As a journalist with nearly a decade of experience behind the editor’s desk, I’ve received hundreds of pitches from public relations managers, freelance writers, and avid readers. And I know that there's nothing quite like seeing your name in print. Getting it there, however, can be frustrating.
Whether you’re a freelance writer hoping to break into a publication or a PR manager looking to share your client’s story, there is a right way (and a wrong way) to pitch your idea. And your approach can be the difference between piquing an editor’s interest and completely turning him or her off.
To make sure your pitch has the best chance of being accepted, don’t make these three classic mistakes.
Mistake #1: Applying to Famous Publications Before You Have a Portfolio
Yes, stretching yourself and aiming high are praiseworthy and important qualities. But, as in any other field, prestigious roles require a foundation. The writers you see appearing in national magazines probably didn’t start there—and just like them, you’ll need to work your way up.
The first step is building up a body of work. When reviewing a pitch, an editor will want to see clips—or samples—of your previously published work. And if you don’t have clips, you’ll need to get some.
Start small: See what smaller industry publications or local opportunities are available to you. I was living in Boston when I first started freelancing on the side of my full-time job, and I contacted local, weekly publications about potential opportunities. These smaller outlets provided a chance to practice my interviewing and writing skills without a ton of pressure (I was regularly paid in books and movie tickets).
Another way to build your portfolio and your reputation as an expert is to find a topic that you are passionate and knowledgeable about and start a blog or personal website. From there, inquire about guest posting on other sites. Before you know it, you’ll have several entries to include in future pitches.
Mistake #2: Sending an Inappropriate Pitch
Editors are busy people. You’re probably a busy person, too! So don’t waste your time—or anyone else’s—by sending a pitch that has no chance of being accepted.
I’ll give you an example from my own work life. I spent five years as the editor of a regional publication, which only covered news from a very specific geographic location. I can’t tell you how many times I received story ideas from outside—sometimes way outside—of our coverage area.
These are stories we would never, ever publish. And when I saw a pitch for a story that took place on the other side of the country, I knew that the person submitting the idea had never picked up a copy of our magazine or visited our website. Those pitches went into my trash can. Immediately.
Most of the pitches Anne Mostue, a producer and reporter for WGBH, a public radio station in Boston, Massachusetts, receives are from PR firms. “One of my pet peeves is receiving a pitch from people who clearly don’t listen to public radio or understand what we cover on our shows,” she says. Rhea Saran, Editor-in-Chief of Conde Nast Traveller-Middle East, agrees. “I don’t like vague pitches,” she says. “I like well reasoned pitches that I can clearly see a place for in the magazine.”
Your story is not going to be right for every media outlet. A magazine for hunting and fishing enthusiasts won’t cover wedding trends, regardless of how brilliant the article may be. Start by looking for publications that are right for your idea. Here are some things to consider:
1. Geography: Where does your story take place? If you are pitching a profile about a well-known community member in Phoenix, Arizona, local newspapers and magazines are a great place to start.
2. Topic: What or who is your story about? There are all sorts of niche publications out there—think sites and magazines about classic car collecting, science, knitting, pets, home design—you name it! If your story touches on a specific topic, geography might not matter.
3. Timeliness: When does your story take place? Note that magazines, newspapers, and online outlets have very different timetables. Many monthly magazines plan their editorial calendar a year in advance, and their production time lasts much longer than a daily or weekly publication.
Mistake #3: Sending Your Pitch to Anyone (or Everyone)
Though it’s an extra step, take the time to inquire about submission guidelines for any publication you pitch. The editorial staff created these guidelines for a reason—to make the process easier for both you and them—so don’t disregard the information.
The submission guidelines should also tell you where and to whom you should send your pitch. If you can’t find submission preferences or a contact person on the publication’s website, give the office a call—often times, the receptionist can send you in the right direction or tell you to whom you should address a pitch. This is important: One of my pet peeves is receiving a pitch that starts with, “To Whom it May Concern.” Or worse: receiving a pitch where my name is misspelled. Come on, people! You have mere seconds to impress the editor with your pitch; don’t ruin it by spelling her name wrong.
That said, a pitch sent via email is always preferable to a phone call, so the editor may review it at his convenience and go back to it later. Let the editor know what you’d like to write about, and offer some idea of the people you would interview for the story. This shows that you’ve thought about how you would like to craft the story and that you’ve completed some preliminary research. Once you’ve written out of all the relevant information, don’t forget to review your email for length—a concise pitch is much better than a long one.
Finally, though it seems so obvious, be sure to run your letter though your spell check program. No one will hire a writer who includes typos in a pitch!
You put a lot of time and effort into your story. So, take some time to craft your pitch as well. Avoid the mistakes above and put your best foot forward—it just may make the difference.