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The Independent Writers Guide to ‘Cold Calling’

Every writer who’s made the leap from traditional employment to independent work has to confront the new challenge of finding sources.

Especially at the start, indie writers may not have the power of a heavy hitting newspaper or magazine behind their e-mails and calls.

Whether you are writing for a blog — someone else’s or your own — or taking an assignment with a new and nontraditional outlet, when you can’t point to a national or regional masthead how do you get an expert or source to respond?

Start with the reassurance that you’re not alone. This is an obstacle with which almost every independent copes. To help with surmounting some initial roadblocks, let’s turn to advice and strategies that our fellow writers have found to work.

Pitch perfect: Making it easy for sources to say yes

“When I approach a source, I always let them know I’m a freelancer and mention a short list of publications I’ve worked with,” said Mridu Khullar Relph, a freelance writer who’s been winning new clients (and fresh sources) from her home office in New Delhi, India, since 2004. “I also give them a link to my website and say I’m happy to answer any questions about the story or my work.”

Another step is to front-load your pitch so that it’s clear and concise.

That is, if you’re looking for quotes from an expert on big data, then don’t start with a general inquiry into how they got started in the business, or an overview about what is big data — rather, go right for the heart of your needs. For instance:

(a.) What are the typical points of resistance from IT departments when it comes to big-data project proposals? (b.) Why is the advent of shadow IT, when it comes to tackling big-data problems, potentially harmful to a department’s bottom line?

Questions that speak to an expert’s knowledge and thought leadership are confidence builders.

If you’re working on an interview by e-mail, this approach can often generate complete and usable responses as early as the source’s first reply. By phone or by e-mail, the profile of the outlet for which you’re writing matters less when your focus, in the mind of the source, is amplified by what you ask.

Networking confidence: Source-friendly infrastructure

As your work becomes closely aligned with particular publishers, especially newspapers and magazines that new sources are likely to know, ask if there are available correspondent e-mail accounts. If there aren’t, you can still associate your reporting on a story with that outlet more concretely, but it may take a bit of creativity on the side.

“I asked for a Globe e-mail for just this reason and they said it would be too hard to get me one,” said Justin Rice, who’s freelanced for The Boston Globe since 2008. He came up with a gentle workaround to solve the problem of connecting his enquiries to the paper. “I created a Gmail account  — — just for work stuff and nobody ever questioned it.”

Another method is to build an external network that encapsulates the people around the sources you want to reach.

“The hardest stories I’ve reported have been about the gay community in India,” Relph said. “I found people were extremely reluctant to talk to me because, as a straight married woman, I wasn’t a part of that community and they didn’t trust me.”

She said, “In addition to pointing them to my previous articles, to show that I wasn’t going to sensationalize or misrepresent their lives, I also built relationships with known and respected gay individuals who were trusted in the community and were happy to introduce me to their friends or put in a good word when I had trouble.”

That’s just a tactic of good reporting. Some elements of reaching out to sources, from indie to traditional work, turn out to be the same.

So the upshot is to contact sources with transparency and with confidence. As Rice notes, it’s more and more common for experts and other contacts to encounter independent writers in the digital age. Craft your questions and build your networks, and you’ll soon be a respected “outlet” of your own.

Image courtesy of Jon Curnow/flickrPolandMFA/flickr


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