Aspiring writers have often asked me how to be a freelance journalist, so here's everything I have learnt over the years, as brief as I can make it. Freelance writing is a science; it's not as simple as sending out ideas and hoping the ed will go for it.
(1) To begin with, research the magazine you want to write for, thoroughly. This means reading at least six back issues. Never approach a mag you haven't read. Pay particular attention to the different departments or slots; your aim is to target one of these slots. Don't send a first person piece-your spiritual epiphany on the beaches of Goa, say- to a magazine that does not publish first person pieces.
(2) Once you have done this, it's time to come up with an idea that fits your market. Obviously, this is the toughest part of freelance journalism. Most beginners make the mistake of suggesting a topic, rather than an angle. For instance, don't suggest a story on child labour. That's way too broad and hackneyed, and impossible to cover in a 1000 words. However, if you were to find an innovative NGO that is doing some truly pioneering work to rescue children from child labour, that might make for a good story. For instance, a story about children's banks run by child labourers appeared in several papers. Try to figure out what's new, fresh and hasn't been written about yet. Or take the contrary view and show us the other side of the story. REMEMBER, it's not about you; it's about what the reader wants to read. Do not be obsessed by your own passions and end up suggesting a story on your trekking holiday in Uttarakhand. No one is interested unless you have something new to say.
(3) Try to come up with a peg or hook, a recent news development that makes your story current and relevant. For instance, I wrote a comment piece for The Guardian on McDonalds' recent decision to set up veggie only restaurants in India. I pitched it immediately after McDonalds announced its move and mentioned why it was timely.
(4) Once you have your idea, write a pitch, which is a short summary of your idea; what it's about, why it's timely, who you plan to interview, and why you should be the one to write it. Mention any special expertise you have. For instance, if you are writing about online dating and you met your spouse online, say so. Do not send your editor the whole story ; it's a waste of time for him and for you. Your pitch should be no more than about 200-300 words. No spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes or SMSese. If you write Gr8 instead of "great" or "u" instead of "you" , as so many young people do these days, the ed will delete your pitch immediately. Your pitch is your calling card; if you can't write 200 words, no ed will trust you to write a 1000 words. If you are pitching to a particular slot, mention it. In fact, I recommend that you pitch to a particular slot in the mag. Editors are more likely to accept a pitch if they know where to put it. Try to mirror the style of the mag as closely as possible; no point sending flowery Indian English to a stylish international mag such as Vogue, for instance.
If you have no experience and no published clips, consider writing a blog and mention that in your pitch. But a good, targeted one, free of spelling mistakes and Sms-ese, and with no boring rants on the state of the nation or too much information on how you are a closet manic depressive. ( People have send me blogs like that, btw)
(6) Once you have sent your pitch in, wait for a week or so. If there is no response, send a polite reminder resending your original pitch. Do not get tetchy. Remember, editors are super busy and your pitch, at least initially, may well be rubbish. You could follow up by phone, but in my experience, eds don't like to be cold called. If you still don't get a response, send it to someone else.
(7) Money: this is a sensitive subject in freelance journalism, especially in India. Most Indian papers and mags don't pay well; between Rs 2-10 per word, and as stories are rarely more than a 1000 words, you are looking at very little money. Sometimes rates are negotiable, but only once you have proven yourself. I'd advise getting some experience and turning in some good work before you haggle over rates. Foreign mags pay much better; this is why I write mostly for the foreign market, but they are also difficult to crack. It's worth noting that the big names like Times of India and many other papers pay terrible rates. You'd be better off targeting niche mags like Motherland and the recently released Ink which pay better. The time to raise the money question is after your pitch has been accepted, but before you write the story. No point haggling over money once you have already turned your story in.
(8) If you do get an assignment, make sure you meet your deadline, preferably a day or two earlier. Ask the editor for direction if you need it. Do not go nuts if the ed rewrites your copy. That's his or her prerogative. You may correct any errors in your edited copy, but do not get possessive about your style. You will likely be rewritten a fair bit in your early career; suck it up.
(10) YOU CANNOT BE A GOOD WRITER WITHOUT READING. I cannot emphasise this strongly myself. Most people want to be writers without ever reading a book, or even a magazine. If you want to write for the New York Times, you have to read the New York Times. There is no way out. Pay attention to your spelling, your punctuation, your syntax and grammar. These things count.As for developing a style of your own, the only way is to write, and write a lot. Read other good writers and learn from them. Read the work of freelancers like Nilanjana Roy, Dilip D' Souza, Jai Arjun Singh, and Mridu Khullar Relph. See who they write for and how they write.
That's it really. There are plenty of websites on the internet about writing, pitching and coming up with ideas. Read them. Do your research. It will pay off.
About Kavitha: I am a Bangalore based freelance journalist, and have been published in the Guardian, the New York Times, Time, the South China Morning Post, the National, Elle, Vogue, National Geographic and several others. ( www.kavitharao.net)