Tips on Pitching for Freelancers

The Tahoe Mill Collective. Photo by JP Martin Photography.

The Tahoe Mill Collective. Photo by JP Martin Photography.

We just wrapped up a freelance writer's workshop at the Tahoe Mill Collective (the new co-working space I helped launch in Tahoe!), and it was great to see so many other writers in this area come together under one roof to share ideas and their experiences in the unpredictable but wildly fun world of freelancing. I spoke about the art of pitching -- sending story queries to magazines and other publications. I figured I'd share some of my tips here in case they're of interest to other writers or writers-to-be. 


 —Come up with a story idea. Determine which publication you think it would be a good fit for. Think about newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, radio, TV, and more. 

—Do your homework. Read the magazine or publication thoroughly and know their voice, style, and tone. Know what kind of stories they run and the names and formats of their various departments, columns, etc. Read recent issues and do a web search to make sure they haven’t already covered what you’re pitching. Subscribe to your favorite magazines and read them cover to cover each month.

—Pitch the right editor. You don’t want to pitch the editor in chief for a front-of-the-book department. If it’s a large magazine and you’re new to the game, start low on the masthead (assistant or associate editors are more likely to respond to emails from new writers than senior editors). Check out a recent issue or find a staff page online to find the names and positions (and maybe even their email addresses!) of the editors on staff. Also look for a writer’s guidelines online, although in most cases, that will only offer you a generic address to pitch to, which usually ends up in a spam box.

—Do some reporting. You want to do enough research and reporting on the idea so that if the editor asks you questions about the story, you can answer them. You want to appear knowledgeable and like you’ve done your homework. You don’t need to report the whole thing—you’ll do that once you get the assignment—but do enough to sound like you know what you’re talking about.

—Make sure you have access. There’s nothing worse than pitching a profile on someone, getting it assigned, then realizing your profile subject doesn’t want to cooperate. Get in touch with the people first and let them know you’re interested in pitching a story. Make sure they’re on board.

—Write the pitch like you would the article. Give it a headline, an interesting lede, and a nutgraph that sums up with the story is about. Write it in the tone and style as you’d write the real piece. And proofread it!

—Say why you’re the right writer for the piece. If they get three pitches on the same story from three writers at the same time, why should they give it to you? What access, insight, experience can you offer?

—What is the time hook? Every editor will undoubtedly ask you, why now? Why should we run this story now? If it’s a new film or book or newsy environmental or development issue, they have obvious time hooks. But a profile may not. Find out what that person is doing in the upcoming months that may lend itself to a time hook. Also, be aware of the magazine’s publishing schedule—most work at least three months in advance.

—Pitch within your means. If you’ve never written for a magazine before, start pitching their front-of-the-book departments. It’s very rare for a new writer to get a full feature.

—Have a story angle in mind. Think outside the box—charts, infographics, Q&As, timelines, quizzes, as told tos, etc. Pitch multi-media components to accompany the written portion. Read other magazines for ideas (I love Esquire for this). If you know you want to write about a certain personality, don’t just pitch it as a profile. Maybe have them write something and you annotate it. Or have them talk about their favorite items of gear.

—Consider service stories. A lot of publications are driven by service copy—useful information on travel, gear, instruction, how to, etc. So keep that in mind. If you have a story idea, ask yourself, What will the reader learn from this? How will it benefit them? If it’s a national magazine, does it have mainstream, national appeal? If it’s a story about you and your dog, the answer is probably no.

—Don’t hear back on your pitch? Welcome to freelancing. Send a polite, non-pushy follow-up email two weeks after the initial pitch, inquiring about their interest. If you still don’t hear back, move on. After two weeks, you’re free to pitch the story elsewhere. Don’t pitch to multiple, competing publications at the same time. If the story gets rejected, but you think it might work somewhere else, keep trying. For a pitch I strongly believe in, I’ll try to pitch it to three different publications and if it’s still unclaimed, I let it go.

—Story got assigned? Congratulations. Now comes the hard part.