Should you write your article before you pitch it?
Thank you in advance,
Order of Operations
This is a great question because there is no right answer. There are, however, several right-ish answers, as follows:
Right-ish Answer #1: Follow the rules in the submission guidelines.
Most publications will likely have submission guidelines hidden somewhere online. Find them and follow them.
If the submission guidelines say “Send a pitch,” send a pitch. If they say “Send us a first draft,” send that first draft.
The Magazine, for example, states, “For essays and humor, we will need to see a strong draft.” Tor‘s fiction guidelines include, “Don’t query us, just send your story”; however, the nonfiction guidelines read, “We do not encourage articles on spec—please send us clear, thoroughly outlined pitches on specific topics.”
It’s easy enough to follow submission guidelines when they are clearly defined, but since many submission guidelines won’t specify whether editors want writers to submit drafts along with their pitches, that means we have more territory to cover.
Right-ish Answer #2: Depends on your experience.
When I was getting started as a freelancer, I always wrote the article before I pitched it (unless submission guidelines specifically instructed me not to). I did this because I didn’t want an editor to have to guess whether or not I was a good writer. I wanted to include the proof right there in the pitch and let the editor know exactly what I had to offer.
When I pitched articles to The Toast that eventually became “How to Tell if You Are in a Noel Streatfeild Novel” and “I Tried to Be a YouTube Superstar and All I Got Were These Horrifically Embarrassing Videos,” I sent drafts along with the pitches to prove I could write the pieces. My series “How a Freelance Writer Makes a Living” at The Billfold was also launched by a pitch with a first draft attached.
This strategy is another solution to last week’s question: how to prove to editors you can get the job done even when you don’t have much experience.
Yes, you’re probably still going to work with the editor to revise and reshape the piece—my story “The Least Expensive Thing” at Yearbook Office, for example, went through three major rounds of revisions and is vastly different from the initial draft I sent with my pitch—but that’s part of the writing process and shouldn’t deter you from sending a solid first draft before getting the assignment.
Once I built a substantial portfolio, I stopped drafting before pitching. Instead, I included links to my resume and relevant clips, trusting that my work would speak for itself. And I no longer send pitched first drafts to The Toast or The Billfold, since they are already familiar with my work.
Right-ish Answer #3: Depends on the type of topic.
Look, if you want to write a hard-hitting investigative article where you travel to factories to report on labor conditions or follow a politician around the campaign trail, you’re going to want to get that agreement first to cover the necessary time and expenses.
On the other hand, if you’re writing an 800-word first-person essay about your childhood and you can do it in an afternoon, go ahead and write it. (On the other other hand, if you want to write a 3,000-word essay about that same childhood experience and it’ll take you weeks to put it together, maybe get the agreement first.)
The long and the short of it is: Don’t spend too much time working on a project for which you might never get paid.
Should you draft your advice questions before you send them to Nicole Dieker? That’s up to you. Send freelance questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and they just may get answered in upcoming installments of Ask a Freelancer.