How to pitch editors can feel like a mystery. How do you get started? There are no set-in-stone formulas for how to pitch, but there are certain things I’ve found that work better in my own pitching or that I’ve heard from editors at conferences. I’d say experiment and see what works best for you, but remember that every editor will like different things.
First and foremost:
Look to see if there are submission guidelines on the site. FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES.
Here are a couple of examples:
The one rule that freelancers tend to break is by finding a specific editor to pitch, instead of using the generic email. Generally, this is okay unless you specifically read NOT to do that.
What should a pitch look like?
Start with a hook sentence: one intriguing sentence that explains what exactly the article is about. Editors don’t want to fish for the story. If you’re still vague about it, you’re not ready to pitch it.
Say what kind of article this is: reported piece, feature, op-ed, personal essay, listicle, etc. If it is for a specific section, be sure to mention it. If you have a word count in mind, mention that as well.
Lay out the article as clearly as you can. You should know how you plan on structuring the piece. At a conference I attended, one editor explained that he didn’t want any surprises. If your story has an amazing twist — give it away to the editor, save it for your readers.
For investigative pieces, it’s particularly helpful to tie your piece into current events or current hot button issues.
If you plan on interviewing experts for the piece, link to a public profile.
Include why you are qualified to write this piece. Relevant business, personal, or writing experience.
Include why you think this piece is a good fit for their publication. This only needs to be a sentence long and can even be incorporated into one of the other pieces of the pitch. “This would be an investigative piece that would appeal to XX’s savvy and successful readers.”
Include clips if you have them: links to related articles that you’ve written. If I haven’t written anything like what I’m pitching, I’ll include links to pieces that I’m proud of.
How long should a pitch be?
In general shoot for two to three paragraphs. For complicated pieces—say you’re pitching a feature to the Atlantic or Time—you can do four to five.
When to follow up
For pitches to most websites, I follow up 7-14 days after my first email, if the story is not time-sensitive.
If I have pitched a major outlet that I know gets more pitches—such as any of the glossies like Marie Claire or major news sites like the Washington Post—I’ll wait between 2 to 3 weeks. Consider it this way, the more readers, the more pitches they’ll receive, and the longer you should wait.
Also, check to see if a site specifically tells you NOT to follow up. If so, then don’t.
Expect no response much of the time. Editors simply don’t have time to response to every pitch. Don’t take it personally, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try them again.
Time sensitive pitches
When pitching a hot topic story, put something like TIME-SENSITIVE in the subject line. I’ve also learned from experience to mention that I will pitch elsewhere if I don’t hear back within [12 hours, 2 days, etc] depending on how urgent the pitch is.
When you already have the piece written:
Some editors want to see finished pieces if you have them, and some prefer to ask for them. If I’ve written a piece already, I’ll generally send it along, but I’ve never actually had a piece accepted this way. I believe it’s because an editor wants to shape a piece. Another thing to consider: if you’re looking to get paid, why work on a piece you’re unsure someone is going to pick up? Better to pitch it first and see who bites.
You can write the piece first if you plan to post the piece on a blog if no-one else picks it up.
And when you are SUPPOSED to send finished pieces. Places that focus on personal essays will often ask you to submit via Submittable. The Manifest-Station is an example of this.
Who should you pitch
A lot of freelancers will tell you to start with the top, then work your way down. Meaning, shoot for the place you’d most love to see your piece placed. If they reject it, then try for the smaller publications. I believe this is true, but I also believe you should have decent clips and experience before reaching for the stars. The goal: you want to be taken seriously. Take yourself seriously, first.
You normally wouldn’t try out for a major league sports team without having some experience in the minors or playing college ball. In other words, make sure you’re ready. Paradoxically, you’ll never feel ready, so at some point, just do it.
Just to reiterate
This is just like dating, folks — you’re wooing a person, so there are no magic formulas that “work every time.” You have to be yourself and hope that’s what they’re looking for. And, just like dating, if they don’t like you, you probably don’t want to work with them anyway.
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