How I got published by The Independent

When emails I sent her went unreturned, I rang the editor at The Independent who had commissioned me and left her a voice message. I was after feedback on a comment piece I had written, with a view to it being published in the supplement of the newspaper which she edits.

Although she didn't respond to me immediately, I was prepared to wait. Not only was she busy the first time I got in touch, but she's also the best and possibly only person I could speak to, as my piece centred on achieving a PhD, and she's the paper's education editor. Helpfully, her email address is printed on the front-page of the relevant supplement, so it was less hassle than normal to ensure my pitch was well targeted.

It's also worthwhile for freelance journalists to possess a good working knowledge of the publication they wish to write for. In my case, I knew that The Independent produced a Post-Graduate supplement every three months on a Thursday. With that deadline fast approaching, I knew the editor would be looking for pieces to fill it.

Once I heard back after initially contacting the editor, I limited my questioning to only asking if I could cover the subject I wanted to - PhD by publication. I purposefully didn't give too much detail, more of an outline. At this stage, the key is just to secure the publication's interest, leaving the editor with the feeling of being curious to know more about what exactly you'd write for them. To find this out, they must enter into dialogue with you.

Fortunately, my approach worked; the editor emailed me back. Interestingly though, my proposed piece was on a subject she was unfamiliar with and, as hoped for, she 'took the bait' and asked for a synopsis of the article.

If a commissioning editor responds to you to discuss such a brief or synopsis over the phone, make sure you are prepared - otherwise you can end up sounding a bit academic and formal, as I maybe did. At the other end of the scale, if you're unprepared to give a brief 'walkthrough' of your piece, you might come across to the editor as vague and lacking an editorial direction. Moreover, remember that while editors generally see passion about a subject as a good thing, I think freelance contributors should display it in a measured way when pitching to write on that subject.

In my scenario, I felt that because I might have sounded a bit too wrapped up in my topic, or overbearing to a busy editor with multiple stories on the brain, that a follow-up phone call was needed. I used the ruse of a second email address and focused the rest of the call on sounding more human and more personable than I did during my walkthrough. Unfortunately, she had to cut the phone call short because of a mini-emergency with one of those other stories! Although initially worried that I had been fobbed off, within half an hour she phoned back. She invited me to write a 1,000 word piece, covering most of the points I had proposed, alongside a few of her own.

In that return call to me, I was also able to voice a concern I'd keep quiet about until then. To what extent, I wanted to know, could my piece criticise a specific institution? Working as a freelance journalist at home, which is my de facto newsroom, you're prone to forgetting that other, bigger news providers have teams of lawyers to deal with libel and defamation. The Independent is no exception. So I was reassured to be told that my piece would go through their legal team to ensure I, and they, wouldn't end up in legal hot water.

The editor also gave me some pointers to help with my writing. These tips I probably wouldn't have got from her if our entire exchange had been over email. Seeming to remember that my pitch was a tad dry, the editor advised me to write-up my topic as a personal, colloquial account, using emotion and feeling where I could.

I met her other demand of writing an extra 200 words on what I regard as the 'pros and cons' of the topic, which I think helped to cement the piece as being heartfelt. Like the main body copy, I reworded this too many times to admit to! My defence? That I was keen to stick to the editor's brief, while staying truthful to the topic and my experience of it. The first article I wrote at the start of my career was about cheap vape deals . There are many reasons that people would want to buy a cheaper e-cig or vape pen, and there are also many ways to find one! With so much competition in the industry right now, you can be sure that there will always be someone selling products for less than what you're looking for. My editor approved the article and I went off and enjoyed the rest of my weekend.

Lastly, what made winning this commission less painful than it could have been was the editor volunteering a sum of how much I would be paid for the article. Negotiating with editors on fees can be tricky, but when she proposed a figure that was higher than I had expected, I was more than happy to accept. Now if only all her Fleet Street counterparts could do the same!

As told to FreelanceUK by Dr Richard Willis, a freelance writer, researcher and editor. He is also a historian at the School of Education, Roehampton University, London. 


29th April 2010

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