How to pitch stories editors will want to publish

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You can be a good writer with great ideas but you may sell nothing if you don’t wrap your mind around pitching story ideas. Here’s some advice….

Are you a freelance writer who wants to increase your success rate in pitching traditional or online publications? Or perhaps you’re a newbie writer who hopes to earn some extra cash by writing for others. Here are some guidelines that will help you pitch a story that any editor will want to publish.

1-Read your target publication thoroughly and take notes

You should envision yourself as a Sherlock Holmes when you investigate any publication in which you’d like to appear. Here are some of the questions you should ask:

  • What is the typical length of an article in this publication? (Don’t pitch articles that are 3,000 words to publications that run only 750-word pieces.)
  • What type of subject does this publication cover? (Don’t pitch fashion articles to hockey magazines.)
  • What type of style does the publication usually favour? (Don’t pitch humour to news analysis sites.)
  • Has the publication already covered your article? (Most publications are allergic to repeating coverage within about five years. If they have already covered the topic you have in mind, you should mention the original piece in your own pitch and explain how your idea offers a fresh angle. Otherwise, go elsewhere.)
  • Does the publication have any sort of editorial calendar? For example, some places might have a special Christmas section or a wedding issue. If your topic fits in with that calendar, be sure to pitch your idea early because these special editions will all be planned well in advance.
  • Look for submission guidelines. Most publications now prefer their pitches via email but some want them in a Word document while others prefer to see them in the body of an email. They will spell out their expectations in a set of writer/submission guidelines on their website. (Search for these guidelines!) It makes no sense to argue against these admittedly arbitrary rules. Just follow them. 

2-Pitch your idea to the right person

Never send a pitch addressed to Dear Editor. It shows you’ve been lazy and, worse, suggests you might be sending exactly the same pitch to 17 other publications. Be sure to find the name of the editor for the section in which you would like your piece to appear. Find the name of the editor by phoning the publication, if necessary. And, when you send your pitch, triple-check to ensure you’ve spelled the name correctly. (I don’t hire freelance writers anymore but you should see what people did with Daphne Gray-Grant. So many opportunities for misspelling!)

3-Don’t stop your pitch where the story begins

Writers often like to send in detailed, well-written pitches that end before the story begins. Here’s an example:

“When I was a teenager, I was a star debater. I spent weeks carefully crafting my words and delivering my speeches to a mirror. By the time I was 15, I had won numerous trophies and when I hit grade 12, I earned a trip to compete in the national championships for high school students. When I eventually wound up in college working on a degree in political science, my debating experience helped me crank out an essay a week. But I never knew how valuable debating would prove to be until 15 years later when I ended up delivering a presentation to a cranky board of directors. I’d like to write a 1,700-word piece about how debating can help prepare teenagers for the rigours of the business world….”

Do you see how that pitch ends right when the story starts? As an editor, I want to know more about why debating is useful for teenagers and less about why the writer fell in love with it.

The story about the cranky board of directors might even form a better beginning for the pitch: “I was 31 years old and delivering a presentation to a board of directors that included a former Prime Minister of Canada. How did I get into this room, and why wasn’t my heart beating out of my chest? Fortunately for me, my experience as a high school debater had prepared me for events exactly like this….” Your pitch needs to telegraph the point of the story, not just the beginning of it.

4-Have a clear idea about exactly where your story is going  

Don’t pitch an idea you haven’t already researched. If you want to write about the habits of chickadees, then you need to know about chickadees. Keep your focus very clear and, if the article is short (less than 1,000 words) keep it narrow, too. You are far more likely to succeed with a great question than you are with a vague topic or subject.

5-Use a good headline

Writers don’t usually get to write their own headlines, but that shouldn’t stop you from putting one on your pitch. Why? You’re using it to try to sell your editor. Here are some headline-writing tips:

  • Make it short — no longer than 10 words.
  • Include a verb.
  • Use catchy words — for example, “boost” is better than “improve.”
  • Follow exactly the same headline style as the publication for which you want to write. For example, if they like listicles (e.g.: 10 ways to train your dog better) use a listicle in your pitch. If they favour questions (e.g.: Why are you still using Excel?) use a question, too. You’ll not only be appealing to the editor’s natural biases, you’ll also be demonstrating that you’ve read their publication, which the editor will love.

6-Check your grammar and spelling

Here’s the kind of thing editors say to themselves: “If this writer has sent me a pitch containing a spelling or grammar mistake, I’m not going to be able to trust anything else they send me.” Your pitch must be 100%-free from errors. Don’t trust Spell-Check. Instead, print out your document and read it aloud, carefully. (Here are some more proofreading tips.) Better yet, send the document to a friend who has eagle eyes for typos.

7-Don’t pester your editor 

Unless your pitch is incredibly timely, expect your editor to take at least a couple of weeks before getting back to you. (Once, it took an editor two years to get back to me and then she wanted the article in three weeks — but that’s another story.) If you haven’t heard back after four weeks, you can then send them an email to follow up.

It’s harder to sell words for money than ever before. If you want to succeed, be sure to follow all these rules (treat them like a checklist) and you should improve your acceptance rate.


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Do you have any secrets to more effective pitching? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Tommy Williams, the winner of this month’s book prize, The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau for a Feb. 6/18 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

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