One of the things I am asked most often by would-be freelance writers and content creators – after how often I get dressed on a day-to-day basis – is how to pitch.
People tend to want a clear-cut answer. Pitching is a daunting process, especially when you’re sending your ideas out into unfamiliar inboxes, and it’s easy to imagine that everybody else is following the same rules of etiquette while you crash in, getting it all wrong. “What if the editor laughs at me?”, you think.
“What if I’m so wildly off the mark that they put my email in a special folder marked ‘WARNING: DO NOT COMMISSION’?”
So when you ask someone for advice on how to pitch, the answer you’re hoping for is really a template. “Email at 1am on the night of a new moon. Here’s the form, fill in the boxes in 10pt navy blue Calibri and attach a photocopy of your passport. Good luck.”
But I’m afraid I can’t give you a template for the perfect pitch, because the truth is that one doesn’t exist. Or at least, if it does then nobody has ever shared it with me.
When I became an editor I discovered that people’s approaches to pitching feature ideas varies hugely, from long lists of 20 different headlines to lengthy, waffling emails almost longer than the article they were describing. And while neither of those is advised (no, seriously), the good news is that both still sometimes resulted in a commission. Because if the writing and the idea are good, then sometimes that’s good enough. But while there aren’t hard and fast rules, there are certainly things to avoid.
For starters, aim for something in between a sketchy one-liner and an essay.
Plenty of people will tell you that busy editors prize brevity over all else, and this can be true, but for my part I think most pitches require more than a hurried sentence – especially if the editor isn’t already on familiar terms with you and your writing. It’s helpful to give enough detail to showcase your skills and reassure them that you have a full feature in mind, not just a pithy headline.
Give them details on interviewees, stats and studies that you plan to include upfront, if you can.
And while including examples of your work (links are better than attachments) is always a good idea, keep it relevant and don’t go overboard. Personally, I think it’s more helpful to write your pitch eloquently and give them a flavour of what’s to come, than spend a long time regurgitating your CV. Everybody knows how to google.
Sending several ideas at once is fine, as long as they’re well-chosen to suit the title, but keep it to about four or five short pitches per email – any more and your ideas start to look copied-and-pasted. Which, let’s be honest, they may well be… but just like internet dating, it’s good to at least maintain the illusion that you’re interested in them, and them alone.
What about the pitch ideas themselves?
Print titles tend to work about three or four months in advance, which means the discombobulating experience of thinking about Christmas while you’re still in shorts and sandals. But even digital titles with short-range schedules will still be trying to plan a few weeks ahead when they can; so get organised. If you can help a frazzled editor by suggesting a story for a calendar occasion they hadn’t got round to thinking about yet, or save them budget by covering an event you’re going to anyway, you’re much more likely to get the commission than landing in their inbox three days before Easter asking if they’d like a piece about eggs.
Identify the section your piece might sit under, the slot it might occupy, or the gap in their content that you can fill, so they can easily visualise how neat and useful it would be to commission you. Check as far as you can that they haven’t covered the same thing already (this can be tricky if print archives aren’t online, but a cursory Google and social media search is still good practice) and ask editors which themes or strands they’re currently looking for to give you some guidance.
And finally, focus on your specialism. One of the most oft-repeated pieces of pitching wisdom is to explain why you, and you alone, can write the piece you want to write. Of course, unless you’re one of only two experts in your field in the world and the other one currently has flu, that won’t always work out in reality – but it’s still good advice to offer a personal angle, a specific professional advantage or a juicy bonus (like a distinguished interviewee or access to an exclusive event), especially when pitching cold to new places. We all dream of being commissioned on talent alone, but the reality is that snagging those first assignments tends to depend more on good timing, the right angle, and luck. Lots of luck.
So all this considered, my final advice is: don’t get too disheartened if your careful, thoughtful pitches are met with deafening silence. Before I became a commissioning editor, not hearing back used to send me into spirals of insecurity – they hated my pitch! They hated my email! Somebody told them I was a useless writer and a terrible person! – but the moment I found myself on the other side of the situation, I understood.
Most editors are just trying to stay on top of madly overflowing inboxes, so if you don’t get a reply then it’s almost certainly not personal. Promise.
In an ideal world everyone would send polite feedback, but while manners may cost nothing, they do take time – and aggressive chasing is never going to do you any favours. So just be patient, follow up after a week or so (sooner if it’s a topical idea) and then try your luck elsewhere. And you never know; many a friendly follow-up has turned into an apologetic commission! Hard work and persistence pays off in the end.
Oh, and I get dressed most days. Honest.
Lauren Bravo is a freelance journalist, copywriter and editor, who writes about fashion, food and life for The Pool, Cosmopolitan, The Debrief, The Guardian and Refinery29, as well as a number of commercial brands.