fund set up by his grandfather, Chicago oleomargarine millionaire John F. Jelke. Brody had graduated from Butler University that year, where he’d been a member of Phi Delta Theta.
On Jan. 10, 1970, Michael James Brody Jr. — arriving back in New York with his new wife Renee after a honeymoon in Jamaica, for which they’d bought out all the seats of a Pan Am 707 for more than $7,000 — announced he wanted to give away his fortune. He broadcast his phone number and home address and welcomed all comers. By some accounts he was worth $25 million or $26 million or $10 billion; in a report on NBC the fortune was $50 million:
His wife, Renee Brody, says of her husband, “Michael has always had Cadillacs and Corvettes. He thinks everyone should drive them. All he wants is a chicken farm and 13 children.” …
Mr. Brody is seen playing his guitar. After the performance he claims that he is a wizard at the stock market. He kisses his wife then talks about wanting to build a spaceship but says he needs time to “get his organization together.” He then states that he has received millions of dollars in pledges for his “Harlem project.”
Brody said, according to the New York Times:
“Money hasn’t made me satisfied. I wasn’t satisfied until I found Renee. Now I have everything I want — love, fresh air, food. So why shouldn’t I give my money away?”
The New York Times reported on Jan. 11, 1970, that Michael and Renee, married Jan. 3, had met only three weeks before, at Brody’s home in Scarsdale, NY. (The Times reported Renee had sold him hashish.) The Times reported on Jan. 17 that many people were taking Brody up on his offer of free money. Hundreds of telegrams poured in from Western Union; the Scarsdale police said their switchboard was tied up with calls from around the country. Brody opened up an outpost office at 1650 Broadway in New York City.
He is reported to have given $2,500 to a man with mortgage trouble, $1,000 to a taxi driver, $500 to a heroin addict, $100 to a barber who opened a door for him and $100 to a newsboy who sold him a paper — all on Thursday.
But as the flood of money-seekers overwhelmed the office and phone lines, Brody briefly disappeared, and the Scarsdale National Bank and Trust Co. said his accounts didn’t have enough money to cover his checks. Brody’s interactions with the hungry public alternated between “kneeling before them on the sidewalk,” playing his guitar to the crowds and “shouting obscenities,” the Times reported Jan. 18. He shouted at one point in Midtown:
“If you don’t leave me alone, I’ll kill myself and you’ll all die. I need seven days and then I’ll save the world.”
Brody’s estimation of his fortune was grandiose — his father said the inheritance was about $3 million; his uncle said it was less than $1 million. As Brody escaped to Puerto Rico on a charter flight with close friends and a reporter, the needy and the curious stood vigil at his Broadway Avenue office.
Brody was reportedly paid $3,500 to appear on the Ed Sullivan show on Jan. 18, 1970 — alongside June Allyson, Muhammad Ali and Minnie Pearl — and play a Bob Dylan song, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” In this recording of an original song called “The War is Over,” he said all the proceeds from would “go to peace”:
Songs about Vietnam and Nixon weren’t in short supply in 1970, but some of his lyrics are worth noting:
“President Nixon, if you’d seen me in Washington DC last week, we could’ve ended it all
I’m really not a freak, I’m just trying to do my thing and end the war in Vietnam
I’ve no bitterness against you for locking my friends away too
Let your Secret Service kill me if that’s what you want to
Makes no difference, I’ll be reborn in Biafra”
RCA Records signed him on Jan. 21, and newspapers reported his first single might be out by the end of the week:
On one side is the unpublished Bob Dylan song that Brody, 21, sang without any particular distinction on the Ed Sullivan television show last Sunday, accompanying himself on a 12-string guitar he learned to play a few weeks ago. On the other side he sings one of his own songs, “The War is Over.”
Brody mostly fell out of the public eye, until April 21, when the Times reported he was being held temporarily in a Bay Area psychiatric center. At the San Francisco Airport, Brody had claimed he was kidnapped and injected with drugs against his will for a number of days prior. In May, he was arrested on drug charges in New York. He later said much of his conduct was the results of hundreds of doses of LSD. Michael and Renee had a son, Jamie, later in 1970.
In December 1971, Brody was arrested for calling the White House and threatening President Nixon’s life in a series of phone calls.
[US Atty. Randy] Roeder said Brody first called the White House Sunday and said he was coming to Washington on Christmas and burn himself as a form of protest.
He repeated this call Monday, according to Roeder, and gave the Secret Service agent on duty the telephone number he was calling from.
Secret Service agents went to the South Norwalk, CT, home where Brody was staying to talk to him. Then, Thursday, Dec. 23, 1971, he called the White House three times.
First he said he had called off the self-immolation, then he said he was just going going to burn his thumbs, and it was during the third call that he made the threat on the President’s life, according to Roeder.
