Writing is hard.
Having an idea worth sharing is easy, but bringing that idea from abstract thought to concrete language, selling it to others, and finally putting it into a digestible format is difficult. Although we’re a publication about videogames, Haywire Magazine is founded on the idea that anyone who wants to learn how to write should have the resources to do so.
This guide is specific to Haywire, but was created with the intention of being helpful beyond the confines of our site. Nothing written here is set in stone, so don’t be afraid to defy our advice or pursue other styles if that’s what works best for you. Think of this as a baseline upon which to build your methods.
The first step to writing for publications is usually pitching. Pitching, in brief, means to summarize the content, style, and tone of an article you are planning in order to sell it to an editor. Since this not only requires emailing strangers, but asking them to evaluate an idea, it can be quite daunting – unfortunately there’s no real way around it.
There are several things you want to do before writing your pitch.
- First, research the site you are pitching to. Are they even looking for pitches right now? Would yours fit in with their style?
- Find, read, and follow any guidelines that outlet has for pitches.
- Perform any appropriate research and fact-checking on your subject. Additional research may come later during the writing process, but don’t come empty-handed.
- Ensure your email will be reaching the right person, and that you get their name right. Little details like these are important to editors, and go a long way toward making a good impression.
If you’ve never worked with a given editor before, the first thing you should introduce in your pitch is yourself. Tell the editor your name and what you’re about, and link to samples of your earlier writing, though not all sites expect this. Samples should be chosen by their quality first, then their relevance to the current pitch (for example, if you’re pitching an interview, provide links to previous interviews you have done). If you’ve not yet been published professionally, linking to your favorite blog posts is OK.
Secondly, a pitch should explain and explore the full article in brief. Most pitches land somewhere between 150 and 300 words, with many outlets favoring 200 word pitches as the sweet spot. Pitching successfully is about striking a balance: you want to provide enough detail to show why and how your idea will be explored in a full article, but you also want to break it down far enough to communicate your key points effectively and clearly. If your pitch is too short, it might be dismissed as insubstantial. If it is too long, it might be dismissed as digressive, or never read in full. Editors tend to be very busy, and consequently very impatient.
One problem we frequently see in pitches is mentioning only a general topic, but not the argument you want to make about it. For instance, Dark Souls is a topic, but “Dark Souls is reminiscent of the process of editing because you refine many failed attempts into a single, successful attempt” is an argument about this topic. Being too broad implies you haven’t thought through the idea. Demonstrate that you have. You don’t need the entire article planned out, but have an idea of your main points before you pitch.
A second common issue is writers failing to recognize that pitches are a form of mini-sample. Before anybody clicks through and reads your samples, the pitch is an editor’s first impression of your writing style, tone, and technique. Match the tone of your pitch to the publication you’re pitching to – remain professional, but don’t be too formal unless your email is to the New Yorker. Writing a pitch in the same kind of language and personality as a finished article can tell an editor a great deal about you as a writer in a very brief length, and good use of this opportunity can do a lot to leave a lasting impression on an editor. This is also why you should always thoroughly proofread your pitch.
Lastly, it is important to always keep in mind that you are selling your skills as a writer, not as an expert or enthusiast of games. You do not need to mention that you love games. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. Games writing is a challenging business, and everyone in it loves games. It is wiser to put focus on yourself as a writer, not a gamer.
Once you’re in regular contact with editors, you might get to bounce ideas back and forth more casually than through the normal pitching process, but being able to write proper pitches is a habit worth practicing for pitching to new publications, as well as maintaining written outlines and records for both yourself and any editors you work with.
For additional advice on pitching, consider reading what Alan Williamson of Five out of Ten has to say.
Following Up on a Pitch
After pitching, the writer’s immediate work is done. However, that doesn’t mean the pitching process is necessarily complete. Editors will frequently have an overflowing inbox of pitches, and sometimes pitches and drafts will fall between the cracks of their attention. In order to counteract this, it can benefit writers to send brief follow-up emails about unreplied pitches and drafts. However, some outlets explicitly ask prospective writers to refrain from sending additional emails in order to keep their editors from being bombarded with queries, so make sure to check their submission guidelines before you contact them again.
Even if sites allow for follow-up emails, they should be considered with time. An editor may find quick follow-ups frustrating, which may have ramifications on long-term desire to work with writers who email too often. Most editors would prefer there to be at least two weeks between first pitch and a reminder email. Some editors prefer less time, others more. In general, err on the side of a longer pause. When researching editors and outlets to pitch, follow them on social media, and make notes of public comments on if or when writers should follow up with that outlet and its editors.
Writing is very complex, and varies drastically from publisher to publisher – and editor to editor. A good place to start for writing advice is The Elements of Style, not because its word is doctrine, but because its principles provide a solid base for forming your own voice in accordance with or defiance against the book’s suggestions. A word of caution: don’t trust its examples of the passive voice.
A few matters of good practice include:
- Avoid longer, more complex words where simpler words will do. Labyrinthine meanderings through multisyllabic lexical selections obfuscate meaning. Sharp, direct language is easier on the eyes and the mind.
- Grammar and structure work best left alone. Variations on the established rules can work, but work best in concert with existing rules. Rules should be followed first, and broken rarely and selectively.
- Rhythm matters. Varied sentence length helps your writing flow. Keep an eye on how many clauses you use, and how many words fit between your commas.. Good writing is less like a drumbeat, more like a melody; it frees the reader to enjoy your work on a level beyond its mere content.
