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Editors Reveal What They Love (& What They Loathe) in Pitches

  • November 25, 2020
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If you’re a freelance writer, you know that your title can be broken down between the writer part (reporting, writing and editing, AKA the fun stuff) and the freelance part (pitching and selling oneself). Pitching is as much the bread and butter of a freelance writing practice as the actual writing because without the pitching, there’s no writing.
At the same time, for every freelancer pitching his or her little heart out, there’s an editor on the receiving end, holding the keys to the kingdom. Just as you may be sending out pitch after pitch, they’re getting them in their ever-clogged up inbox. To break through the noise, freelance writers need to treat each pitch like the important piece of writing that it is. If you don’t convince the editor to want to hear more, why would your finished piece convince their readers of anything?
Freelance writers need to treat each pitch like the important piece of writing that it is. Click To Tweet
Commit to your pitch with the following tips from top editors at a variety of outlets, and see what they have to say about what makes a pitch stick. And when we say stick, that may mean it becomes a story, or at the very least, establishes your credibility and your positioning in their inbox.

DO: Practice professional email etiquette.

As creatives, writers may shun the “rules” of corporate life, but email communication at the outset of your relationship with an editor can and should be polished and professional without sounding stiff or formal. In fact, a lack of decorum is often the first thing that will have an editor passing on a pitch.
Charlotte Cowles, editorial director of M.M. LeFleur and former senior features editor at Harper’s Bazaar says, “A clean, polite, warm, and semi-formal opener. This is your first chance to show that you’re capable and professional, and also able to write in a voice that’s appropriate for our website.” Additionally, Katie Olsen, Managing Editor of Cool Hunting says her biggest pet peeve when receiving pitches is misinformation. “Make sure you get names right—we oftentimes get emails with the wrong publication or editor’s name. Proofreading goes a long way.”

DON’T: Make them do the work.

Not only does it come off as entitled when someone expects the editor to give the writer information they could and should have found on their own, but it doesn’t bode well for the pitcher’s reporting skills or savvy.
For Cowles, “It’s an instant ‘nope’ when an email is too breezy, casual, and unstructured. ‘Hey, just wondering if you guys are accepting any pitches? Thanks!’ does not cut it.”
Chris Rovzar, Luxury Editor at Bloomberg and former digital editor of Vanity Fair says his pet peeve is “when a new writer will approach me and say, “What kind of stories are you looking for? Have anything you need to assign?” It’s not my job to think of story ideas for writers I don’t know. If I have an idea, I will give it to a writer I know and trust. It’s a new contributor’s job to look through our site.”

DO: Google, for goodness’ sake.

You may have the greatest idea ever, but so might lots of other writers and publications. The tools to check are right at your fingertips and again, your failure to take this simple first step will set the tone for how you might report, so be thorough right off the bat. The same goes for the outlet itself: search, search, search. “It’s not a good look to suggest an article on a topic that’s way out of a publication’s wheelhouse, or something that they have already covered,” says Olsen.
And for Rovzar, a lack of thoroughness will immediately stop him from reading on. “I will stop reading a pitch if it shows me that the writer is not familiar with my outlet or what it covers. Do your research. I need to know in detail where this person, story, or issue has been covered before. If I find that it’s been covered in a close rival publication after I’ve assigned it, not only will I cancel the assignment, but I will remember that this is a writer who doesn’t do his homework.”

DO: Include just enough information.

Your pitch should give editors a taste of what the story might entail, with the right dose of politeness, relevancy and clarity—and leave them wanting more. “Be confident, but not too shtick-y. State your background and qualifications, and why you want to write for us. Then sketch out a few topics—no need to go super in-depth in the first email—and ask if they’re of interest,” states Cowles.
Rovzar agrees in needing a loose outline of the piece straight off the bat. “For me to assign a story I need to know roughly what the writer will talk about in the piece, and what sources he or she will consult. (If it’s a list, I’ll need some examples to make sure they will fit right. If there are examples of a trend, I need to know that there are enough solid ones to go on.)”
Your pitch should give editors a taste of what the story might entail—and leave them wanting more. Click To Tweet

DO: Have a point of view.

Remember, the rules are different for new freelancers versus in-house writers or those who already have a regular relationship with the editor. New writers trying to get in on the game must show how they think, and not just that they’d be able to execute an assignment.
For Cowles, “Writers should be aware of the content we already create in-house: We aren’t going to hire a freelancer to write a piece about ‘5 Great Interview Outfits,’ because we already know what those are (we make them!). Think about what you can add to the conversation, not mimic it.” She continues, “If any of the suggested topics sound intriguing, I’ll usually write back and ask if you can explain more about the angle you’d take. This is when you get to show that you’re a nuanced and original thinker, and aware of the current discussions surrounding the subject in question. For example, the world probably doesn’t need another story about returning to work after maternity leave—but if you want to write an essay about getting fired right after coming back from maternity leave, then that’s more interesting.”
Rovzar agrees on keeping things fresh. “For me to keep reading, a pitch must hit me with a surprising fact or anecdote right at the get-go. And it must have a news peg—it needs to have an urgent reason that we would tell a story now. I can’t run a piece that’s been in a million places already or is known to our readers, but if there is a new angle to something that’s been around a while, I’ll consider it.”
New writers trying to get in on the game must show how they think. Click To Tweet

DON’T: be discouraged right away.

If you have followed all the right advice and still haven’t gotten a response, try again but be patient. Or, if it’s not a fit, the quality of your pitch may still keep you in the Editor’s mind and get you a chance to go again. “If the writer appears capable and has good clips that demonstrate a smart, funny, and appealing voice, then I’ll write back with questions or suggestions. Ideas are rarely perfect at first, and often take some massaging before they coalesce, ” says Cowles. And for Rovzar, “If a pitch is well-written, shows a sense that the writer understands what *kind* of story we would do, and includes a news peg and examples of coverage elsewhere, I will definitely encourage that writer to send me other ideas.”
But, a word of warning from Olsen: “Don’t email/call to follow-up too soon. Even though you’re understandably eager, most editors have to wade through hundreds of emails every day, and yours unfortunately might not be the most timely. Give them a week to get back to you before chasing up.”
Have some winning pitch-tips to share? Don’t hold out on us; drop them in the comments below!

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