The Dos and Don’ts of Pitching Like a Pro
So you want to write for magazines and websites…great! Writing articles can be an excellent way for authors to promote their work, build a platform, hone their skills, and get paid. How do you start? With a pitch, of course.
But how do you make sure your pitches will land the way you want them to? Allow me to share with you some of the wisdom I have gleaned from over twenty years working in media and publishing, most recently as Editor-in-Chief of Writer’s Digest magazine.
After so much time on both sides of the editor’s desk—as a full-time freelancer, and as an acquiring editor – I’m confident I’ve seen the best pitches, and the worst ones. I’ve sent out both kinds of pitches in my own career too!
Here’s a list of some of the biggest OOFs! I’ve seen writers make (myself included). This list isn’t intended to shame anyone—I’m giving it to you so you can avoid making these mistakes in your career.
Know Who You’re Pitching
This one may seem obvious, but believe me, it is not. If I had a nickel for every pitch I’ve gotten addressed to “Dear Sir” or “Dear Mrs. McIntyre,” I could pay someone (well) to write this blog for me. It’s the twenty-first century and dated forms of address make you look behind the times, and possibly even sexist. Even if you mean it respectfully, it lands with a thud. Don’t assume an editor’s gender or marital status.
Do your homework.
Most publications have submission guidelines on their websites. Find them and follow them. If for some reason the editor’s information is not in these, it is simple to discover. Most of us live on Twitter and many of us give you our pronouns in our bios. Ninety seconds of Googling will usually make it clear how and to whom you should address your pitch, regardless of whether the outlet is big or small, national or local, print or digital. If you have found an editor’s email or postal address, go the extra three inches and figure out how best to address them. Those three inches can carry you miles.
Know what the outlet has published recently.
This dovetails with my first point. If you have sent a pitch addressed to “Dear Sir” and it is also clear that you have no idea the kind of content an outlet publishes, the editor is going to make an assumption about you, and it is very likely going to be correct: You’re spaghetting it.
What’s “spaghetting it”? The term I made up for writers who are throwing out pitches everywhere at random to see what sticks.
Don’t do this. It’s the fast track to the slush pile. Editors want to know that you have taken the time to find out who they are, and what their publication is all about.
For print publications, read at least six months’ worth of issues. Better still, read a year’s worth, or be a subscriber.
For online, read at least a month’s worth of posts. Three months is even better.
When you pitch an editor something they’ve recently done a piece on, or something that they seem never to cover at all, it proves that you’re not a regular reader of the outlet you’re pitching. Before I query a website, I go out to the site’s search bar and type in the topic I am thinking of—usually in seconds I know if they’ve done a piece recently, and if my angle is unique enough to pitch. Or, if my topic is the right one to pitch at all.
Editors sometimes field dozens of pitches per day so it is critical that you pitch correctly. Editors don’t have time to spend more than a few minutes assessing your pitch—why it’s good, and why you should write it. They just don’t. It’s not personal.
Make it as easy as possible for them to pick up what you’re putting down. In my freelance life, I have one cardinal rule for myself: Never make my editor’s job harder than it needs to be. It has served me well over a decade of freelancing.
Know WHEN to pitch, especially with print outlets.
For websites, content calendars are generally set only a month or so out. For print? Whoa. It can be up to a year. I would get great pitches at WD, only to have to email a writer, “I’m so sorry, but print is full for months. This would have been great for July, but July has been full since October.”
Print publications work far in advance, and with limited space. A print magazine needs to allot a significant portion of page count to advertising and regular columns, leaving sometimes only twenty or so pages for freelancers’ work. Last-minute pitches are typically not accepted.
Here’s a good rule of thumb for pitching print: Pitch at least six months out. If it’s July, pitch for February. Many print pubs actually provide their editorial calendars online, or, will let you know what they are if you ask (nicely). Do that quick web search again, and you can set yourself ahead of your competition.
It’s also important to note that while websites generally have shorter lead times than print, and more space, they still have methods for publishing, and for good reasons. If a site only does two posts per day, don’t pitch them a third. If they only post short pieces (because they know their readers don’t have the attention span for more than 500 words), don’t pitch them a 2,000-word deep dive on a topic.
Following up on a pitch (Dos and DON’TS)
So you’ve sent a great pitch—it’s addressed to the right person, the right way; it’s the right topic with the right angle; and you’ve sent it at the right time. Great! But then, you don’t hear anything back from the editor. For a week. For two weeks. For a month. Sigh.
When and how do you best follow up?
Keep in mind how many pitches editors get, and that most in-house editorial staffs these days are thinner than a sheet of paper, and know this: The editor probably very much wants to get back to you quickly, but is simply too buried to do so.
I advise waiting two to four weeks before following up on most pitches (six weeks for print). Then send a very calm, friendly, easy-going follow up. If an editor wants your piece, they’ll say so.
I do not recommend doing what I have seen some writers do: call every day; email every day; send increasingly aggressive follow-up emails; tag editors on social media (repeatedly); go down the masthead and call the sales director wanting to know why the editor hasn’t responded (seriously: DO NOT do this). An already overloaded editor will not appreciate this. At all.
Is it frustrating to put all the hard work and effort into crafting a pitch, and not even get the common courtesy of a “thanks, but no thanks,” in return? Yes, it is. Which is why, when I was in the editor’s chair, I tried to give this courtesy to everyone. But at some publications, that line about “due to the volume of requests we receive, we cannot respond to each one” is not bogus—it is completely legit. Don’t take it personally.
Do what Sinatra sang: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.” To be successful in this business, patience and resilience are key. Make sure you hone yours.
4 Tips for a Great Pitch
Now that I’ve shared what not to do, here are four tips that will help you deliver a winning pitch:
1. If your pitch is similar to something recently done, but you feel strongly that it should still be considered, clearly delineate WHY your pitch is different. Share what sets it apart from the rest. Do you have access to experts that other writers may not? Do you have a truly unique angle on an oft-covered topic? Say so.
2. Refer to a recently-published piece you enjoyed, and tell them WHY you enjoyed it. Give specifics.
3. If you are pitching this piece to multiple outlets, say so. (Note: You increase your chances of acquisition if you are pitching exclusively.) Keep in mind, many publications will not accept simultaneous submissions. Do your homework and check the submission guidelines. Always.
4. Break your pitch down clearly for the editor. Give a headline/title, summary graph, bullet points. Give the reasons why you’re the best writer for the topic. (Are you an expert in this field? Do you write regularly on this subject?)
This blog really can only scratch the surface of the art of and science that is pitching. I recommend two resources for good advice on how to pitch specific outlets: Mediabistro’s “How to Pitch,” and Writer’s Digest’s “Market Spotlight.”
As always, happy reading, and KEEP WRITING!
This blog was originally published at Writers in the Storm, July 2020, and if you do not follow this wonderful blog, you need to go over there right this very minute and subscribe!