Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Part two: freelance journalists on their first ever (paid) commissions

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Kate Burt is a freelance writer and editor for publications including the Independent (“where I’ve also been a commissioning editor – so I know the other side!”), and the Guardian. She also blogs at

Publication: Melody Maker (RIP)

Fee: About £30 as I recall!

What were you doing at the time?

I was a staff writer on a teen magazine, my first proper journalism job. Then I met the editor of Melody Maker [a now defunct music publication] on the bus to work, which I took every day, and he kept on at me to write some freelance reviews for the mag as we’d always chat about music on the bus. It became a regular thing and started me on the road to full-time freelancing.

How did you get the commission?

My first commission following a pitch – rather than bus chat – was for the Guardian Guide. I had pitched dozens of ideas to them for months and been rejected over and over but it was my dream to write for them at the time. I learnt that I needed to give them something no one else would – so I offered an interview with the then obscure Derren Brown whose first late-night C4 TV show was called Mind Control or something.

I got the PR to provisionally agree that I could interview Derren if the Guardian said yes so I could put that in the pitch, which is important (what if they say no after you’ve pitched?). I outlined an idea that I would try out six of his mind control tricks on various strangers and write about how it worked. No staff writer had the time for that, it was quite quirky and funny and introduced a new talent that fitted the Guide’s entertainment remit. Getting the word “new” into a pitch, I learned, is key, as is being game to get out there and understanding what is a good fit for the publication.

Make your idea unique to you

How has your pitch skill developed?

My pitches now are just a short paragraph if possible and one at a time (I used to send over three pitches at once — editors only ever go for one so you end up wasting two). I send concisely put-together teasers, stats, facts, news and other carrots to tempt editors.

Top advice

Write your pitch in the tone of the publication you’re pitching to, with the flavour of the piece/your writing style in the pitch too. Make your idea unique to you – don’t pitch something a staff writer at your chosen publication could already be writing.

Think what you can do to make a story your own. Do you have personal links, anecdotes, contacts or are you prepared to do something unusual to make your story happen or bring it to life?

Being out and about and prepared to leave your desk for an adventure is so often what gets freelancers work. Oh, and give it a “peg”, a reason the editor should specifically publish it right now.

Alec Ash is a British writer based in Beijing. He has written for, the Economist, and Literary Review, among others. He is currently working on a book for Picador. He has previously written a guest post on this blog here

Publication: The Economist
Fee: £300

Title: Budding Greens (Environmental Groups in China)

What were you doing at the time?

After two years of studying Chinese and writing blog posts for free, I was starting to get frustrated. When I successfully pitched this article and got, what to me, was a whopping fee for it, I was over the moon, and realised I should have started doing this way earlier.

How did you get the commission?

I got the email of the editor off a friend, and wrote the pitch. I had also met the Economist’s then Beijing bureau chief James Miles, and I think having that contact helped too. I had been following these environmental groups for a while and so had a pretty good knowledge of them.

Your pitch skill then compared to now?

Just rubbish [back then]. I can’t remember how I phrased the pitch but it was vague and incomplete.

Ash’s advice for pitching:

A good pitch tells an editor three things:

– What the idea is, and what specifically the article will include

– Why that idea is a good fit for that particular publication

– Why you are the right person to write it (access, knowledge, cuttings etc.)

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