Writing for Money: Tips for Planning Your Next Article Pitch
If you have expertise with web technologies, there’s good money to be made writing for online publications like SitePoint.
Don’t worry if you feel you’re not a great writer. The most important thing is your knowledge and enthusiasm for your subject.
As an editor for SitePoint, I’ve compiled a list of the most important things to consider when planning and pitching your article idea.
Deciding What to Write About
Not every topic is suited for an article, so start with some planning and research. Here are some things to focus on.
Know your subject
Think about what you’re best qualified to write about. Sure, you can do some research on a topic you don’t know much about and then knock out an article. But it’s better to write about something you’re intimately familiar with, as it lends depth and authority to your writing.
Pick an appropriate topic
The internet is full of amazing blog posts on all kinds of topics, some of them pretty niche — which is fantastic, and long may it last! But when writing for money, it’s important to remember that your publisher can’t afford to pay for content that few will read.
You can help your chances of getting published by ensuring there’s widespread interest in your topic. As an expert in a particular area, you should have a feel for what’s trending, and the kind of information people are currently looking for.
For programming languages, there will always be new specifications, libraries, modules and APIs to explain, new techniques to explore, better ways to get things done, and new solutions to common problems. And there will always be a demand for new insights into Design and UX, Accessibility, Entrepreneurship, Content and Marketing.
A good way to gauge current interest in a topic is to look at what’s happening on news groups, social media, forums and so on. I often get pitches for topics that used to create a buzz but are now basically old news. Ask yourself whether your proposed article could have been written one or more years ago. If so, it’s probably better to focus on what’s changed since then — especially given how fast web technologies and practices are evolving. (Of course, a new take on an old topic is an exception, but it takes skill to make a splash with these.)
Has it been done before?
Ideally, choose a topic that needs more coverage generally. If a topic has recently been done to death across the web, it may not be the best choice, even if your publisher is yet to cover it. At least try to offer something new on the topic, or a different angle, and highlight this in your pitch.
It’s also a really good idea to check if your topic has already been covered by your publisher. Search their site, either through their internal search tools or via Google, like so:
site:sitepoint.com my topic idea
If the topic has been covered, all is not lost. You could argue the previous articles are out of date, or that you have a different slant on the topic that’s worth publishing. This can be very helpful to the editor.
Consider your audience
To communicate effectively, it’s important to be clear about who you’re writing for. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What should the reader already know in order to be able to follow along?
- What skills or knowledge should the reader come away with after reading?
You’re not ready to write your article until you can answer these questions. Having a clear idea of your audience is critical for choosing a topic and how to approach it. A successful article meets readers where they are, and makes it clear where you’re taking them.
When pitching a topic to your editor, the more you can demonstrate you’ve considered the points mentioned above, the better the chances of your topic being approved.
Writing an Outline
Along with your topic pitch, I highly recommend you include an outline of your article. This really helps an editor assess the viability of the topic. It also helps you to plan your writing and to ensure it has a clear purpose and goal.
An outline is like a skeleton, showing an article’s limbs and bones. It’s similar to what you’d glean by quickly scanning a finished article: the title and main headings give you a sense of what the article covers, and the first line of each paragraph gives you a bit more detail.
Try to write an outline without referring to notes. If you can’t, it probably means you’re not quite on top of the topic yet, and that you need to do some more thinking, planning or research.
So let’s look at the elements of an effective outline. At the end of this section, I’ll include the outline I used for this article as an example.
An editor will help you with the title, but it’s still a good idea to put thought into this yourself. A title can make or break an article. Try to capture the essence of the topic in a way that will attract readers and also maximize its SEO potential. Longer titles of around 50 or 60 characters are preferable to shorter ones.
A good introduction is crucial. It gives readers a clear idea of what the article is about, why it’s important, whether or not it’s relevant to them, and what they can hope to learn from it.
Your outline should include a brief list that covers these points clearly.
The main headings of your article are really important, and you should be able to list them in an outline when pitching a topic. Readers often scan headings to get an overview of an article, so they should give a clear sense of what the article covers.
As with the main title, word them carefully, so that they clearly summarize what’s to follow.
Listing discussion points
Under each heading, list the main points you’ll be making. These list items may or may not represent actual paragraphs, but it’s useful to think of them like that. Often readers will scan headings and then the first words of each paragraph, which should give a sense of what they contain.
