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How to Pitch and Sell a Freelance Feature Article

Astrolabe
How to Pitch and Sell a Freelance Feature Article
By Aidan Moher • Issue #39 • View online

Photo by Hannah Wei on Unsplash
Photo by Hannah Wei on Unsplash
So, you think you can freelance? Here's how I do it.
When I started pitching freelance gaming articles a few years ago, I was surprised and dismayed by how few resources existed to help new writers understand the intricacies of pitching and breaking into pro markets.
I was fortunate to have a good friend who was also an established freelancer—Ty Schalter, who has an amazing newsletter called Gimme Schalter that you should also be reading—to mentor me through the process, give me feedback on my pitches, and help me learn the craft. But not everyone’s so fortunate.
So, now I want to pay it forward by providing a peek behind the curtain with (hopefully) actionable advice that will make pitching feel like less of a black box—complete with examples of real pitches I’ve sold. A pitch can be daunting, but once you figure out the basics of what works for your stories, you’ll have a convenient template that makes the process easier and quicker.
(If you’re looking for a roadmap for writing the feature itself, I’ve got you covered there, too: How I write and revise non-fiction)
My Basic Pitch Template
Over time, I’ve developed a consistent pitch template that’s landed pieces at major outlets like Wired, Kotaku, and VentureBeat. It’s meant to be clear and concise, present a story that needs telling, and an argument about why I’m the one to do so.
That all being said, some editors/venues have specific things they want to see in a pitch, so always be sure to read their pitch guidelines and adjust accordingly.
Here’s how my pitch template breaks down:
  1. Address the Editor by Name—Do your research, pitch the right person, and address them by name (when possible). Google the outlet name and “pitch guidelines” or “masthead” to find the appropriate editor/pitch process.
  2. Introduction—This is a quick one-liner about you. I’ve got enough bylines that I lean on those, but they’re not necessary. If you don’t have bylines/awards, consider a sentence that ties you to your subject matter.
  3. Ask a Question—This first paragraph is your hook. Ask a question, pose a problem, reveal a conflict. For example: Why do I own a bulky CRT TV? How has games writing evolved since the wet-dreamy days of the 90s? What can Hayao Miyazaki’s films tell us about parenthood?
  4. Provide the Answer—How are you going to address your question, and why are you the person to do it? You might have expertise or experience, or maybe good interview sources.
  5. Wrap-up—Provide links to your previous work. Even if you haven’t published professionally, you should have a few pieces on a blog or Medium that you can share. Some places want an approximate word count (the longer it is, the harder it is to sell), so make your best guess. Say goodbye.
Example Pitches
#1: "Your Grandma’s Tube TV Is the Hottest Gaming Tech" on Wired
Your Grandma's Tube TV Is the Hottest Gaming Tech | WIRED
This first pitch found a home at by far the largest outlet to feature my work. Inspired by Kayleigh Donaldson, I decided to make a conscious effort to expand the markets I pitched to this year. I always considered Wired a dream market, so was surprised when they wanted my piece on a pretty niche topic, and I’ve now established a good working relationship with my editor that has led to follow-up work. Never self reject!
The Pitch
[Editor],
I'm a Hugo Award-winning writer named Aidan Moher. My work has previously appeared on Kotaku, GamesBeat, and Electronic Gaming Monthly.
When you walk into my living room, you might not spot the 50" 4K television. It's low profile, tucked away, and everyone's got one. What you'll probably notice, though, is the bulky, 20" Toshiba tube TV that I got for free from someone's grandpa last year when even they upgraded to a flat screen.
Why do I have a TV that people can't even get rid of for free on Facebook marketplace? Why do I treasure it so much? And why are some gamers paying hundreds of dollars for 25 year old professional video monitors?
This piece will explore the role of CRT TVs in gaming history, their continued relevance for retro gaming in 2021, and provide guidance for gamers who want to move beyond mini consoles and restrictive official emulation solutions like Nintendo Switch Online. To tell this story, I will mix research and reporting with personal anecdotes/experience, and interviews where necessary.
You can find samples of my work here:
Cheers,
Aidan Moher
Rejections Before Acceptance: 1
Fee: $500
This was a tricky pitch because a) it was about a niche topic that I believed had crossover appeal with a mainstream audience just due to novelty factor (which is why I felt Wired was a good fit), b) it was something I was personally interested and invested in, but not expert level knowledgeable, and c) increasingly popular among the enthusiast crowd, which meant higher stakes to get it right.
