How I pitch editors in 2021
Stories not topics, the occasional curveball and less worrying about unanswered emails
I recently realised that I’ve been pitching stories since 2008 (!)
I tried to dig out my very first pitch, but I couldn’t find it because it seems that back then, my email subject lines consisted of “article” and “review”. I doubt I even knew that what I was doing was called pitching.
A lot has changed since then (my email subject lines for a start), so I thought it’s a great time for an update on my own pitching process.
Pitching rules I’ve changed my mind about
The biggest thing that’s changed about my pitching process is the bit that happens before I pitch.
These days, I put a lot more thought into the types of stories I want to write for a publication. That’s partly due to the fact I now have my own platform (hi! thanks for reading my newsletter!) with a sizeable readership. I just have less time to write for other outlets and so when I do, I want it to count. For me, that means working with editors who are going to push me as a writer. Self-publishing is fantastic for many reasons, but being edited is still really important to me.
In terms of the actual stories, I think about subjects I want to write but I also think about format. I try to exclusively write reported pieces for outlets – which basically means features, but even the essays I write typically include interviews.
There’s also something else I think about when I pitch a story: will this piece get me where I’m trying to go? I find this to be a hard question to answer because my own destination is a moving target. So I’ll try to illustrate this point with an example. A few months ago I experienced horrendous online harassment over a tweet about a dog. An editor who saw the situation unfold online got in touch to ask me if I wanted to write about it.
I gave it serious thought. Before the editor had got in touch, I’d done that writerly thing where something happened to me and I thought “Everything is copy! I should write about this!” There I was, already thinking that I might like to pitch something on this and here was a chance to do so.
But when I looked at it as a whole – the angle, the publication and the timing – I realised it simply wasn’t for me. It didn’t fit with what I usually write about and it wasn’t a topic that I wanted to start covering. Now, I’m not saying to never go off-piste. Some of my proudest published pieces are anomalies. I often have to remind myself that freelancing means you get to throw the odd curveball.
The difference is that whereas a few years ago, I’d come up with a bunch of unconnected ideas and just pitch them without thinking too much about the bigger picture, now I try to be more intentional. I think how writing a piece about X for Y publication fits in with my overall freelancing business and my professional goals. And if it doesn’t, am I going to do it anyway because I just really want to write it? (I told you this was a hard question to answer).
As for the actual writing up and sending of the pitches, I’ve come to appreciate how much of it is an art rather than science. Presently, I try not to get bogged down in worrying about things like what time of day to pitch an editor1, whether to only send them one pitch at a time2, or how often to chase an unanswered email3. The reality is, if you ask three different editors their preferences, you’ll get three different answers.
Last week I wrote about them versus me problems. For better or worse, I default to labelling pitching issues as them problems. When an editor doesn’t reply, I don’t think it’s because my pitch was bad, I think it’s because they’re either busy, tight on budget or have already commissioned something similar. The same goes for my email format – I know that I’m being polite and reasonable (I read Digital Etiquette!) so if they aren’t replying, it’s not on me. Rejection isn’t feedback, after all.
And the one rule that I haven’t budged on
The only hard rule I have about pitching, which I can’t see changing, is always making sure that I’m pitching a story rather than a topic. What I mean by that is there needs to be a narrative – something has to happen. Ideally, there’s a character and some degree of tension.
My hack for working out whether my pitch does that is by giving it a headline. I learned the “headline-first approach” from a former boss of mine. It’s really simple: can you give your pitch a clear headline that people will click on? If you can, you’ve got yourself a story idea.
And at some point, I was smart enough to stop writing “idea” as my subject line and use that headline instead. Speaking of how I ~actually~ write up my pitches, I thought I would tie everything above together by sharing an example of a recent successful pitch.
This is the actual pitch I sent to Refinery29 that resulted in this published piece.
Pitch: Do I have productivity dysmorphia?
In the last 18 months, I’ve written a book, hosted two podcasts, and created a national media awards. And yet I feel like I’ve achieved nothing. I’ve started thinking of this unhealthy relationship with my achievements as productivity dysmorphia: while I appear super productive to everyone else, I just don’t see it in myself.
I'd love to write about this experience – one that I'm sure I'm not alone in – of not being able to see the reality of how much we're doing/producing and the anxiety that it causes.
Define productivity dysmorphia – the disconnect between one’s objective professional achievements and the feeling of not having done enough
Demonstrate the negative impact it has on our wellbeing and long term consequences (ie why is it a problem)
Contextualise the phenomenon within the broader issue of workaholism and the mental health issues associated with work (and also the pandemic)
Format and sources
I see this piece as a reported essay, opening with my own experiences of productivity dysmorphia and then bringing in examples from other case studies to support the theory. I’d then bring in secondary sources (psychologists and workaholism experts) to explain why this happens and what we can do about it.
Anytime within their working hours
If I have more than one idea, I send them all at once
I chase once after a week