For emerging writers, the stagger toward that first byline is arduous. Each writer’s style and approach to pitching editors becomes solidified only after years spent firing off into deep space so many desperate, cringe-worthy ramblings. When I left school, it occurred to me I had no idea what an e-mail pitch looks like. A successful one, I’ve come to believe, is a thing of economy and nuance. A few items are important to consider along the way.
Item 1: The Idea
Whatever your idea, when writing nonfiction—whether personal essay, journalism, or a book proposal—your pitch must be clear and tight. No cruising down the rabbit hole. For the purpose of your pitch, imagine the story whittled down to its bare essence: the basic who, what, when, where, and why this deserves publication. If you consider a story to be something that is constructed—as opposed to something discovered, intact, waiting there for you all along—what you’re selling is that one steel beam that will eventually support the entire structure. Your job at this point is to show off the simplicity, sturdiness, and attractiveness of that beam.
Item 2: The Editor
You may find yourself in the position of cold-calling an editor you’ve never met. Go for it, but do your homework first. When pitching to book publishers, book agents, and editors of magazines, newspapers, and journals, know what content has done well for them in the past and always read between the lines for differences in taste, tone, and style—these qualities vary not only across publishers but also within the different sections of publications. Pay attention to their readership. Remember that one idea can be many different stories, depending on where it is placed. One idea might be equally viable to The New York Times and the New York Post, but those pitches probably will differ.
If you’re pitching to a large publication, say The New York Times, avoid reaching out to the head honchos, like a section editor (unless you have a personal relationship). Go for someone a notch lower in that section, like a deputy editor. You’ll be more likely to hear back.
As editor-at-large for a national magazine, on a daily basis I’m shocked by how few press agents and writers put effort into targeting their pitches specifically for me. If you haven’t bothered to do your homework (and it seems almost no one in PR does anymore), prepare to be ignored. One particularly bone-headed incident stands out amongst hundreds for me. Two days following the massacre in Orlando, with the gay community still deeply grieving, a press rep blasted off an e-mail to me about an exciting new luxury handbag she felt my readers—gay men—would be very interested in learning about. This happens all the time, despite that I have zero interest in fashion and have never covered anything fashion-related. In this instance, had she bothered to simply Google me, she would also have seen I was on the ground in Orlando filing stories all week.
In that case, I did write back. “Hi Helen, Greetings from Orlando. So sorry I won’t be able to write about your handbag. Very busy sorting through the bodies of all these murdered gay people.”
Even if your pitch gets rejected, if it at least resembles an idea that an editor would normally run, and you’ve shown a clear interest in the work that editor is doing, your pitch will stand out.
Most importantly, don’t be intimidated. Editors need you just as much as you need them. They rely on your ideas, even the bad ones.
Item 3: The E-Mail
The most important part of the pitch e-mail is brevity. Keep it smart and keep it efficient. No one cares about your study abroad in France, about your GPA, about who inspires you, or that you were features editor of your college paper.
At the top, briefly introduce yourself and your experience and then get to the meat: what’s the story? Be as specific as possible here. An editor doesn’t want to think about where a story should be placed. Tell them where it belongs. “This would be great for 500 words in the Observatory column in the Tuesday Science Section.” If you have published clips, or even unpublished ones, link to your three best. Don’t send files as attachments.
The subject line of your e-mail needs to be nothing more than “Ideas,” or “Article proposal,” though feel free to add a couple words if necessary. “Idea: Mockingbird terrorizing hipsters in Brooklyn,” is the typical tone of a subject line I would send to the Times. That story got an immediate green-light.
It helps to offer up a few sacrificial lambs. If you’re trying to get your foot in the door, and you’ve got one great idea for a publication, come up with four others before you reach out. List the ideas, “Idea 1, Idea 2” each with an informed and efficient description. If some of these ideas aren’t so great, that only makes the better ideas appear more attractive by comparison.
Item 4: The Silence
You will get ignored, always. While in limbo, spare yourself from becoming discouraged and don’t take the silence personally.
I usually follow up after three days with a simple and polite message along the lines of, “Hello again, just curious if you received these ideas.” After that, maybe follow up in another week and, if still no response, perhaps move on.
While waiting, it’s important to avoid pitching the same idea to multiple publications simultaneously. If multiple publications greenlight the same idea, you’ll be left in the embarrassing, and quite unprofessional, position of dumping one editor for the sake of the other—and that’s not going to bode well for your future dealings.
Item 5: The Rejection
In the case of pitching, no news is bad news. But don’t completely write that editor off. It’s perfectly fine to come back with more ideas. If anything, your persistence may get you noticed and maybe even a small assignment will come your way. But remember to have some decorum: no stalking.
I’ve always felt a “thanks, but no thanks” response is second best to getting a project green-lit. If an editor takes the time to respond to you, he or she may see potential. You should absolutely pitch that person again, and the sooner the better. In this situation, never be afraid to respond, point blank, “What kind of stories do you like? What’s on your radar right now?”
Item 6: The Green Light
It may be an editor takes your baby, tarts it up, and throws it back at you in the form of a hideous and unrecognizable stepchild. This is fine. This is no time to be a diva. It is imperative to show you are easy to work with and you can get the job done. And now, this editor, I guarantee you, does not want to hear from you again until your message contains a pristine first draft. Stay out of her hair, file the story on time, and stick to your word count.
And once that project is down, don’t waste any time moving on to the next pitch.
Chadwick Moore is editor-at-large for Out and The Advocate, and contributor to Playboy and The New York Times. He formerly worked in book publishing in London and New York. He lives in Brooklyn.
For more articles, forms, and other resources to help you in your writing career, please visit our Writers' Resource Library