- Avoid cliches and familiar terms. Evoking unique language and avoiding insider vocabulary will help widen your audience, and make for more interesting reading.
- Sensory language helps ground difficult or technical ideas for more readers. Find a point of comparison. For example, likening a game’s minimap to a GPS display can help readers understand a mechanic in a game they may not have played.
- Not all readers will have the full vocabulary on videogame or niche subjects and subgenres. Consider the audience of the publication when choosing which concepts to explain and which to take for granted.
Another significant note is that many sites will have style guidelines. Style guidelines specify unique quirks or choices of style that every article on the site follows. Stick to these guidelines as best as you can in your draft. If the style or submission guidelines are not readily apparent, ask your editor about them once your pitch has been accepted. Almost any and every site will have them, even if not publicly displayed.
Editing is one of the most valuable parts of any article’s life. An editor’s job is not to change an author’s work, but to suggest considerations to better support the ideas and arguments the article is putting forward. A good editor will correct flaws and omit excess; a great editor will find ways to expand meaning and challenge assumptions such that the article that emerges is a stronger version of the one that was submitted.
Changes like these are often negotiable. However, writers should only question editors if they feel a change is expressly harmful to the piece. Arguing in defense of a particular word or phrase is an important part of the editing process, but remember that writers tend to be too close to their own work to see its flaws. Editors provide important perspective and will have a better understanding of the tastes of their site’s particular audience. They want to help you, not tear you down, and you should only reject their advice with great consideration.
Each site you work with will have its own unique editing process and expectations, including the pace at which changes are implemented and drafts returned. The amount of time set aside to edit your story will depend, among other factors, on how closely it is tied to current events of the news cycle. Be sure to point out such connections if they are not readily apparent, but understand that even if you see a golden opportunity to time your story with the latest news, your editors may have no room in their schedule for rushing your draft.
If there must be delays on your end, communicate them to your editor early. Embarrassing as it may be, a known delay is easier to plan around than radio silence, and the longer you put off asking for more time, the deeper the hole you may be digging yourself into.
Although you will only be paid once your article has been pitched, written, edited, and published, the issue of compensation should be discussed long before it comes to pass, ideally promptly after your pitch has been accepted. Writing is no different than any other business: before any work is done, both parties need to reach an agreement about the amount due for services rendered. If you are to make a deal, both parties deserve to know what they’ll get out of it.
Sites can be somewhat secretive about their standard rates, but you can find many of the household names in this crowdsourced spreadsheet. If a site offers no information about payment in its official documentation, the editor you are approaching should bring the subject up themselves for sake of clarification. If this does not happen, do not hesitate to ask them yourself. Sometimes pitch emails are handed down from one editor to the next, and the person you end up talking to may not be fully aware of what you have and haven’t been told so far.
If a site does not pay its writers, you should expect them to be honest and upfront about that fact. It can be worthwhile to work unpaid gigs for the experience, tutoring, and guidance they may offer, but there are also a lot of small sites that promise they are going to pay you once you help them reach their growth goals. Be wary of those asking you to “pay your dues.” It can be hard to tell at first glance whether a site is worth your time, but a good rule of thumb is never to work for free for anybody who is making money off of you, and not to take any deals in which you will only maybe get paid.
Assuming you are being paid, have discussed your rate with your editor, and finished your article, there is one final hurdle to clear in order to collect your payment: you will have to send an invoice.
An invoice provides a written record of your transaction for both your own and the site’s accounting. Knowing this, you can surmise most of the elements that are required in this document.
- Your name, address and tax identification
- The name and business address of the site you are writing for
- A description of the product being sold (usually the title of your article)
- The amount due for the sale
- The date of the invoice and a unique reference number for it (if you want to avoid giving away that it is your first, second etc. invoice ever, you can assign these chronologically rather than sequentially)
The exact requirements of an invoice may vary based on your local business and tax codes, and it is sadly impossible for us to provide exhaustive advice on these fields. However, a good place to start may be to talk to other freelancers in your area for basic pointers and leads on good accountants. Be warned: at least in the US, the taxes on self-employed income are shockingly steep considering your perfect lack of benefits.
While it is entirely possible to create your own invoice template from scratch, the highly official nature of this document makes this a daunting process. There are many guides and templates available online, but they will likely need to be adapted to suit your exact needs. If you want to make sure that your invoice contains everything your editor needs you to include, you can ask them to send you their own invoice template – any site that has been in business for more than a week is bound to have one of these. In order to make sure you are also doing everything that is legally required of you, consider talking to an accountant about the process.
If you ever have any further questions about the process, ask your editor. Even if they don’t have explicit answers, almost every editor will know a good direction to point their writers in for assistance in getting paid, even if it’s just up the ladder.
Good luck out there, kiddo
Freelance writing is a noble pursuit and can be very stimulating work, but we should be clear: it’s a hard way to make a real living, especially in the internet age, and double-especially in the field of entertainment. It can take years to distinguish yourself from the thousands of no-name writers with opinions about videogames, and even then the work is unreliable, the audience fickle, the drudgery very real. Probably a majority of freelancers, especially new ones, either work a day job or have some other source of financial security.
We say this not to be cynical or to dissuade you from getting started – after all, simply sending out pitches shouldn’t take up too much of your time once you get the hang of it. We simply think it would be irresponsible to publish this guide without offering a sense of what’s in store for those starting out.
But we hope you do give it your best shot. The world of ideas is richer for every person who participates in it, and we want to see your contribution.