There are certain clichés about freelance journalism: hours spent staring at a laptop screen while nursing a coffee in a café; writing at home in your pajamas; chasing down paychecks from ambivalent editors at large publications that should have no problem issuing payments. There are also clichés about wine writing: boxes of wine samples arriving to your door (usually unsolicited); long weekday lunches involving endless schmoozing and multiple glasses of wine; wild journeys through European vineyards, getting lost a dozen times and eating your weight in cheese while touring damp, cold cellars that have been used for generations.
They’re all true, actually. But how to get there, is the question you might be asking. And while the lifestyle itself does leave much to be desired (such as reliable income), if it’s really what you are after, there are certain steps to follow.
I often get emails from writers wondering how to become a professional freelance journalist, and I do my best to answer them because I remember when I was once sending those emails, totally clueless on how to follow my dreams. What I think is important to know is that: (a) journalism is a trade that can be learned, (b) writing is a skill, and (c) reporting involves certain “nuts and bolts” without which you’ll never sell or produce a professional story. Talent is vital, but it’s useless without some knowledge of how to do journalism properly.
So, I thought I’d answer some of the most recent questions I received from a hopeful natural wine journalist, here in a blog post, for anyone to find. Although the focus here is specifically on natural wine journalism, since of course I publish a magazine on that topic, I think a lot of these tips can be applied to freelance food, arts, and culture writing as well.
Also, in general I do recommend blogging just for fun and practice. It won’t earn you money, but it will earn you a following and it’s a great way to stay busy in between assignments. Whenever I couldn’t sell a pitch, I just wrote about it in this section of my blog. At least the work is being read instead of sitting in my notebook.
What kinds of pitches do editors tend to avoid from new writers?
First of all, it’s vital that you learn the art of the pitch.
A pitch should contain several elements:
- an intro (2-3 sentences) stating who you are, where you’ve been writing, and why you’re pitching this publication in particular – as if you were introducing yourself to this editor at a party
- a working title for each one of your pitches (you can offer more than one at once)
- a sexy lede (Google “lede” if you don’t know what that is)
- the Ws (Who/What/Where/When/Why), in other words “what is this story about, why does it matter, and why now?)
- justification for you and nobody else writing this story
- justification for this publication and nobody else publishing this story
You can also include some info regarding how long the story might be, what work you’ve done so far (interviewed a subject already, or researched the topic, or in this case, tasted the wines with the producer or importer), and what’s left to be done, and how you plan to do that reporting (in-person, phone, email, etc).
Regarding new writers, for most editors it’s asking a lot if you’ve never worked together and you want to land a big, full-length print feature. If the magazine has a website, you might start with a web piece before venturing something in print. With Pipette, an interview or short essay or bar review might be a nice starting point. However, if you are widely published on the topic then you an aim higher.
What’s it like writing for X publication?
I won’t answer publicly what it’s like working for that specific publication, but I do commend this practice! In other words, if you’re interested in pitching a publication, I recommend you ask writers whose bylines appear there for insight. Ask them if they are comfortable disclosing information about the pitching, editing, and payment processes. Learn as much as you can, so you aren’t totally naïve when you do pitch and hopefully then begin an assignment.
What should a pitch for a natural wine story look like?
You’ve got the elements of a solid pitch above. Regarding natural wine, something to keep in mind is that there’s a lot of great natural wine out there these days, and new stuff all the time. You need to justify the story you’re choosing to pitch. Why is this producer deserving of a story? Have they been single-handedly rejuvenating a region through their fabulous vineyard work? Is their personal story super inspiring? Are they part of some amazing community that tells a story beyond just winemaking? It can also be a personal reason—did this winemaker change your life, or have you been transformed by their Pinot?
Access is also important. If you live in New York and you’re pitching a profile of a winemaker in Georgia, well, the obvious question is: how are you going to write this? If the winemaker is coming through New York for RAW Wine Fair, there’s your chance! Mention that in the pitch. Some publications do have small travel budgets, but it’s unlikely that you’ll get flown across the world.
Also keep in mind, if this producer’s wines are only available within a fifty-mile radius of their winery, well, it’s going to be hard to sell that story to anything except a hyper-local publication. Nobody is that interested in reading about a wine they will never taste.
Also, if the wines aren’t good, or you don’t personally care for them, why would you pitch that?