So, I needed something that reflected my personal interest, pleased the enthusiast crowd, but also remained accessible to a more mainstream audience. My editors at Wired worked with me to find that sweet spot, and the end result was a piece that proved popular with their readers, and remains my favourite pro piece I’ve published.
#2: "How Boss Fight Books Changed Video Game Literature for the Better" at Fanbyte
How Boss Fight Books Changed Video Game Literature for the Better
Fanbyte is a venue I’ve been wanting to break into for a while, but it was actually the sixth place I pitched with this story specifically because their guidelines include:
Things we basically don’t cover via freelancers at all: Traditional novels, books, and poetry, Music, Traditional sports, News
But after a few unsuccessful pitches, and a very close call at another great venue (who wanted to see if we could adjust the story’s scope, but ultimately couldn’t find a comfortable consensus), I decided to give it a shot anyway. This is a piece about books, so my pitch had to make sure to be clear and convincing about why I was pitching them on something explicitly excluded by their pitch guidelines.
The Pitch
[Editor],
I’m Aidan Moher—a Hugo Award-winning writer with work in Wired, GamesBeat, Kotaku, and many other gaming and culture publications. I’m pitching a piece I think would be a great fit for Fanbyte’s readers.
In "How Japanese RPGs Inspired A New Generation Of Fantasy Authors” (Kotaku), I proved the link between retro Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy VI and today’s current crop of popular fantasy authors. The connection was further realized by Fortnite’s recent announcement of a collaboration with Brandon Sanderson’s popular Mistborn book series. Crossover between gaming and reading audiences has never been stronger, and bringing them together is Boss FightBooks, a publisher specializing in focused single-volume books about popular video games—from Mike Drucker’s Silent Hill 2 to Chris Kohler’s Final Fantasy V.
This pitch came about when I was reading Sebastian Deken’s Final Fantasy VI—a 180 page deep dive applying music theory to discover what Nobuo Uematsu’s legendary soundtrack tells us about the game and its creators. It made me remember reading coverage of FFVI in the ‘90s, and I realized how far we’ve come from the time when major gaming magazines would write wet dream jokes into their reviews of Chrono Trigger.
In this piece, I will discuss how the way we read about video games has matured, the importance of preserving game development stories while the creators are still around, and the value of looking back on older work with a modern perspective. To help me tell this story, I’ve secured interviews with Kohler, Drucker, Deken, and Boss Fight Books founder Gabe Durham.
Bringing together several voices with my own, I expect this piece to run ~2k words.
You can find samples of my work here:
Cheers,
Aidan Moher
Rejections Before Acceptance: 5
Fee: $250
The major thing here was showing my past work connecting literature and video gaming by linking to my Kotaku piece. My background as a writer is in book blogging and games writing, so this piece was a natural fit for me. That much was obvious just from my background. So, instead, I focused the pitch here on the shared experience of maturing alongside the games writing industry, and bringing on board some vital voices connected to the subject matter to help me tell the story. I also specifically made this pitch a bit looser and more voice-y than usual—to give the editor a taste of how my style would contribute to the story, considering it’s framed as a personal (rather than researched) exploration of the topic.
We went through a lot of editorial on this piece, and the editors at Fanbyte were amazing, but the end product still hewed very close to the original pitch. Some stories tell themselves, some stories require a close personal connection between the writer and subject, and others, like this one, required hours of interviews to bring the best version possible forward. What’s not encompassed by this pitch or the final article are the dozens of quotes left on the cutting room floor that were just as good as what I published.
#3: "Hayao Miyazaki’s Lost Magic of Parenthood" at Uncanny Magazine
Hayao Miyazaki's Lost Magic of Parenthood - Uncanny Magazine
With the majority of my writing experience being in books and games, I struck out several times pitching this piece of Hayao Miyazaki’s films to mainstream culture and film-focused outlets. More likely than not, those types of outlets would’ve preferred a piece like this to be tied to a news beat—like Ghibli movies coming to Netflix, or Miyazaki announcing a new film, etc.—anything to carry over the momentum of an excited audience. Once I shifted my approach from mainstream to enthusiast venues, it quickly ended up at Uncanny Magazine.
The Pitch
[Editor],
My name is Aidan Moher. I'm a Hugo Award-winning writer with work on Kotaku, Man Repeller, and VentureBeat.
Famed writer and director Hayao Miyazaki once asked, 'Is someone different at age 18 or 60? I believe one stays the same.' Now that I'm a father, one of life's great joys is watching my children play through a window overlooking our backyard. You see their joy and triumph, unfettered creativity and wonder, fights, hugs, tears, and laughter. It's almost impossible to articulate these feelings, but Miyazaki examines them with ageless, crystalline clarity in films like My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo, and Spirited Away.
