Three freelance writers stand before me, but I have only two résumés in my hand. The name I do not choose must pack his bags and return to writing in his personal journal.

“How do I write for the Indy?” It’s the second-most common question I field. (The first being “How do I get my event in the calendar?”)

First, your academic degree is meaningless to me, regardless of the number of letters after your name: B.A., B.S., M.A., M.S., Ph. D, J.D., Y.A.W.N.

That’s not to say it’s worthless, but your diploma alone doesn’t indicate whether you can write. Ditto for your journalism degree. It bestows no greater advantage upon you; it is not necessarily a harbinger of success. (Hear that sound of teeth gnashing? It’s the UNC J-school faculty.)

At a previous alt-weekly, I hired a Harvard graduate with a Rain Man-like math aptitude and a guy with only a GED whose work experience included a stint as a carpet cleaner. Both were prolific, tireless, talented writers and reporters who turned in compelling copy every single week.

Bottom line: Freelance and staff positions are not entry-level. To work at the Indy, you must be able to craft interesting, clear, accurate, well-reported stories—and make a deadline. If you’re a photographer or illustrator, your work must also adhere to the same high standard for the respective medium.

Let’s say you fit this criteria—and a lot of people do, especially with so many journalists out of work. Now it’s time to pitch a story.

First, and this may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised—Read the paper in print and online. Get acquainted with the kind of writing we nurture and the types of stories we run.

Cruise the staff box to determine which editor would be best to hear your pitch; email addresses of all the editors are on our “Contact” page.

Then email the correct editor and in the salutation spell the name correctly. If you spell it incorrectly, we stop reading and hit “delete.” Every time. No exceptions.

In a cover letter, briefly introduce yourself, tell us about your background and then pitch your piece: What is the essence of the story? Why is it important? Why would Indy readers be interested in it? Tell us if it’s time-sensitive. And provide your contact info so we can follow up if we’re interested.

A note about following up: You should, but no more than twice. We receive hundreds of emails a day and yours may still be unread. I usually flag story pitches for follow up but it can take me a week to respond. To be honest, I try to respond to everyone, but due to the volume, sometimes I can’t. If you’ve sent two emails and haven’t heard back, then it’s safe to assume I’m not interested in the pitch.

Very occasionally, if we’re on the fence about a story (or the writer), we’ll ask that it be written “on spec.” This means that if you agree, you’ll write the piece and if we like it, we’ll run it (and pay you for it). If we don’t like it, then you’re free to take it elsewhere, but we don’t owe you any money. It’s a way for us to test the waters. This doesn’t happen often, but it’s an option.

So these are the keys to writing for the paper. If you do this, congratulations, you’re on your way to becoming the Indy’s next freelancer.

On that note, tonight is the paper’s annual potluck for our freelancers, the 25 or so talented people who help fill our pages—paper and web—with interesting, well-written stories. They are vital to the Indy‘s success, so thanks to all of them.

Now playing: Sharon Van Etten, Because I Was in Love