How to Successfully Pitch Your Idea to an Editor

How to Successfully Pitch Your Idea to an Editor
Photo: Suzanne Tucker, Shutterstock
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Over the course of my career — from my newspaper reporting days to my freelance writing days — I have pitched a lot of stories. In my role as writer and editor of Lifehacker’s Offspring vertical, I still pitch ideas to my own bosses basically every day. But I also field a lot of pitches from freelance writers — even more so since I put out a call last week seeking new voices.

As those pitches started rolling in en masse, it became clear to me that some writers are inexperienced with the Art of Pitching and could benefit from a little guidance from someone who has been there and done that countless times. So before you pitch an editor your next story idea, read these tips.

Do your research

You’d think this would be obvious, but my inbox indicates it is not: Know the publication you are pitching before you pitch. A good chunk of the freelance pitches I receive either aren’t parenting related at all, or don’t match the tone or purpose of Lifehacker. Before you can write for an outlet, you have to read that outlet. You cannot skip this step.

I know writers spend a lot of (unpaid) time writing pitches, and it can be tempting to craft one standard pitch to send around to multiple editors. But you’re much more likely to land an assignment if you’ve done the work to hone the angle and tone of your pitch to best fit that particular publication. I can usually tell by the second sentence of an email whether a writer has ever actually read Offspring.

Part of reading and getting to know the publication is searching out what it has already published — especially what it has published on the topic you want to pitch. You can assume a food website has already done a slew of posts on “quick and easy weeknight dinners,” so before you pitch that as an idea, search to see what they’ve already written. You might find a hole in their coverage (hey, where are all the quick and easy weeknight casseroles?) or a unique angle they haven’t yet explored — and that’s the idea you want to pitch.

Next, look for submission guidelines. Some editors (usually editors at big publications who receive a lot of pitches) will let you know exactly how they prefer to be pitched, and what information they want upfront. Some editors want completed pieces; others (like me) want just the idea. Some prefer completed pieces to be attached as a document, while others prefer to have the text copied and pasted into an email.

Typically speaking, not following the guidelines exactly isn’t going to get you automatically disqualified from ever writing for that site, but if they’re telling you how to make the process easier for them, then make the process easier for them. They’ll be more likely to read — and accept — your pitch if it’s in the preferred format.

Stick to email

I, like many editors, receive a lot of email in a day. The vast majority are pitches of some sort, whether from a public relations agency promoting a client, a publisher promoting a book, or a freelance writer pushing an idea they’d like to write for our site. I dive in when I have time to wade through them, and jump back out when I have to get back to my own reporting and writing (which is how I spend the vast majority of my day).

Having all the pitches in one place makes it much easier for an editor to compartmentalise, manage their time, and file things away. If pitches are also coming in from Facebook Messenger, Twitter DMs, and LinkedIn, not only can they get lost, an editor can quickly feel bombarded.

An example of this: Recently, someone who wanted to pitch me an idea first requested to friend me on Facebook. I didn’t recognise them, so I deleted their request. They then sent me a LinkedIn request, which I accepted, and they began messaging me links to videos they had produced and separately added me to a LinkedIn group message with a bunch of people I do not know in order to send me more links. When I toggled back over to Facebook, they had also sent me a message request there, asking for my email address so they could pitch me.

It felt like this person was all over my social media, pinging me from multiple directions, when all they had to do was look up my email address and send me a pitch (they still haven’t actually pitched me, by the way).

Some editors will say they don’t mind if you send them a pitch via social media, but many more editors don’t like it, so you’re best to stick to email unless they say otherwise. (And don’t message them to ask for their email address unless you’ve already hunted for it and absolutely cannot find it. Chances are very good it’s published on the website somewhere.)

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What to put in that email

Now that you’re ready to compose your pitch, keep it brief, and keep it relevant. I like when freelancers who are pitching me for the first time tell me a little about themselves (that is, a sentence or two), as long as it relates to why they are the best person to write up the idea they’re sending me. If you’re pitching me a piece about parenting a transgender child, and your child is transgender, that tells me you have a perspective and experience that is relevant and valuable to our readers. If you’re pitching me something health-related and you have a background in nursing, I’d want to know that.

On the other hand, when I open a pitch and encounter seven long paragraphs in which the writer introduces themself and gives me a bunch of career and family background, but I can’t seem to locate the actual idea, that’s too much information. Provide a brief introduction, then provide a concise summary of your idea. If the idea is well-formed, this should really only take a paragraph or two. If you find yourself starting to ramble or over-explain, that usually means the idea is too vague or general and you need to tighten it up.

Also, if you’re pitching an editor for the first time, include a few links to previously published work. If at all possible, choose links that are most relevant to your pitch in terms of content or tone. If you’re pitching a piece about kids and mental health, for example, and you have previously written about mental health-related topics, that’s what an editor will want to see.

Finally, give the editor some time to respond before you send a follow-up email. Every editor operates differently in how quickly (or slowly) they respond. Some editors at big publications receive dozens of pitches a day, and may only respond if it’s a “yes.” I think it’s fair to check back in on a pitch if you haven’t heard anything in a couple of weeks, but only check in once. If you’ve sent two notes about the same pitch and they’re still not responding, assume they’ve decided to pass.

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