His films are about many things, but one particularly powerful recurring theme explores the meeting between childhood and the world's natural magic—and the way we lose sight of the wonder around us as we recede into adulthood. Focusing on these three beloved films, this piece examines the relationships between their parents and children, Miyazaki's magical worlds, and an understanding of his belief that kids "are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations."
Cheers,
~Aidan Moher
Rejections Before Acceptance: 5
Fee: $50
Unlike the Fanbyte pitch, this one is short and tight—but also full of voice. It’s basically the essay itself condensed down into a setup paragraph and a breakdown of the themes and films that provide the answers. Though I did a lot of reporting and sourcing quotes for this piece, it was ultimately a personal essay on the films, and I wanted that to come out in the pitch. (This honestly probably hurt its chances at the mainstream venues I first approached.)
I like this pitch because it literally begins with a question from Miyazaki, and concludes with his answer. Cheeky, but effective.
The biggest challenge with the features I pitch is that they’re rarely tied to news beats, so they’ve got to stand alone and tell a compelling story to a more general audience. Miyazaki’s films are canonical for many people, but this piece had to dig a bit deeper to find the shared connection between parents to really sell itself as a relevant essay and not just another review of the classic movies.
You’ll notice the fee is lower than the other pieces. This is the result of pitching to a semi-pro market with a limited budget. I prefer to get paid more for these features (and, honestly, considering the length of most of my work, I’m probably regularly underpaid even at the larger sites), but I’ve worked with Uncanny for a long time and with a background in fan writing, I’ll make exceptions sometimes. Familiarity with the outlet and the editor is also why I didn’t include writing samples in this pitch.
So, I've got a pitch. What else do I need to know?
Be Polite!—Honestly, you probably won’t get a response to most of your pitches. If you do get a rejection, keep your cool. You don’t even need to respond to the editor, but if you do, keep it to a quick, “Thanks for taking the time to read my pitch!” Don’t snark, don’t worry. Just move on.
How Long Should I Wait?—I have a background in the torturous world of genre short fiction submissions, where you’re often expected to wait weeks or months (or years…) to get a response. Pitching freelance isn’t like that, and you can turn things around much quicker. I still stick to a single submission at a time, but nudge an editor after three or four days if I haven’t heard anything. In my experience, interested editors will often respond to a nudge very quickly, so if you don’t hear anything within a day or two after that, it’s generally safe to pitch elsewhere. My nudge email is usually something like: “Hey! Just wanted to check in on this before I pitch elsewhere.” Pithy and concise.
They’re Gonna Say No—Most of your pitches will either get a) no response, or b) a no. Even if your pitch includes your Hugo Award and a bunch of top-tier bylines. Even if you’ve landed a piece at that outlet with that editor before. That’s just the reality of pitching stories. Move on! But, also, don’t give up. You’ll notice all of my examples were rejected before finding the right home—some were rejected multiple times. That’s normal. I’ve got a few dream venues (Hi, Waypoint!) I’m still trying to crack, and they’re the first ones I pitch (unless I think my story fits best at a particular venue).
Freelance is Tough—Most venues have staff writers who handle their shorter, opinion-based content. It’s just cheaper and easier to get a staff writer to create a post on why Sylvain is the juiciest himbo in Three Houses than it is to hire and onboard a freelancer. Take a look at the type of content the venue is publishing by freelancers and pitch the right stories to the right editors.
Keep Tabs on Editors—On any given day, you can find editors on Twitter gabbing about the types of stories they want to see in their inboxes. It’s fun (and important!) to work on your darling stories, but chasing those pitches that overlap your interests and an editor’s can be a good way to get your foot in the door.
Editors Will Make Your Work Better—Trust me: Trust them. I’ve levelled up big time by bringing a collaborative and open attitude as a freelance writer. Some editors work with a light touch, others do major structural and developmental passes before they even think about a line edit. Go along with it, ask questions if you don’t agree with a change, and use it as an opportunity to learn from a pro. Chances are, their heart is in the right place.
Where do I send my pitch?—As I suggested earlier, google the outlet plus “pitch guidelines,” and that’ll give you all the information you need. If the outlet doesn’t have clear pitch guidelines, check their masthead (again, by googling the outlet’s name plus “masthead”), which should point you toward the right editor.
End Step
Hopefully this is helpful! If you’ve got any more questions about pitching or freelancing, I can’t promise I have all the answers, but am happy to provide insight into my personal experiences. You can find me on Twitter.
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Credits
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