Writers: Welcome to our ongoing professional development series with practical advice on breaking into journalism and building up a portfolio. This, from Emily Ladau, explores the basics of where to send your carefully crafted pitch.
As an editor and a writer, I've experienced the pitching process from the inside, out and the outside, in. I know what it's like to keep clicking refresh on my email, waiting, wishing, and hoping an editor will accept my pitch. I also know what it's like to open my inbox and feel buried under a pile of pitches from writers eager to receive a response. While getting from pitched to published is by no means an exact science, I've picked up some good practices through my work on both sides of the equation — insights that I'll share along with all the good vibes and juju you need to get your next piece accepted to the outlet you’re aiming to appear in.
Shoot for the moon.
You know how the cliché goes: even if you miss, you'll land among the stars. This is something I learned the hard way. I pitched several outlets with the same piece, sold it to the first outlet that accepted it, and then heard back from a major newspaper and a major mainstream website the next day. Of course, I was still happy to have the piece published, but I realized that it’s okay to set the bar high when you’re pitching. If you know your writing is solid, go for your dream publications first, and then give them a bit to see if they respond to your pitch before following up or moving on. And when you do pitch multiple outlets, be sure to note that in your emails; it’s only fair for editors to know, and it can work in your favor by creating a sense of urgency for an editor to snap up your piece.
Sometimes, there’s just no time to waste. If you have a unique take on breaking news and no one else is talking about it from your angle, PITCH NOW. Do not wait a week. Do not even wait a day. Everything is old news mere hours after it hits the internet, if not sooner, so get to it!
That said, even when you pitch quickly, be careful that it doesn’t come across as an obvious rush job. It might even be useful to have some basic ideas about a broader topic written down, so that when something newsworthy happens that's connected to your expertise, you’re armed and ready to shape a thoughtful pitch. And once you’re prepared to contact an editor, be sure to clearly indicate that your pitch is time sensitive. I find that using “TIMELY” as the first word of my subject line helps alert editors to the need to respond quickly.
Know the outlet.
I know you might be tempted to go on a pitching spree in the hopes that you’ll grab the attention of some editor, somewhere. This is a terrible idea for two reasons: you’re wasting editors’ time, and you’re wasting your own time. Pitch strategically and be confident that your writing will be a good fit for an outlet instead of sending off a bunch of emails. Editors want to see that you're familiar with where you hope to be published. You can even add a sentence to your pitch email explaining why you believe a certain publication is the right home for what you have to say.
Know the pitching guidelines.
Not every outlet provides guidelines for pitching, but many provide exact instructions or specifications. For example, some outlets want you to paste your article draft in the body of the email, some want it in an attachment or Google Doc, and some don't even want a full draft without an idea pitch first. So, take some time to do your research for guidelines, which can often be found on a publication’s website. And then, actually follow them.
Honestly, when I receive a pitch that clearly ignores guidelines, I’m more likely to overlook it. Pitching guidelines aren’t suggestions; they exist to help editors do their jobs more efficiently. Plus, they’re an indicator for editors as to how easy a writer will be to work with, so following them makes you look good.
In the vast majority of cases, pitching is personal. There’s usually a reason why you’re interested in or qualified to be writing on the topic of your pitch, so give yourself an edge by sharing a bit about that with editors. If you have direct experience with the topic you’re planning to write on, or expertise to share, make that known. That’s not to say you need to disclose deeply personal information (unless your pitch actually happens to be about something deeply personal), but it does help to position yourself as someone who knows what they’re talking about. Show the editor you’re the best writer for the piece, especially if it’s related to a particularly hot topic. But keep it short — a sentence or two, or a couple writing samples or social media links should do the trick.
A simple way to direct editors to examples of your work is collating your clips, bio, and contact information on a website, which you can then link to in your email signature. This way, you can easily point editors to your website for insight into the quality of your writing. Plus, maintaining an updated website bolsters your status as a professional writer. And speaking of “professional”...
It should go without saying that professionalism is important when pitching an editor, but it’s worth the reminder. I’ve received pitches that were one or two casual lines, pitches that were grammatical disasters, pitches that started with “hey!” To me, this shows a total lack of effort and is generally grounds for rejection. I do think it’s worth noting, though, that once I develop a working relationship with a writer, I’m totally fine with a more informal tone in our communication. But this preference differs depending on the editor, so it’s best to gauge each situation on an individual basis.
Also, use an email address that indicates you take your work seriously. When I see a pitch from an email to the effect of firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, my faith in the quality of your writing wanes quickly. Besides, it’s easy and free to make a professional Gmail account that’s simply YourName@gmail.com (or Your.Name, YourNameWrites...), so there are no excuses!
As I write this, I’ve got my fingers metaphorically crossed that I’ll hear back soon from an editor I recently pitched. I know the struggle, truly. Unfortunately, the waiting game is all part of the process. And the hard reality is that sometimes, you just won’t get a response. Don’t swear off pitching for life if this happens to you. Becoming a published writer can take time, and when you finally see your name in a byline, all that perseverance will absolutely feel worth it.
Emily Ladau is a passionate disability rights activist, writer, speaker, and digital communications consultant who serves as the Editor in Chief of the Rooted in Rights Blog, a platform focused on disability rights issues. Emily maintains a website, Words I Wheel By, and her writing has been published on websites including The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Salon, Vice, and Huffington Post. All of Emily’s activism is driven by her firm belief that if we want the world to be accessible to people with all types of disabilities, we must make ideas and concepts surrounding disability accessible to the world. Follow her on Twitter at @emily_ladau.