By Morgan Jerkins
I’m not going to lie to you: pitching for the web has become an intense practice in recent years. The freelance market is flooded with writers who have been put out of work by a rash of shuttered print outlets. To compound the problem, these writers already have connections in the industry, heightening the competition. But don’t worry! This article will explore how to cold pitch so that you can increase your chances of being published and hopefully establish fruitful and ongoing relationships with editors.
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How do you stay ahead of the curve when cold pitching to editors?
Pitching editors, in many ways, is a game, complete with its own rules, techniques, and strategies. Know the rules.
Are you pitching the right editor?
Don’t just send a pitch to whatever editor’s e-mail address you can find and hope it sticks. Make sure you are sending it to the editor most likely to read and like the pitch.
Tips for writing your pitch e-mail.
Subject line, length, when to follow up, and other factors to consider when putting together your e-mail to an editor.
Your pitch was accepted. Now what?
First settle on the pay rate and other key terms. Ask for a contract and make sure you are okay with the terms. Then get writing.
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By Morgan Jerkins
I’m not going to lie to you: pitching for the web has become an intense practice in recent years. The freelance market is flooded with writers who have been put out of work by a rash of shuttered print outlets. To compound the problem, these writers already have connections within the industry, heightening the competition. But don’t worry! This article will explore how to cold pitch so that you can increase your chances of being published and hopefully establish fruitful and ongoing relationships with editors.
Recognize that you have an extraordinary story to tell.
Pitching editors, in many ways, is a game, complete with its own rules, techniques, and strategies. However, writers often have no idea how to play the game because they don’t know how to participate in the first place. I’ve spoken to many editor colleagues who have told me that if a writer is not confident in their own pitch, the editor won’t be either. Whether it’s a personal essay or a reported feature, you have something important to transmit to the world taken from the experiences and memories that make you who you are as an individual. That kind of arsenal is what’s going to help you as you pursue creative endeavors. Sometimes pitches lack confidence because writers think that they “should” write about certain topics instead of what truly matters to them. Other times you’re just desperate for a byline. We’ve all been there. I’ve done this many times with editors of top publications and, trust me, they can tell when you haven’t taken the adequate time to think things through.
So, you have to recognize that you have an extraordinary story to tell. But next comes the hard work: the execution, which will mandate that you take an amorphous idea and turn it into a strong narrative.
Read other stories on your subject matter to make sure you’re ahead of the curve.
Editors have a lot on their plates. Not only do they have to edit pieces, field freelancers’ pitches, pitch their own stories, and attend meetings, they also have to stay on top of the news, including the particularly merciless 24-hour online news cycle. The same goes for you: stay on top of the news—and the conversations about the news—whether through Twitter, the radio, news apps, or elsewhere. Editors commission stories that add another layer of depth to the ongoing conversation, not stories that merely rehash what’s already been published elsewhere. In order to give you the attention, time, and energy that editing requires, publications need to feel confident that the narrative is coming from you and only you. These days, conversations start and evolve very quickly, and the best way to save both yourself and the editor’s time is to ask this: Am I adding anything new to this discussion? If not, don’t bother.
Go editor hunting!
No, I don’t mean that you should use them as game. One of the biggest mistakes freelancers make is not knowing which editor to pitch to. Like print publications, most web publications have different sections and different editors for those sections. Legacy print publications such as newspapers and glossy magazines also have online-only blogs and regular features that may be more accessible and require less lead time than their print counterparts. Choose the editor you think is the best for your potential piece. Twitter makes this so much easier nowadays. I personally owe Twitter a huge chunk of my career because I was able to connect with industry insiders, see what kinds of pitches they were interested in, and access their contact information. By paying attention to what they tweeted about, I also figured out how to avoid annoying them. You have to be proactive in your search. Remember, an accepted pitch can lead to the start of a great working relationship with an editor. But if you’re going to approach, you have to know the other party. Don’t just send a pitch to whatever editor’s e-mail address you can find and hope it sticks. Your pitch will probably will not get read. And even if it does, don’t count on it being forwarded to the appropriate editor.
Write your e-mail and pay attention to language.
