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.
I’ve got a real backlog of magazines on my end table, and yet I just can’t stop reading. Here are 12 things I read and loved (or at least couldn’t stop thinking about) this past month. (See the previous things I’ve read here.)
- Germany’s Racist Present (Quartz) — despite a dedication to preventing another Holocaust, Germany has a blind spot when it comes to racism
- Social Media Complaints of 1673 (Tom Standage) — Twitter is to 2013 as coffee houses are to 1673
- The Busy Trap (NYTimes Opinionator) — life is too short to always be busy
- Concierge Medicine (Bloomberg Businessweek) — with America already having a shortage of primary care physicians, the trend of concierge doctors is really troubling
- Askers vs. Guessers (The Atlantic Wire) — this theory on interpersonal relations explains so much about my life!
- A Guide to Internet Hoaxes (Longform) — Manti Te’o wasn’t the first guy to fall for something on the internet
- 5 Etsy Sellers who are Clearly Serial Killers (Cracked) — so hilarious and terrifying
- RIP, Regretsy (Regretsy) — pour one out
- Left by Nikky Finney — a poem we read with the kids I tutor that’s stuck with me for days
- A Biden Moment (NYTimes) — related: Biden scores like 800 feet of copper wire
- Elizabeth Wurtzel on self-help (New York) — this very personal essay is polarizing but a fascinating read
- Lena Dunham’s admirable commitment to making us look at her naked (XOJane) — a Girls marathon is imminent
be forewarned: a lot of these are #longreads. a lot of the links in this edition are amazing older articles that i recently found or revisited.
- A Pickpocket’s Tale (New Yorker) — this guy’s picture is in the dictionary under prestidigitation
- Why the “Friend Zone” is Bullshit (Foz Meadows) — how “nice guys” are the worst
- Getting Over Girl Hate (Rookie) — an argument for love
- The Loading Dock Manifesto (Esquire) — a Cleveland writer on how he lives — amazing writing
- Transit Byzantium (Believer) — an amazing story about a reclusive Cleveland singer-songwriter
- The Percentages: A Biography of Class (Tiger Beatdown) — on growing up working class in Ohio
- The Master Book of All Plots (Brain Pickings) — 1,462 plots catalogued by a dime novelist
- Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek (New York Times) — incredible reporting and an incredible interactive design package
If you follow me, you know I share craptons of links on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. But I realized that they get lost amid all the other things happening on Social Media. So here are things I’ve read and loved lately, some are new, some are not so new. Maybe I’ll post my recommended reading list regularly (I love it when other bloggers do it). I found this stuff interesting; maybe you will, too!
- Jerry Seinfeld writes a crazy old man letter to the New York Times (New York Times)
- The history of airline baggage tag design (Slate)
- A young Mila Kunis in an old Lisa Frank commercial (Racked)
- Truth, Lies and Doxxing: the ethics of online vigilantism (Wired)
- Misophonia: When a chomp or a slurp is a trigger for outrage (New York Times) [it explains SO MUCH ABOUT MY LIFE]
- Hysteria about apartment shortages in New York City, circa 1968 (New York magazine)
- The rise of passive-aggressive wi-fi names (BBC) [Once someone was illegally downloading movies off of my intentionally open wifi network and I got warnings about it, so I had to shut it down and renamed my closed network MPAA Says Hi.]
- Kanye Wes Anderson (a tumblr)
- The 2007 Wired article that led to the film Argo (Wired)
- How to get banned from Costco for buying too many hard drives (Gigaom)
- A series of multimedia stories on the economic wasteland that is Elyria, Ohio (New York Times) [I grew up near here]
- This guy Nardwuar knows how to do an interview (Youtube)
- Confessions of a Michael Stipe (a tumblr) [it’s so weird to follow someone online who was a childhood idol of yours]
- Me Translate Funny One Day (New York Times)
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!