Home Insights Breaking into journalism: How to get your first byline
Insights - June 18, 2024

Breaking into journalism: How to get your first byline

 

 

by Cristiana Bedei

 

Landing a professional byline can often feel like an insider’s game, especially if you lack a portfolio or industry contacts. But remember: every published writer started somewhere – right where you are now, searching for a breakthrough.

While newsrooms may sometimes favor reporters they have previously worked with and trust, an editor at TIME with a decade of journalism experience, Olivia-Anne Cleary, remarked that newcomers can bring different strengths. With her working-class roots, Cleary understands the challenges of entering this shrinking industry dominated by people from higher-income status. Today, she is committed to opening more doors for first-time writers from working class backgrounds. “First-time writers tend to have a lot of passion and excitement which, when well-directed, can be a fantastic asset,” she said.

Nurturing new talent is sometimes time-consuming, Cleary added, but ultimately fulfilling.  Acontributing editor at The Fence, a quarterly print magazine, Roisin Lanigan,  agreed.

“It’s always really rewarding to give someone their first byline and then see them grow as a writer and in their career further down the line,” she said.

The Fence, focused on life in the U.K. and Ireland, openly welcomes writers with no previous experience, showing that opportunities exist even for those without a formal track record.

Not every try will succeed, however. “All the freelance writers I work with have gotten passes from me over the years – it comes with the territory,” features editor at the pop culture news publication, Vulture, Megh Wright, explained. “I love when a newer, hungry writer pitches me something, I pass, they take it well, then they come back and keep pitching.”

Rejections are part of the learning curve. To secure your first commission, you need skills but also perseverance – along with some knowledge of how best to approach editors. Cleary, Lanigan, and Wright provided their expert advice on taking steps toward publication.

Focus on one idea at a time
Sending an email packed with pitches can suggest a lack of passion for any of them.

“I’d recommend starting with one idea you’re genuinely very excited about and spending time to make sure it’s focused and polished,” Wright said. As editors are often overwhelmed and overworked, they also prefer managing one proposal at a time, she said.

Perfect your pitch
Consider small changes in your approach that can make a big difference. “Things like formatting your pitch email properly and reading the publication you’re pitching to so you’re tailoring your ideas to what they are actually looking for,” are some examples, Lanigan said.

Opt for reported stories, dispatches or fresh angles on a timely topic over personal narratives, she advised, as these are often more likely to catch an editor’s eye.

Include details
Be concise but thorough in your email proposal. Explain your piece, list potential interviewees, the points you will explore, and provide an estimated word count, all in a few lines.

Cleary urged writers to be transparent about their access to sources and include a realistic date for submitting and running the story. “For example, if you’re pitching an article pegged to an anniversary of a film, then you’d envision the publishing date to be on or before the anniversary,” she said.

Find your angle and your headline
Make sure to have an angle and a title. “I find that if you can’t give your planned article a working headline, then you may not have a clear enough vision,” Cleary said.

A clear story and approach are crucial, Wright agreed: “If you’re sending a mini essay right off the bat, it’s often a sign that your idea hasn’t been fully developed just yet.”

Dare to be unique
Wright highlighted the importance of presenting a distinctive and engaging voice that captures attention. “The best pitches [reel] me in on something – especially something I’m not familiar with – in a unique and surprising way that gets me excited to learn more.”

She encouraged embracing the unconventional, particularly with pop culture pitches, too. “Don’t hesitate to be weird and even a little unhinged. I want personality and strong writing more than I want a résumé,” she said.

Build your portfolio outside of traditional media
Writers should have a portfolio of work they can show to editors, but that doesn’t have to mean only work published in other outlets. “I don’t think you should pitch without a portfolio! But what a ‘portfolio’ looks like can go in so many directions,” Wright pointed out.

All three editors offered helpful tips: consider self-publishing on a blog or a website to showcase articles and projects written for personal enjoyment. Journalism students can explore opportunities with university newspapers and magazines, even just to secure a couple of freelance pieces. If you have a school assignment you’re particularly proud of, there’s no harm in sharing that either.

Newsletters are another great way to showcase your skills and build a readership, which can be valuable when pitching to larger platforms.

Engage with the community and editors
Keep an eye on social media platforms and freelance writing newsletters, such as Journo Resources – The Opportunities, where editors often announce calls for pitches.

“It’s probably more useful to look at the publications actively commissioning rather than pointing people to XYZ publication generally, and then building up a relationship with commissioning editors from there,” Lanigan explained.

Embrace feedback
After you submit your article, embrace feedback constructively. “I’m really grateful to the editors who took a chance on me when I had little or no published work,” Lanigan said. “But I think the mistake I made with these editors – and the thing that sometimes makes it harder to work with first-time writers today – is that I was very nervous and apologetic about the edits they suggested.”

Remember, it’s an editor’s job to refine your piece. Their feedback is not a critique of your abilities, but a valuable tool to help you grow.

Don’t be discouraged by rejection
“It’s going to sting early on – I’ve been there – but just keep pitching, and it’ll sting less as time goes on,” said Wright.

There’s also nothing wrong with explaining to editors that you’re a newer journalist and would like feedback so you can tailor future pitches to what they’re looking for. “Not every editor might have the time to give you that feedback, but there’s never harm in asking, and all of us were new once.”

 

Cristiana Bedei is an Italian freelance journalist with international experience.

 

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