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Over the course of my career, from my newspaper reporting to my freelance writing days, I’ve told many stories. In my role as the writer and editor of Lifehacker’s offspring Vertical, I basically come up with ideas to my own bosses every day. But I also pitch a lot of freelance writers – even more since then I made a call last week Look for new voices.
As those pitches started rolling en masse, I realized that some writers are inexperienced with the art of pitching and could benefit from a little guidance from someone who has been there and has done it countless times. Read these tips before proposing your next story idea to an editor.
You’d think this would be obvious, but my inbox indicates it isn’t: know the publication you’re publishing before you publish it. A good chunk of the freelance pitches I get either have nothing to do with parents at all or are inconsistent with Lifehacker’s tone or purpose. Before you can write for an outlet, you must read that outlet. You cannot skip this step.
I know that writers spend a lot of (unpaid) time writing pitches, and it can be tempting to create a default pitch to send to multiple editors. However, it is much more likely that you will get a job when you have done the job of tweaking the angle and tone of your pitch to best suit that particular publication. I can usually tell by the second sentence of an email whether a writer has ever actually read Descendants.
Part of reading and getting to know the publication is figuring out what it has already published – especially what it has published on the topic you want to bring up. You can assume that a food website has already written a number of articles on “Quick and Easy Weekday Dinners”. Before suggesting this as an idea, do some research on what they have already written. You may find a hole in their coverage (hey, where are all those quick and easy weekday casseroles?) Or a unique angle that they haven’t explored – and that’s the idea you’re trying to come up with.
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Next, find the submission guidelines. Some editors (usually editors on large publications that get a lot of pitchings) will tell you exactly how they prefer pitching and what information they want ahead of time. Some editors want finished pieces; others (like me) just want the idea. Some want finished parts attached as a document, while others prefer to copy the text and paste it into an email.
Usually, if you don’t strictly follow the guidelines, you won’t be automatically excluded from ever writing for this site. However, when you learn how to make the process easier for them, you make the process easier for them. They are more likely to read – and accept – your pitch when it is in the preferred format.
Stick with the email
Like many editors, I get a lot of emails in one day. The vast majority are pitches, be it from a PR agency promoting a client, a publisher promoting a book, or a freelance writer promoting an idea they want to write for our website. I dive in when I have time to wade through them and jump back when I need to get back to my own reporting and writing (this is how I spend most of my day).
When you have all of the slots in one place, it’s a lot easier for an editor to divide them up, manage their time, and put things down. When pitchings also come in from Facebook Messenger, Twitter DMs, and LinkedIn, not only can they get lost, but an editor can quickly feel bombarded.
An example of this: Recently, someone who wanted to introduce me to an idea first made friends with me on Facebook. I did not recognize you and deleted your request. They then sent me a LinkedIn request which I accepted and they started sending me links to videos they had produced and separately adding me to a LinkedIn group message with a group of people I don’t know to send me more links. When I switched back to Facebook, they had also sent me a message request there and asked for my email address so that they could contact me.
It felt like this person was all over my social media, calling me from different directions when all they had to do was Look up my email address and send me a pitch (they still haven’t really pitched me by the way).
Some editors will say they don’t mind if you pitch them on social media, but many more editors don’t like it. So your best bet is to stick to email unless they say otherwise. (And don’t send them a message asking for their email address unless you’ve already searched for it and absolutely cannot find it. Chances are it will get posted somewhere on the site. )
What to put in this email
Now that you are ready to compose your pitch, keep it short and relevant. I like it when freelancers who approach me for the first time tell me a little about themselves (so in a sentence or two), as long as it comes down to why they are the best person to write down the idea they send me . If you tell me a piece about raising a transgender child and your child is transgender, it tells me that you have a perspective and experience that is relevant and valuable to our readers. If you accuse me of anything health related and have a background in nursing, I would like to know.
On the other hand, if I open up a pitch and come across seven long paragraphs where the author introduces himself and gives me a range of professional and family backgrounds but can’t find the real idea, that’s too much information. Give a brief introduction and then a brief summary of your idea. If the idea is well-formed, this should really only take a paragraph or two. If you start touching or explaining too much, it usually means the idea is too vague or general and you need to tighten it up.
The first time you create an editor, add some links to previously published work. Whenever possible, choose links that are most relevant to your pitch in terms of content or tone. For example, if you’re writing an article on children and mental health and have already written on mental health-related topics, this is what an editor wants to see.
Finally, give the editor some time to reply before sending a follow-up email. Each editor works differently in terms of how quickly (or slowly) they react. Some editors at large publications are given dozens of slots every day and may only answer if the answer is “yes”. I think it’s fair to check back in to a place if you haven’t heard from a few weeks but only check in once. If you’ve sent two notes on the same pitch and they still don’t respond, assume they decided to pass.