You also may need to narrow the focus of the pitch in terms of depth and approach. Think about your potential readers: are they people who drink and love natural wine already? Or are you targeting the “natural wine curious”? Also, think about your own position. Have you visited Jean-Francois Ganevat three times over the course of years? If so, pitch a really in-depth profile for people who already love his wines. Are you scheduled to have your very first visit ever with him, and you only discovered his wines a year ago? Then understand that you’ll be just barely scratching the surface of someone totally iconic. Pitch it as a short, light profile, or even an interview, or maybe just focus on one aspect of the visit, such as his vineyard work or a recent wine vintage.
The pitch will vary as well depending on the publication. A pitch about natural wine for Vogue, for example, will need to be broad and explanatory, whereas for Pipette, you’re generally talking to people who know the deal.
When I was starting out in journalism, I took a few workshops and also sat in on a class in NYU Journalism School, where I was considering applying. I learned in those contexts about the “lede,” the “nut graf,” and the “body” of an article. Honestly, you can’t do journalism without having some grasp of those elements. Find a workshop.
I also highly recommend trying a workshop in creative nonfiction so you can improve your ability to write captivating prose. Dialogue, for example, is something a lot of writers struggle with. There’s an art to it, and it can be learned.
What reading do you suggest for someone who wants to learn more about the science and specifics of wines?
I recommend tasting wines that call to you intuitively, or which you’ve heard a lot about, and looking them up online and finding every resource you can (usually, importer websites and blogs) and learning about them that way.
I also recommend checking out general wine books by Jancis Robinson and Jon Bonné, and Alice Feiring and Isabelle Legeron’s natural wine guidebooks. And of course, Pipette.
What is the state of natural wine coverage right now?
There isn’t too much covering natural wine from a serious journalistic perspective, in English, other than Pipette (which is why I started the mag). The print magazine Glou Glou is pretty great. There’s a lot of stuff on Instagram but most of it just skims the surface. Meanwhile, mainstream publications love to treat natural wine as a fashion trend, publishing listicle after listicle—it’s not a terrible thing, as those articles do often mention realities about natural wine, and provide suggestions for bottles to try. But they won’t tell you anything beyond the most basic information about natural wine, and they are quite repetitive as well.
How can journalists tell stories about the natural wine movement while tapping into greater themes—such as politics, tradition, rebellion, generational divides, capitalism, etc?
THANK YOU for this question. My original love for wine, and wine writing, occurred because I saw wine (and especially natural wine) as a lens to all these topics. When I wrote about Francois Saint-Lo, for example, in Pipette Issue 3, I tried to emphasize the social experiment that’s happening around his winery, just as much as the winemaking itself.
Winemakers are often really passionate about something totally other than wine, if you prod—so they might have studied film or art, or perhaps they have an interesting hobby, or they may grow something other than wine—see the feature on Gabrio and Giotto Bini in Pipette Issue 1, where the writer beautifully covered the family’s caper harvest on Pantelleria while also talking about their wines.
In journalism this is sometimes called “crossover” journalism—when you interview a painter, for example, but you focus on her fabulous home garden, and use that as a framework for talking about her artwork; or you do a profile on a filmmaker at his favorite restaurant, and his passion for great cooking comes through in the piece, showing him as a more complete human.
I actually have a story idea that I would like to workshop, but I’m still working on it…
Just send over what you have, using the guidelines above to the best of your ability! Maybe it won’t be perfect—in which case, the editor will either outright reject it or offer some tips for improvement. I have consistently noticed that nearly all of the pitches I successfully landed happened when I sent a full, thought-out pitch via email, and the editor wrote back with a polite “no” and an explanation, and I fired back quickly a fresh idea in just a few sentences, sparking a conversation that led to an assignment.
Don’t be afraid to just fire off a few ideas; a pitch doesn’t need to be a PhD dissertation, it just needs to contain enough solid elements that an editor can visualize it some day (perhaps with some help) becoming a publishable final piece.
LASTLY, this should not need to be stated, but apparently it does: Do not send pitches via DM or Facebook. Email them.
We accept pitches for Pipette via email@example.com. Here are our submissions guidelines. Although if you’ve read what’s above, that should be enough guidance!
And remember, editors are busy — if your pitch doesn’t get a reply in 2-3 weeks, follow-up. But don’t follow up the next day. If they say no, ask for feedback, but if you don’t get any, it’s not personal — you need to do your own work to figure out how to improve. And please, never pitch a publication you haven’t read!
Let me know if you have more questions I haven’t addressed and I’ll do my best to answer them : )
All photos here are by the Adelaide, Australia based photographer Lewis Potter and should not be used without permission.