When it’s best to aim high and pitch top publications, and when to stick with what you know.
The idea comes to you in a flash. It’s the perfect story. Not only do you seem to be the only person to have picked up on this trend in your community, but you’ve also got access to hard-to-reach sources, making you the perfect person to report on it. Now all you have to do is write up the pitch and send it.
But to whom? At which publication? And the question every freelancer must ask: should you aim high or low?
If you follow writing blogs or have read any freelance writing book in the last decade, you’ll know there are two schools of thought. Especially for new writers with limited credentials.
- Aim high. Start at the top—The New York Times, TIME, The Atlantic—and work your way down the list.
- Start at the bottom. Work your way up. Get a few local and regional clips before you start pitching the biggies.
So, aim high and work your way down or begin low and work your way up—which is better?
Honest answer? It depends.
Contrary to popular opinion, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that applies to every freelance writer. Whether you start at the top or at the bottom will depend not only on your goals, but your income, your circumstances, and, often, the story idea itself.
So instead of discussing whether to aim high or aim low, let’s talk about when it’s best to do each of those things.
The strategy when you’re aiming high is this: Make a list of about 10-15 publications that you think your story would be a good fit for. (Here’s a list of markets, some of which pay $1 a word and up.)
Now, order them in terms of which ones you’d most like to break into and start pitching them one by one. When you get a rejection from a publication or don’t hear back even after following up, you move to the next publication on the list. This way, you’re making sure you’re giving your story a chance to appear in your dream publications, even if it does eventually get published in the local paper.
Advantages of Aiming High
The advantages of aiming high are:
- You have a better chance of breaking into top publications: Listen, you don’t get published in The New York Times if you never pitch The New York Times. So by pitching them first, you’ve given your story a chance.
- You start building relationships right away: If you take the “aim high” approach for all the stories you pitch, you end up pitching top publications on your list pretty damn frequently. Which means that even if editors aren’t assigning something yet, they’re more likely to start responding to your pitches, remembering your name, and connecting with you on social media.
- You learn from the best: If you’ve pitched a National Geographic editor ten stories in the last two months, it’s almost inevitable that at some point the editor will email you back to tell you why your pitches aren’t hitting the mark. This means you’re getting feedback from top editors and learning about your mistakes from the get go. In fact, this is exactly how I broke into TIME. I write about it in detail in this case study.
- You get paid more: Let’s not forget the money. You write for your local newspaper, you get paid $25, maybe. You write for Wired and they’ll pay you $1 a word. Even if you don’t get sales with the top publications right away, on average, you’ll get more money from your sales than you would if you stuck to those easy wins at the bottom.
Disadvantages of Aiming High
There are disadvantages to aiming high, too. These include:
- It takes a lot more time to make a sale: You’re unlikely to hit a home run on your first try (though it happens frequently for my students who have learned how to write excellent pitches), so you may end up pitching several times before your story ends up published.
- You may find yourself in over your head: If you’re very inexperienced, this approach can backfire, especially if you do get the assignment. If a TIME magazine editor assigns you a story, they expect you to know how to do the reporting, how to file, how to source, when to submit the expenses, and all those other fun business things. If this is your first time reporting on assignment, you could face a massive crisis of confidence or end up asking the editor to do a lot of hand-holding. This would not be good.
- The success rate is lower: No matter how experienced you are, top publications are just harder to break into than the local, lower-paying ones. You’ll be doing a lot more work to get those pitches out for a lot less in return. This can lead to burnout and frustration if you’re not realistic about the process.
When to Aim High
So when should you aim high? Here are some situations in which starting from the top is the better idea:
- When you’ve got an incredible story idea: If it’s unique and no national media has covered it already, be the one to break the story.
- When you have exceptional credentials: If you’re established as an expert in the field you’re writing about or been a staff journalist with excellent credentials, there’s no reason for you to start at the bottom. In fact, it would make no sense at all.
- When writing is still a side job for you: If you’re not dependent on this writing to pay the bills, it’s a lot easier to aim high. Aiming high might be preferable because you’re not working with time and income constraints. You can take risks. And you can wait patiently for the rewards.
- If you identify more as an artist than a business: If you’re doing this for the love of the writing and the reward of being published in top-tier publications or in order to promote a book, you should start at the top. Aim high. If you take immediate income out of the equation, there’s no reason not to.
The strategy when you’re aiming low is this: Make a list of the 3-5 publications that you know you have a good chance of breaking into with this particular story idea and send it to them. Pitch them all at once. If you don’t hear back within the week, pitch five more. This is low-hanging fruit, so it should be easy. If a publication is difficult, strike it off your list.
Advantages of Aiming Low
The advantages of this approach are:
- It allows you to build confidence and make mistakes: You’re learning on the job. These are local publications, websites, and blogs. If you make a mistake or need time to learn, these are the publications with which you have the leeway to do so. No editor wants to pay $1 a word and train you, but when you’re not being paid as much, editors are often happy to help you out and give you some grace.
- You can grow at your own pace: If you’re new to writing or freelancing, contributing to smaller and low-paying publications allows you to grow and learn at a pace that you’re comfortable with.
- The responses are quicker: This means more assignments, faster income, and a shorter time to building up a portfolio full of clips.
Disadvantages of Aiming Low
There are a few disadvantages to this approach as well. These are:
- You can get stuck playing small: The longer you play in the minor leagues, the more comfortable you get staying there. You want to aim low so you can get a few clips and buy yourself time to aim higher. But many freelancers get too comfortable writing for editors who won’t push them to do bigger and harder stories. This is a trap that can be hard to get out of.
- You’ll struggle financially: The “aim low” approach results in low-paid work. The easy acceptances from low-paying publications can make it very difficult to transition into making an actual living unless you’re proactive about it.
- Your experience is limited: You’re not writing for recognizable brands, which makes it harder for you to get traction or decent clips that you can showcase on your website or in your pitches to other editors.
When to Aim Low
So when it is best to start low? Here’s when you should start from the bottom and work your way up:
- When you’re new to the freelancing world: If you desire to be a writer, but don’t yet have any clips or work to show, aiming lower will help you get your foot in the door and get that valuable early experience.
- When you haven’t yet mastered the art of coming up with good story ideas: The moment you can write an effective pitch, you’re ready to write for the recognizable national and international publications. It’s a simple skill that can open many doors for you. (I can show you how.)
- When you don’t have a portfolio and need to build one quickly: The first step to bringing in new, higher-paying clients is to have work to show. Aiming low helps you get there faster.
- When you need to have an income—any income—coming in quickly: If you can’t afford to wait months for that bigger paycheck, getting a few smaller paychecks in quickly can help your business stay financially viable.
- When you still have a lot of learning left to do: That is, you know that your work isn’t up to the highest standards yet and you need more practice before you feel confident working with top publications and editors.
Pitching, much like writing itself, is a very personal process and the decisions regarding it should all be taken with consideration of your life, your circumstances, and the goals you have for your writing. Not to mention the story idea and its marketability.
I frequently recommend aiming both high and low. There’s no rule to stop you taking the easy pay checks AND aiming for the stars. Who to pitch depends on your story idea and the current state of your finances.
When I have a fantastic idea that I know will get attention, I take it to the top, like I did with my first story for The New York Times. But when I need a quick win or a few hundred dollars for an unexpected expense, I might aim low in order to bring in that income quickly. In those circumstances, aiming low gets me to my goal quickly and easily.
There is no right or wrong way. As long as you’re getting your work out there, that’s all that eventually matters.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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