Here’s one we hear all the time: “I want to pitch to magazines and newspapers, but I don’t have any clips. No one will give me an assignment without clips, but how will I get a clip until I have an assignment?”
That’s an excellent question—but, you’ll be surprised to hear, the dilemma isn’t as intractable as it seems. We checked in with Anne Russell, former editor-in-chief of Shape magazine and current president of Extra Special Media, who gives these suggestions.
Start with something doable. Concentrate on pitching to publications that actually accept work from writers without clips—and they do exist. Small publications are often willing to take a chance on first-timers, so try newsletters and local newspapers and magazines.
Focus on the freebies
Write for freebie newspapers and magazines, which have small budgets and are therefore always eager for unpaid contributors. Insist on choosing a topic yourself. This is your golden opportunity to generate a sample that demonstrates your ability to write about a certain subject. Editors will focus on the quality of your work rather than the publication it appeared in.
Deal with daily sites
You can often drum up quick clips writing for websites that have daily needs for fresh content. The caliber of the provider can matter, so shoot for reputable and recognizable sites that can give you a brand-name writing sample. But something’s better than nothing, so write for any pub that’ll have you.
Just make sure your final, edited article is free of typos and misspellings. A writing sample with mistakes will not work in your favor—even if you aren’t responsible for them.
Pitch with references
When you send a pitch without clips—or with only byline-less clips—consider attaching a list of references. Compile the names of editors or former colleagues who have supervised your work (even if it wasn’t writing work you did for them) and include their contact information.
Two to three people will suffice; more than four is overkill. Just make sure that these references are actually prepared to vouch for you—a bunch of names might seem impressive, but the editor will call and a fake reference will be found out.
Play up your focus fields
Forget that you don’t have much journalism experience; you probably have stellar credentials in other fields. Don’t underestimate the value of your own expertise. Are you a dentist? A history buff? Do you have a hobby you’ve perfected? Focus your efforts on publications that cover your area of expertise.
In your letter, play up your specialized knowledge, not your writing skills. Take full advantage of anything and everything you have going for you.
Pitch the unique, interview the evasive
Pitch story ideas that only you can do. Spend some time hunting down an unusual idea that you are uniquely qualified to cover. Or, better still, nail an interview with someone who is known for being elusive.
The goal is to present an opportunity to an editor that she cannot refuse, and this is what will give you the edge against all those other people who have clips. Remember that more than anything else, editors are hungry for new and different stories.
Sell with your pitch letter
Demonstrate quality writing in your pitch letter—it’s a written document, after all, and it should prove your ability to communicate ideas and concepts. Without clips, the prose in your pitch letter assumes greater significance.
Opt for op-eds
Write a personal essay or an opinion piece. Of course, an editor won’t assign a first-person like this based on a query letter, so you have to do the work first before you can shop it around. Your advantage here is that the writing speaks for itself.
Resist the urge
And, finally, remember: When you don’t have samples of non-fiction writing, it’s tempting to send an editor samples of other types of writing you have done, such as poetry, a song or a screenplay. Resist this temptation. These things don’t show you have a command of journalism—and they just might freak out the editor.