Athletes prove their worth with trophies. Programmers with a portfolio of successful projects. But for writers—particularly freelance writers, who must constantly prove their mettle to new clients—it’s their bylines that show the world what they’re capable of.
The catch-22 is that getting bylines in respected publications—like The New Yorker for cultural analysis, Wired for tech-related matters, or Process Street’s blog for all-things SaaS—is far easier said than done, and can often feel like a losing battle. It’s why there’s an entire market dedicated to paid pitching workshops, courses, and talks, so writers can learn from seasoned pros how exactly to stand out from the teeming crowd.
But you don’t need to spend anything on such a course.
I’ve scored bylines in internationally revered publications and sites like the New Statesman and Insider (to name a few), and have picked up tricks of the trade that have continually served me well. In this post, you’ll learn these tricks, too, and be able to pitch and then write for the swankiest sites on the web, no matter what niche you’re working in.
Now, let’s get you some bylines.
Ideating a Fresh New Article
Before getting into your writing workflow—hell, before the post is even pitched—you need to ensure that the idea behind the post is a great one. By “great,” I mean interesting, authoritative, and, most importantly, unique in some way.
Unfortunately, as writers, we often think our ideas are ultra unique, never-done-before gifts from a divine power—which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Luckily, though, there’s Google to set us straight.
Cross-check your pitch idea with Google
If you’ve got an idea that you initially believe is A+ in its uniqueness, give it a quick Google search to see whether it’s been written about before. Unless your idea is truly ahead of the curve, it most likely has been written about in one way or another. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write about it with a different, unique slant (unless the topic has absolutely been done to death and there are no unique slants left, that is).
Using Google’s search results, look for posts that have been done either on or relating to your idea. Who wrote those posts? What’s their angle? What makes them standout pieces?
On the flip side, what aren’t those posts doing? What could they have done better? Here, you’re conducting research on how you can make your post better—and unique—in comparison, or whether you should opt for an entirely different idea instead.
Use tech to develop article ideas
For days when ideas aren’t forthcoming, technology is your friend. Nick Berry, a marketer at Rocket Referrals, tweeted about his neat trick for generating unique post ideas: an automation in Zapier that monitors niche subreddits and transfers post info to a Google Sheet, creating a database of potential content ideas.
I’ve got another one that monitors niche subreddits and posts the headline, post, and vote count to a google sheet to use for content ideas.
— Nick Berry 🌮 (@nicholosberry) April 9, 2020
Once you’ve got a post idea that editors won’t throw away, it’s time to pitch it.
Learning to Be Pitch Perfect
Pitching isn’t easy. From penning an attention-grabbing message to editors taking (what feels like) eons to respond, it’s this part of the game where it’s hardest to score a win.
But “hard” doesn’t mean impossible.
After years of pitching, if there’s one piece of advice I could give to anyone, it’s to pitch via social media first.
Pitch articles via social media
When you’re cold pitching via email, the pitch you’ve taken care and consideration to write is just another in an endless sea of pitches from strangers. And when an editor is trawling through cold pitch emails, ruthlessness is necessary—which may result in your pitch unfairly getting the chop.
When pitching via social media, however, you’re putting a face to both a name and a pitch. In other words, you’re showing the editor there’s a person with an online presence and some kind of following, which will inevitably work in your favor. Pitching via social media, in a way, makes the whole process more human. Because there is a face to a name and a pitch, editors are more likely to respond—and faster, too—even if it’s just to politely turn down the idea.
In terms of hard numbers, I pitched 10 pieces over Twitter alone in the last year, either as a Direct Message or a tweet sent to an editor. Out of those 10, I got eight responses and eight acceptances. Those eight acceptances led to long-form work being published, on top of enabling me to forge new connections with cream-of-the-crop editors who have since repeatedly accepted my work.
I’ll do either one of two things when pitching via social media, and on Twitter specifically:
- If the editor doesn’t have their DMs open, I’ll send a tweet in which I’ll greet them and say that I’ve got a pitch that’d be right up their publication or site’s alley, and ask if they’re interested in talking further.
- If they do have DMs open, I’ll go straight in and greet them, introduce myself and include previous bylines, before describing my post idea in a few pithy sentences and asking what they think.
However, it’s not always possible to pitch via social media. Perhaps the editor in question has made an active choice not to be on social media, meaning you’ll need to immediately pivot to cold email pitches. Similarly, maybe the editor outright doesn’t respond to pitch queries on social media so, again, cold email pitching is the next best option.
Pitch through email the right way
For cold email pitching, stick to these best practices:
- Greet the editor by name.