First things first: Subject headers matter. Mention that the e-mail contains a pitch, and if you’re pitching a hot take (a timely (read: immediate) response to current events) it might do you good to include that the pitch is urgent or timely in the subject header. For me, these simple things really do help. For example, I’ve found that if I capitalize PITCH, editors have responded more frequently. Your best bet is to indicate that it’s a pitch, use a colon, and then a working title (ex. PITCH: “Your Working Title”).
Second, do not write fillers in your pitch. In other words, none of that “I know you must be busy,” “This idea may be half-baked,” “I don’t know if you’re interested in this but…” No. Get right into it. Don’t waste any time. The fillers indicate that you don’t have confidence in yourself, and, as I mentioned earlier, if you don’t believe in yourself and the story then neither will the editor. You need to be very succinct and direct. What kind of story are you telling? How is it relevant? How are you going to go about telling this story or arguing a point? The best pitches should be wrapped up in 1–2 paragraphs and around 500 words, tops.
And lastly, once you get to the bio, you need to prove in 2–3 sentences why you’re the person who should be telling the story. Include academic credentials when they’re relevant, bylines, and/or writing clips. If you have any biographical information that is relevant to your piece, be sure to include that as well, because it can give you an edge.
Unless you’ve pitched a hot take, wait at least a week before following up with an editor (if you pitched a hot take, it is okay to follow up in a day or two). However, do NOT pitch the same piece to different editors simultaneously. Trust me, and save yourself a headache. If both editors accept the pitch, then you have to let one down, which can get messy. You’ll have to figure out which editor you’d prefer working with, and who’s paying more. It might leave you torn. Wait until you receive a rejection before you send the pitch to someone else. If you don’t hear anything after a couple weeks, then it’s okay to move on. If you really want that byline and are confident your article is a great fit, you could follow up a second time. After that, it’s best to cut your losses.
If contacted, remember your boundaries and standards.
If you get a pitch accepted, hooray! But don’t celebrate just yet. First, figure out the pay rate. Usually the editor will bring it up when he or she accepts your pitch, but if they don’t, ask what, how, and when they pay. It’s important to remember that writing for the web is no less valuable than writing for print: no matter the format, you still deserve to be paid. But also recognize the responsibilities and limits of an editor’s role. Editors have an allocated budget and can only offer a certain amount of money to a freelancer. Pay attention to the size and resources of the publication. If you’re pitching to an indie, upstart, or non-profit publication, it will likely be able to offer you less than a large corporation or an established institution. Also, generally speaking, writers get paid less for personal essays than reported features, but, of course, there are always exceptions. Sites like “Who Pays Writers,” where working writers report what they’ve earned from which publications for recent pieces, can be a good resource for figuring out the going rate for a piece like yours.
Ask to see a contract, or if the publication doesn’t offer written contracts, have the editor e-mail you the key terms of the agreement before you start writing. Make sure you’re comfortable with all of the terms. Can you meet the deadline(s)? Does the description of the work comport with your understanding of what you’ll be writing? What happens if the story is rejected? Will you get a kill fee? Will your byline be used?
You may be asked to write a piece on “spec” from time to time. Spec means writing the actual piece, or a portion of it, without a promise of pay or publication. This is up to you. You should take into consideration your finances, mental bandwidth, time, and desire for that particular byline. I have written on spec for a very renowned publication and it worked out well. At the same time, as an editor, I have rejected spec pieces from freelance writers whose pitches I really enjoyed. If a spec piece is rejected, consider what other online publications might publish it. If you fail to sell the article, but are happy with it and it is still timely, consider posting it on a free site such as Medium.com.
If greenlit, get to working! But be prepared for pitfalls.
If your pitch is accepted by a publication and you have agreed to the pay rate, celebrate! But then get working and get the piece in by the agreed deadline. Every byline leads to new opportunities, no matter how small the publication. However, I strongly suggest that you keep quiet about where you’ve placed a piece until it’s published. Pieces get killed; it has happened to me multiple times and it’s better to save yourself the embarrassment. Sometimes things don’t come together in the end or an editor realizes that he or she is not the right person for it. Things happen. Do not take it too personally. Do keep at it.
Morgan Jerkins is a writer and Contributing Editor at Catapult. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, and ELLE, among many others. Her debut essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing, is forthcoming from Harper Perennial.