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Home > Reading Room > Beat Guide: Freelance writing

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Beat Guide: Freelance writing

By Amy Green

Most of the time freelancers don’t sell stories. We sell the promise of a story.

We make our sales before writing query letters and informal pitches, and so really we sell ourselves as professionals. And we’d better know our stuff. Busy editors know little about us beyond what’s in those pitches. Most of my editors are scattered across the country. Their skepticism of me is a natural reaction.

Editors want writers they can trust, and so having a beat or specialty is a strong selling point. It gives editors a better understanding of who we are and the impression we know our stuff.

“What kind of writing do you do?” I often get asked. “I specialize in faith, spirituality, ethics, family issues and, as a writer in Nashville, Tenn., I do some entertainment writing,” is my quick response.

In under a minute I’ve summarized what I do best and given the impression I know my stuff.

Information is the currency of our industry, and so it pays to know a lot about something. The sources. The politics. The history. The angles. It is a mistake to worry that narrowing our work to a beat will narrow our number of assignments. Freelance writing is a broad job description. We can’t possibly do it all. Here’s how to develop a beat as a freelancer.

Look for opportunities to fill a need.
When my city newspaper was without a religion writer in 2004 and 2005, I jumped at the chance to do some local features, building sources and ideas for national markets later on. Among other things, I helped cover the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2005 national meeting in Nashville for the newspaper, doing mostly periphery work but gaining valuable experience along the way. Use this meat-and-potatoes sort of work to get to know your beat and generate ideas for national, higher-paying markets. You need to be in the trenches to get the depth in reporting required of these markets.

Consider how you look on paper.
Most editors won’t care if you have blue hair and a nose ring, although if you report from the field you should represent your client in a professional manner. But editors, probably halfway across the country, won’t see the blue hair and nose ring. They’ll see only your pitch, résumé and clips, and so make sure those things convey the impression you want. A clip from Playboy would do little to establish me as a reputable religion writer for a client such as the evangelical Christianity Today. Work toward compiling clips from markets that will establish you as the beat writer you want to be.

Consider where you want to be and how to get there.
These are wise words for writing and life gleaned from a freelance writing panel at the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2004 conference in New York City. Like other occupations, freelance writing presents a ladder to climb. Start by compiling strong clips that show depth in reporting in your chosen subject matter or beat.

Think creatively.
Every market targets a different audience, so use that to your advantage to make multiple sales on a single story. You might find your reporting for a story sparks an idea for another story, and even if you’ve sold all rights you still may use your reporting as background for that second story, saving you time and resources.

I’ve done local features for my city newspaper and then broadened those stories for national markets. I’ve discovered interesting people while reporting news features and then sold profiles on those people to different markets. The reporting comes easier because you know where to get what you need fast. Just make sure you know your rights. If I’ve sold all rights to a story, I often let my editor know what I’m doing as a professional courtesy. A good editor will understand that you’re merely trying to make a living.

Target markets that feel like home.
It takes a lot of work to make an initial sale, and so I want the time and resources I’ve invested to pay off for a long time. It would be silly for me to pitch a religion story with a sports angle to Sports Illustrated because I am a terrible sportswriter. If I’m lucky enough to make that sale, I’ll never make another. I’d rather pitch to a market where I can get to know the editor and exactly what he or she wants, where eventually I can land assignments without the hassle of making pitches.

Beat writing to a freelancer is about saving time and resources. But most important it is about setting yourself apart in a highly competitive industry where editors are deluged by query letters from hundreds of freelancers just like you. If you feel yourself drawn to a beat, embrace it, because it could be the difference that merits you the assignment.

Amy Green has contributed to People, Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, Religion News Service, Christianity Today and Spirit, Southwest Airlines’ on-flight magazine, among many others. She lives and works in Nashville.
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