- Present a tentative title for the post.
- Write no more than four sentences about your post, why it’s timely, interesting, and unique — and why you’re the person for the job.
- Add a short bio somewhere in the pitch that includes your name, location (if relevant), and where you work and/or where you’ve written for. Ideally, your bylines should link directly to examples of your work.
Article Pitch Template
To demonstrate all of the above more clearly, here’s an article pitch email template you can use and edit as need be:
Hi there [editor’s name],
I’m [your name], a writer based in [your location]. I’ve written for [publication title 1], [publication title 2], [publication title 3], [publication title 4], [publication title 5], and more. I also work as a [job title] at [company name].
I wanted to send this post pitch your way, with the tentative title for the post being [tentative title].
[Brief four-sentence description of your guest post idea]
Does this sound like something you’d be interested in?
Thanks for your time,
What makes the above template particularly useful is its conciseness in informing the editor who you are, what you’re about, and what you’ve written before. Plus, you’re keeping a balance between being informative, but not bulldozing the editor with too much detail about the post, either.
Finding and pitching a strong, unique post idea might lead to striking gold on your first pitch attempt. In which case, congratulations! The reality, however, is that it may take several pitches—and maybe for different post ideas, too—before a post is secured.
But when an editor does accept a post, that’s when writing begins.
Writing a “Kill-proof” Post
Receiving a pitch acceptance email is a cause for celebration—after all, it’s confirmation that somebody believes in your idea and is willing to publish it on your behalf!
But it doesn’t take long before that joy can turn into anxiety. Anxiety over whether you can deliver what you promised. Anxiety over whether you’ll be able to write a post that’s good enough, one that won’t get killed by the editor.
It’s stage fright, basically. But it’s also completely normal.
Write a post outline
To counter the writers’ equivalent of stage fright, create a post outline. It’s what I do before writing every post, and it’s what I strongly advocate for you to do, too. By writing an outline, you’re laying the foundations for what the post will be so that, when you come to it, you’re not staring at a blank screen, spiraling into despair.
When writing my post outlines, I follow these steps:
- Write down the post’s title as a header at the top of the Google Doc.
- Split the post into “Intro”, “First section”, “Second section”, “Third section”, and “Conclusion”. (If I need more or fewer sections, then I’ll simply edit as necessary. But starting with three sections is usually enough.)
- Consider what the subheading of each section will be, then write those titles down.
- Note the rough word count of each section in brackets after the subheading.
- As bullet points, start to write down key pieces to include in each section.
- Rinse and repeat the bullet points until there’s a solid idea of what every section, including the intro and conclusion, will include.
I can’t stress how helpful following the above steps and creating post outlines is as a writer. Not only does it keep impostor syndrome and anxiety at bay—ensuring that it doesn’t impact your ability to write a solid post—but it even makes writing the post faster. A win-win all round.
Once you’re happy with your post outline, the next task is to write the post itself!
Carefully proofread and edit your post
When the first draft has been completed ahead of the deadline, make the editor’s job easier (and lower the chances for your post getting killed) by self-editing the post.
Whenever I’m reviewing a post that’s been written by myself or a teammate, I use an editing process. Its key steps are as follows:
- Read through line-by-line (preferably aloud, as it will enable you to pick up on mistakes you otherwise wouldn’t).
- Ensure there aren’t any grammatical, syntax, punctuation, and formatting errors.
- Run the post through Grammarly as an extra quality assurance measure.
- If it’s been written with a keyword in mind, make sure that the keyword is mentioned plenty and in the right places.
- Confirm that statistics, studies, and other important information are appropriately linked.
- Include an author picture and bio if they haven’t already been added.
Knowing that your post’s first draft is the best it can be is a far, far better feeling than worrying about its quality after sending it across. Unfortunately, that’s something I’ve learned the hard way.
After any necessary edits have been made, ping the post’s first draft to the site or publication’s editor. Then, assuming they still want to publish it after reading the draft, work with them to fulfill their vision for the post. Doing so will get you that hard-fought but well-earned byline.
Here’s to bolstering your career as a writer with impressive bylines!
Going Forward as a Pitching Pro
There you have it.
You’ve learned how to come up with and then assess potential ideas, how to transform a hopeless pitching process into a hopeful one, and how to go about planning, writing, and editing your post the right way.
All that’s left for you to do is go and get even more bylines under your belt.
If you’re looking to work with exciting companies on a continued basis, consider becoming a Compose.ly writer.
About the Author
Thom James Carter is a content writer at Process Street, where he writes about processes, systems, SaaS, and all things tech. Follow him on Twitter: @thomjamescarter.