It’s always good to round off an article with some concluding thoughts — such as ones that help to elucidate, clarify or reiterate the main points made in the article, and that point readers to what they can do next.
Your outline should include a simple list of these concluding points.
As an example, here’s the outline I put together for this article. I didn’t want to start writing until I had this clear overview of the article.
[title] Writing for Money: Tips for Planning Your Next Article Pitch [intro] - good money to be made writing for online publications - knowledge and enthusiasm more important than writing skills - in this article: things to consider when planning and pitching your article idea ## Deciding What to Write About ### Know your subject - focus on what you're qualified to write about ### Pick an appropriate topic - some blog topics are too niche to work as articles - focus on what's of current interest/trending: specs, libraries, techniques etc. - avoid "old news" topics ### Has it been done before? - has the topic been done to death? Has the publisher covered the topic already? Try at least to offer a unique angle ### Consider your audience - be clear about what you expect your audience to know, and what they'll get from the article ## Writing an Outline - helps you and your editor - provides a skeleton for scanning - if you can't write it without notes, do more planning ### Title - think about appropriate titles ### Intro - put your readers in the picture ### Headings - your headings should provide a summary of the article ### Listing discussion points - Under each heading, list the main points you'll be making ### Conclusion - list concluding thoughts that round off the article ### Demo outline - use this outline as a demo ## Other Things to Consider ### Don't skip the outline - jumping straight into writing is tougher for you and the editor in the long run ### Be flexible - remember the business side of article writing. You're serving readers, not yourself ## Wrap-up - don't be put off - take responsibility for quality control; write about what you know well - demonstrate your understanding of the topic and audience with a logical outline
Other Things to Consider
The two main things I wanted to cover in this article were choosing a topic and writing an outline. But there are some further points worth mentioning.
Don’t skip the outline
If you know your topic really well, you may be tempted to skip the outline and just write the article. However, it’s much harder to rework a finished piece of writing than an outline.
The outline for this article started much longer than it ended up. It originally included tips on how to write an article, but I quickly realized this was better saved for another article, and that I should just start by focusing on article pitching. The outlining process made this obvious, and it was a lot easier to tweak an outline than a whole article.
Submitting a pitch as a full article also makes things more difficult for an editor. Your editor needs to have a say in the direction and focus of an article, and that process is much easier with an outline. If a completed article needs too much reworking, there’s a greater chance your pitch will be rejected than if you’d submitted it as an outline. And it’s less painful to have an outline rejected than a full article that you spent hours working on!
(Even if you’re just writing posts for your personal blog, I still recommend writing an outline first. It will help you organize your thoughts, and may save your editor a lot of work — in this case, you!)
Be open-minded and flexible
Writing articles for money isn’t a branch of the creative arts (at least, not primarily!) It’s business. If an editor asks you to change things, or rejects your topic, don’t assume it’s because they don’t appreciate your genius. Usually, it’s because they’re trying to serve their readers as best they can and to reach as wide an audience as possible. For commercial reasons, they have to make sure a topic will attract enough readers to pay the bills and justify the money they pay you.
Of course, you can argue your case, but it really comes back to the strength of your pitch and the research you’ve done in advance — as mentioned earlier.
Hopefully these tips haven’t made it sound like article pitching is too hard. It’s really quite easy to send off an email proposing an article topic — and I encourage you to give it a try.
Just don’t leave all the quality control to your editor. Your chances of getting published, and of producing something useful for readers, will be much higher if you do the sort of prep work I’ve described.
So start with your expertise and love of the subject. Then consider how relevant it is today, and how wide an appeal it might have. Some authors tell me “this will interest people” without giving any obvious reasons why — and that’s not enough. Your editor may not be as much an expert in your topic area as you, and will have misgivings if you can’t speak with some authority on the topic’s relevance and likely appeal.
Lastly, put some effort into your outline. An editor really needs to know that you’re on top of the subject and have the skill to argue it out logically. A few random dot points about the topic aren’t enough to demonstrate that you know the subject and where you’re going with it. An editor may be willing to coach you through this process, but ideally shouldn’t have to. You’ll certainly get brownie points for taking the initiative!