Every freelance writer knows the agony of sending off a pitch for an article, and then waiting for a response that never comes. What does it take to get noticed by editors whose inboxes are overflowing? After tracking my own statistics for a few months, I started to notice some patterns in terms of which pitches got responses, and which ones languished away like withered tomatoes on the vine. It turned out that my dead pitches all shared some problems in common.
Problem 1: I was too wordy.
Being chatty at the grocery store is fine. But, being too wordy in a pitch is not. Every word in a pitch has to count. In terms of length, pitches that get noticed are usually about 250 words total. Include a few sentences about how you plan to execute the article. Save your last 50 words for a punchy bio that leaves editors feeling secure that you can pull this article off.
Problem 2: I was not showing how my proposed article would fit within the publication.
Before pitching, I’ll read as many articles as I can from the target publication. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, journalist Jennifer Kahn recommends hours of reading and research before pitching. Christine Dell’Amore, a senior editor at National Geographic, says the biggest mistake freelancers make is failing to understand the publication.
But, let’s say you have done your homework, but you haven’t shown editors what you’d learned. In that case, it doesn’t matter how much you read if you can’t communicate to someone what you understand their format. Bottom line: Show that you have done the research.
Problem 3: My leads weren’t enticing enough.
Editors get a lot of email. Honestly, I’m not sure mere mortals can understand just how many writers are contacting editors regularly. That means pitches have to be so good in the first sentence that an editor simply cannot stop reading. My dead pitches simply took too long to get to the punch.
No editor is going to wade through the evidence without knowing the argument. It’s like paying hundreds of dollars for a Broadway show, and not knowing what the play is until you get there. You may like it but it may be an opera in a foreign language. Freelance journalist and editor, Robin Lloyd, notes that bad pitches are often topically driven. In other words, they don’t tell a story.
Problem 4: I wasn’t giving enough information about how I would report the story.
My dead pitches presented story ideas but they didn’t say anything about how I planned to construct that story. In many cases, I knew how it would come together but, by leaving that information out, I was asking editors to just trust me. That’s like calling up someone you’ve never met before, and promising to build them a new house without showing any specs. Sure, maybe you’ve built a thousand houses before but you still have to prove that you can do this one.
Pitches should include at least one sentence about how you intend to tell the story. Do you have primary sources? Are you relying on published research? Do you have personal experience with the topic?
Problem 5: My angles weren’t sharp enough.
Every article in the world has basically already been written. The onus is always on writers to show that the angle we are taking is new and fresh. In other words, a good pitch has a sharp angle. The editor who receives it will know that she won’t get something exactly like that pitch from another writer. Pitching and article is asking an editor to invest time and money in you. CEO of MobileMonkey, Larry Kim, aptly calls the uncustomized venture capitalist pitch “spraying and praying.” The same is true of an article pitch: You can’t turn on the fire hose, and then just hope for the best.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll reach a 50% conversion rate, but I can say that I was able to increase my own success rate from an embarrassing 7% to about half of all pitches. Given enough time, most pitches—if you’ve crafted them carefully—will eventually find a home.
Christine Seifert is a part-time freelance writer and full-time professor of strategic communication, specializing in rhetoric and persuasion. She’s written for The Atavist, Inside Higher Ed, and Bitch Magazine, among other publications. She’s the author of four books. You can learn more about her work on her website where she blogs about her true love: books.
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