How To Pitch: The Basics

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I don’t typically write about writing here. Or at least I try not to. Not directly.

I try to keep my content inclusive to all freelancers, despite how obvious it is that I’m a total booktard, and a slave to producing content.

But this past Monday marked the beginning of the FLX Query Challenge, a friendly, biannual competition in which teams rack up points depending upon how many queries they send out each week, and how many assignments they land. I’ve been on a pitching hiatus for awhile now — due to my new job at YourTango, my career coaching certification program, and an ongoing copywriting project — but I’m excited to start putting out feelers again … especially since I’m a team leader this time around.

So for all those writers out there — writers who are trying to get back into the pitching rhythm, writers who have been pitching all along (show-offs), and writers who are just starting out — I thought I’d put up a refresher on the pitch process.

Idea Generation.

A number of posts already exist on how writers can find both inspiration and new ideas, so there’s no use in me repeating them. Here’s one. Here’s another one. And this one‘s great, too. Where do I find my ideas? Life experience (when I can manage to tear myself away from my computer), new interests (that’s how I ended up with my wine tour assignment), and unanswered questions (if I have a question, it stand to reason that others have the same one).

If you keep your mind open to it, you’ll find that you have no shortage of ideas. The trick is remembering them before they fly away on the wings of your faulty memory. I keep mine in an Excel spreadsheet, in which I also record possible publications to pitch to, actual pitch dates, and followup dates. I also carry a small notebook around in my purse. There’s no one, right way to keep track.

Market Research.

There are several websites out there containing contact information for various publications…publications searchable by title, topic, region, etc. One I’ve used a lot is Mediabistro’s How To Pitch series, though you can only access it if you’re an Avant Guild member. You can also subscribe to the Writers Market online. Keep in mind, however, that there’s a lot of turnover in the publishing industry (especially these days), and that much of the information you find online could be out of date. Nowadays, I take field trips to local book shops and browse the magazine racks there, picking up copies I’m interested in so that I can double check the mastheads of the most recent issues, and study both the tone of the publication and the content sections. I also look through magazines’ websites to see if they’ve made an editorial calendar available. That way, I can focus my pitch for a specific issue.

Query Letter.

I already have a post on cover letters that you should most definitely review but, when you’re pitching a story, there are a few extra points to remember:

First of all, never send your query letter to the general e-mail account. Rather, try to figure out which editor is in charge of the section you’re interested in pitching to, and address your letter accordingly. Pore through mastheads. Or search a publication’s website. Some make their writing guidelines available online, complete with section editor details and e-mail addresses. If all else fails, you can always pick up the phone and call their office. Ask who edits a specific section. Or, at the very least, ask what the publication’s e-mail format is. Once you have that basic format (ex., you can e-mail anyone on the masthead. Don’t get lazy on me here. You should target your query to an actual person. It shows that you’ve done your research, and also allows you to target your query letter even further.

Now you can get down to the business of writing your letter. First order of business: Make the recipient of your e-mail do a double take with an intriguing and/or clever lede. Bonus points if you can tie in some sort of news hook. If a story is somehow tied in to current events, you’ll be more likely to receive a quick response. Also, be sure to sprinkle your introductory paragraph with a bit of shameless flattery. And make it specific, or else you risk coming off an disingenuous. Making this extra effort shows an editor that you’ve done your homework.

You can concentrate on your awesomeness in the second paragraph. This is the meat of your letter, and should include your story idea, a snappy headline, sidebar suggestions, etc. Editors love it when you make things easy for them. They love it even more when you show them why you’re the best writer for the job, whether because of your expertise or exclusive contacts, so feel free to ham it up here.

Finally, tie it all up nice and neat and read through it again — perhaps even out loud — in order to ensure that there are no typos or grammatical errors, and that the tone matches that of the publication you’re pitching to. This last shows the editor that you’re capable of writing in the voice of the publication, and may not require heavy editing later on.

Okay. Now stop obsessing and send it off!

Following Up.

The moments (and hours. and days.) after one sends out a query letter they’ve just slaved over for hours can be absolutely excruciating.

Which is why I suggest pushing it to the back of your mind, and working on something else.

How dare I suggest such a thing?

Well, the thing is, once I send out a pitch, it’s — for the most part — out of my hands, at least for the moment. Of course, I’ll eventually send a follow-up e-mail. I typically follow up with daily and weekly publications after one week, and with monthly publications after about three to four weeks. After that, I wait again. It’s a pain in the ass, but what can I do? Editors are just as —  if not more busy than — me. And have you ever stopped to consider how many unsolicited pitches they receive per day? Daunting! And so I wait. And when the same amount of time has passed, I send another follow-up e-mail, this time stating that if I don’t hear back by a certain date, I’ll assume that they’re passing on my idea, and will re-pitch elsewhere. Voila!

Rinse and Repeat.

Hopefully, at this point, you’ve been given the go-ahead on an assignment, and are doing your happy dance and (mentally) rolling in money.

If you’ve received a rejection, don’t fret. It’s nothing personal. It’s more likely that the timing was bad, or the topic was already being covered in-house, or the story just wasn’t the right fit. None of this means that you’re a terrible writer, or that you should give up now and spend the rest of your days sobbing in a corner with a six-pack of beer.

That’s just silly.

Just pitch it elsewhere, and remember to re-tailor your letter to your new publication target.

And no wallowing!

In fact, if there was the slightest hint of kindness in that rejection e-mail you just received, perhaps you should consider sending them a new story idea, before they have the chance to forget your name. Persistence sometimes does pay off.

Social Media.

Lest you think I’m an old fogy at the age of 29, I should probably also mention one’s ability to connect with editors online, through sites like LinkedIn and Twitter. I myself have made valuable contacts through this blog, through Twitter, and also through Brazen Careerist (sort of a LinkedIn for the Gen Y set). I also belong to a number of online professional writing groups, such as FLX and UPOD. God bless the Internets!

But there’s one thing that some people seem to forget when they’re shrouded in the warm glow of their computer screen: common courtesy.

The ability to send a major mag editor a DM does not preclude the need for a well-written query letter. So don’t use social media to query an editor you don’t have a previous working relationship with. But do RT them, @reply them, etc. The best online contacts are cultivated, and the best online relationships bring value to both parties. So approach new contacts with an eye toward what you can do for them, rather than how they can make your writing dreams come true.

Any questions?

Related: How To Write Your Way Into the Best Darn Jobs Ever


  1. […] posts from Freelance Switch, Quips and Tips, and WordCount. I, personally, find my ideas in life experience, new interests, and unanswered questions. Perhaps I just need to be vigilant about keeping my mind and eyes open for story opportunities in […]

  2. […] posts from Freelance Switch, Quips and Tips, and WordCount. I, personally, find my ideas in life experience, new interests, and unanswered questions. Perhaps I just need to be vigilant about keeping my mind and eyes open for story opportunities in […]

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