How (Not) to Pitch

A guide for freelance writers.

Roy Lichtenstein/WikiPaintings

This Slate piece giving advice to entry-level job applicants in journalism about how to get their cover letters noticed made me think I ought to share a similar advice piece for new freelancers I put together for a women in media list-serv I'm on, inspired by the frequent and unnecessarily life-complicating errors of form I'd seen come in over the transom over the years, and some frequently asked questions about what can be an opaque process to newbies. Here are some basic rules to live by for people on the outside looking in.

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1. If you are going overseas or somewhere on location, contact an editor before you go, so that you can offer to pitch stories from the scene. Don't wait until you come back with a story that may or may not be right for an editor -- and until it's too late to do any additional reporting from the scene, or to switch focus entirely -- to pitch the only piece you reported.

2. That said, unless you are going on location somewhere, do not write to ask if you can pitch things. Either write with a pitch, or ask to be put in contact with the editor who oversees the topic you want to pitch on if you know your one contact at a publication is not him. These days a lot of institutions are in flux and there's nothing easier for someone then pressing forward on a message.

3. Don't pitch topics. Pitch stories. That can take anywhere from one sentence to three or four grafs, but it's rarely longer.

4. Do not send your pitch as an attachment. It will get read faster if you put it in the body of your email, because that way the editor you're pitching can read it on her iPhone/iPad/Samsung Galaxy S4 while in line for lunch or waiting for a meeting to start, instead of having to be at her computer in her office. Take advantage of your chance to grab someone's attention during an interstitial moment by making your work easy to absorb by people with cutting-edge media consumption patterns.

5. But beware of being too cutting edge: Do not text or direct-message story pitches, unless you know an editor really, really well and have a great rapport. Respect your idea enough to send more than 140 characters explaining it.

6. Editors who work with free-lancers tend to accept pre-written stories less frequently than stories they can talk to you about before you file. It's more fun for editors to be part of the thinking and shaping part of putting the story together -- this is called "front-editing" -- than to just come in after the fact and clean up. So as between sitting down and writing something to file unsolicited and sending a query first, send the query.

7. That said, if you're going to send a complete draft unsolicited -- and plenty of these do get published -- odds of publication go up markedly if it is already clean and well-composed copy when it arrives. Don't send rough drafts unsolicited; send your best work. Spell check. Have a friend copy-edit you if you need to. You've gone through all the trouble to write something you believe in -- take that extra step to polish it.

8. The same goes for fact checking: You need to have everything locked down before you send something you've already composed. Think about it: What if the editor wants to run it right away? You don't want to have to scramble on the fly to confirm things and/or tell the editor your facts aren't actually already airtight.

9. Always include your phone number in your pitch email, in case the story idea is intriguing but not quite right for whatever reason. That will allow the editor to reach out to you to tweak the concept, instead of having to chase you down. Your goal should be to minimize the number of email volleys an editor needs to have with you to put something in play.

10. If you don't hear back about a pitch within a couple of days, depending on the news value of the pitch, it's not unheard of to send a follow-up email. Sometimes people are busy and lack of response doesn't always mean you've been rejected.

11. If your pitch is time sensitive, say so in the pitch and say you'd love a response within a set period. Also, if you're pitching about an event that's been planned for months, don't wait until the day before to send a query.

12. Never send pieces to multiple outlets at the same time without telling all the editors you've pitched that you've done this. It's better not to send pitches to multiple places at the same time at all, but sometimes it has to happen for reasons of timeliness. But you never want to be in a situation where an editor has accepted your piece, and then you have to go and yank it from her sad, disappointed hands because some other outlet that you pitched first but was reading more slowly weighed in with an answer. If you need to move on because the first outlet you pitched hasn't responded, drop that first editor a note letting him know, as a courtesy.

13. If your idea is turned down, don't take it personally. It's just an idea, it's not you. Very frequently, if your pitch is good but "not quite right for us at this time," people will reject your initial pitch but then assign you something that they want instead, especially if you stay in touch.

14. If you've never worked with an editor before, it helps to let them know a little bit about who you are and who else you've written for in your initial pitch letter, so they don't have to Google you. This can take from one sentence to one graf.

15. If you want some really, really long thing, like a book excerpt, to be considered, send it along with the initial pitch, or at the very least have it handy to send immediately if the editor expresses interest in considering it. Don't make the editor have to chase you to even get the material to review.

16. Make sure your major story source will work with you before you pitch. You don't have to have everything locked down at the pitch stage, but if it's a profile, it helps to know the person you want to profile is gettable. Your worst case scenario is having your pitch accepted and then having to tell the editor you can't deliver because you can't get the interview your entire pitch was predicated on.

17. If your story idea has been accepted, get clarity before filing on what the policy is regarding cross-posting to a personal blog. Most people don't care if you repost something to your personal blog after it has been published, but it's considered extremely uncool to file something you've already published, even if just in part, on your personal blog and just hope no one will notice. It could also potentially turn you into the journalism scandal du jour.