Roeder quoted part of Brody’s final conversation as, “This is Michael James Brody, I’m going to kill President Nixon tonight … don’t bother to come and get me because I’ll be gone.”
He was arrested two hours later, and released later Thursday on a $10,000 bond. But hours after being released from jail, the home he was living in with his sister in burned to the ground. Police found him sitting on the front lawn, and he was arrested and held on a $100,000 bond.
The next time Brody appeared in the New York Times was July 1972 — Roeder said he was going to ask for a dismissal of the charges of threatening the president. Brody had been in psychiatric care since December, according to his lawyer.
Michael James Brody shot himself on Jan. 26, 1973 — 40 years ago today — in the home of his father-in-law Robert Dubois in Shokan, NY. Newspapers reported he was separated from Renee the previous year. The Village Voice reported rumors that he’d been talking about suicide for months before the final act.
All that exists of Michael James Brody Jr. online, aside from copious newspaper articles in archives, is a tribute website with fewer than 50 views and a YouTube channel with the one video and similarly few views. I only found out about the story from this tiny item in a 1970 encyclopedia supplement:
In a 1991 New York Magazine article, his former wife, Renee, said:
“It’s so hard to believe that we all lived through that. My attraction to Michael was almost supernatural. I really felt as if it were destiny — that we were meant to live through these things. … It was a very idealistic time for America. It seemed like a great idea to give away all his money. At least in theory.”
While I was on my crafty book tour, I took a brief detour between Pittsburgh and Cleveland to talk to Jacquie Marino‘s magazine publishing class at Kent State’s journalism school. I love any excuse to visit my alma mater, but I was especially stoked to talk about the current state of magazine publishing and how I went from being an undergrad to having a magazine career. Our discussion focused a lot on pitching, because proposing stories to editors can be really intimidating when you’re just starting out. Here’s a recap of my advice for new magazine freelancers:
What kinds of stories should you pitch?
One of the things Jacquie wanted me to address was the importance of magazine freelance writers having a specialty. Think about prolific magazine writers today—lots of them have a specialty or interest area that they keep revisiting: Rob Walker focuses a lot on marketing and consumer culture, Farhad Manjoo writes about technology, Hanna Rosin focuses on feminism and American culture. I remember being in college and doing lots of profiles and lots of event coverage. That kind of stuff is rarely going to fly when you’re a freelance writer.
Personally, I write a lot about craft, art, design and web culture. I’ve been a participant in those subcultures for years, and when I was in college it first clicked that I could draw story ideas from my experiences. Also, some of the people I met back then are now doing awesome things! (Kate Bingaman Burt and Mikey Burton, I’m looking at you.) Magazines want stories that no one else can tell. When you’re interested in unusual things, you’re much more likely to find them.
And finally, when you’re developing a story for a magazine (no matter whether you picture it as a full-length feature or a tiny front-of-book piece), you need to supply a solid angle. Unless you’ve got a standing relationship with a magazine or editor, you can’t just throw them a general idea (a story about a restaurant, or a profile of a school teacher) and expect them to pick an angle for you. (It’s especially important when pitching major, national magazines that have seen everything—and might be entertaining multiple pitches on the same timely subject.) When you have a great angle with a great idea (Why are there so many new pie restaurants in the area? Or how a school teacher broke bad to get her students the supplies they needed), that’s when an editor will look twice at your pitch.
What magazine should you pitch your idea to?
There are lots of resources for finding magazines and figuring out what kinds of stories they accept and how they want to be pitched:
But before you start sending out the same story pitch to every magazine, you should know this: The more a pitch is tailored to a magazine’s specific audience, voice and needs, the more likely it is to get accepted. So before you even start writing a query letter, you should be able to articulate why that magazine needs your story. And that means not only looking at their writers’ guidelines and Writer’s Market entry, but reading a couple back issues and understanding how they might treat your story.
Sounds like a lot of work? It is!
How do you make contacts at major magazines?
Having a personal relationship with an editor makes all the difference when it comes to getting out of the slush pile. Some writers’ guidelines direct you to email your pitch to a generic editorial email address, where it’s likely screened by an editorial assistant and may never get seen by an assigning editor. One way to get around that issue is to target a specific department in the magazine and figure out who edits it, and find that editor’s email. The other way to get around it is to make some new friends.
Twitter is an amazing resource for freelance writers. Follow editors and writers from the magazines you love, and you can get in on their conversations and see what they’re talking about and interested in. Occasionally editors even post about job openings they have at their publications. I’ve also had great success targeting editors by using LinkedIn. I’m not suggesting that you send connection requests to every editor of every magazine you love. But LinkedIn is a great research tool for finding connections you might have with editors. For example, I discovered that the managing editor of a publication I love actually lives in my city. So I emailed her to introduce myself and invite her to lunch. She works from her home office, so she was stoked at the idea of getting out for once! After a great conversation, she invited me to send her any ideas I had.
That kind of “informational interview” is exactly what you should go for when trying to meet editors in person. They don’t want a hard sell on some pitch, and you don’t want to come off as needy or only interested in them for their job. Editors are people too! :)
How should you pitch your story idea?
In short: However the publication requests freelancers do it. Most magazines have instructions or advice for pitching on their websites under “submission guidelines” or “writers’ guidelines,” most often in the Contact or About section. (Search Google for “submission guidelines” site:URL to find them faster.) The magazine resource links above sometimes include this, but you’ll get the most up-to-date and detailed info by going straight to the source.
When I was in school, paper queries were still de rigueur. (And we even included SASEs for snail mail followups. Ew.) But with rare exceptions, no magazine editor today wants paper pitches. Email is the standard — never call to pitch. The only exception here is if you have an established relationship with an editor, and you know that he or she is cool with phone calls, and you’ve set up a time to chat. Calling to cold-pitch? I’ve been on the other side of the desk here. Magazine editors are usually doing a zillion things at once, and it’s kind of inconsiderate to push your pitch on someone who is not prepared for it. If you need an answer as to whether I want to buy your story right now, or whether you can have the assignment right now, the answer is going to be no.
But you’d never do that, right? Right. So back on the lines of how to pitch your story idea: When you’ve come up with a good match with your story idea and the angle and the magazine, and you’re writing your query letter, it’s best to pitch with a specific department of the magazine in mind. (Need query letter examples? I love the ones Allison Winn Scotch posted here.) It shows the editor you know the magazine and understand how they might treat your story idea. And when you’re a new freelancer (or even if you’re just new to the magazine), pitching smaller pieces is the best way to increase your chances of selling them.
When should you pitch your story idea?
If your story has a time hook (like something Christmas-related, for example), you’ve got to pitch it at least three months in advance for a monthly magazine and six months in advance for a bimonthly magazine. Totally serious — and that might even be cutting it a little short.
Some smaller magazines plan out their editorial calendars entirely each year for the year ahead, so if you have a good relationship with an editor, it’s worth asking when their planning meetings happen so you can get your ideas in before the deadline.
More generally, I wouldn’t send a pitch via email on a Monday or the day after a holiday. Editors are usually crazy busy on Mondays. I also wouldn’t send pitches late on Fridays, because then you’ll be wondering whether they got the email, but the editor likely won’t get back to you until the next week, and who wants to put themselves through that kind of torture?
I hope this FAQ of pitching stories to magazines was helpful. Anything I missed? Post it in the comments!
One hundred years ago, Sir Robert Falcon Scott spent his last hours scrawling missives to loved ones in a frozen Antarctic hut. The British explorer had intended to be the first man to lead a team to the South Pole, but when he arrived, it turned out Roald Amundsen had beaten him there. To add insult to injury, Scott and his entire party died on the way back to the coast—bummer.
There is but one moral of Scott’s story: Modern life ain’t so bad. All middle class problems fade in comparison to Robert Falcon Scott problems, which were thoroughly documented in the diary and letters he left behind. For example:
Middle class problems: “Ugh. I need to get gas, but $3.85 a gallon is practically a crime against humanity.”
Scott problems: “We can expect little from man now except the possibility of extra food at the next depot. It will be real bad if we get there and find the same shortage of oil. Shall we get there?”
Middle class problems: “Why even have a sample sale when the only shoe sizes they have left are 5 and 11?”
Scott problems: “Things steadily downhill. Oates’ foot worse. He has rare pluck and must know that he can never get through. He asked Wilson if he had a chance this morning, and of course Bill had to say he didn’t know. In point of fact he has none.”
Middle class problems: “I wanted to go to the mall for lunch, but the only parking spots still open were on the roof of the garage.”
Scott problems: “No idea there could be temperatures like this at this time of year with such winds. Truly awful outside the tent. Must fight it out to the last biscuit, but can’t reduce rations.”
Middle class problems: “Who sets the thermostat in this office, the abominable snowman?”
Scott problems: “The cold is intense, -40 at midday. My companions are unendingly cheerful, but we are all on the verge of serious frostbites, and though we constantly talk of fetching through I don’t think anyone of us believes it in his heart.”
Middle class problems: “Seriously, scheduling meetings before 9 a.m. should be illegal.”
Scott problems: “He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning—yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.”
Middle class problems: “If I see one more ‘Shit People Say’ video, I’m going to lose it.”
Scott problems: “We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.”