What’s the best time to pitch an article idea to an editor?
How about when you’ve just delivered—on time and at the assigned length—an article that’s exactly what the editor was looking for?
If you were raised, as I was, in a family where "reserved" was a positive personality trait and used-car salesmen and other persistent "hucksters" were frowned upon, this sort of aggressive sales strategy might strike you as a bit, well, rude. "Here’s that article you asked for—now how about another assignment?" Shouldn’t the well-mannered writer wait a decent interval? Isn’t such an approach simply pushy?
That’s what I thought—until I had it used on me, as an editor. And I have to confess: It worked.
The follow-up idea had to be right on target, of course, and the "pushy" writer had to deliver precisely what I’d asked for. (Querying for a second assignment when you’ve just turned in the first one two weeks late and 1,500 words too long is a guaranteed recipe for a rejection slip.) But writers who’ve pitched me hard on the heels of getting me the goods once have indeed caught me softened up and set to say yes again.
This follow-up technique doesn’t even require that you’ve actually sold anything; the same principle applies if you’ve merely gotten an encouraging response to a query. The bottom line is the same: Don’t let too much grass grow between a positive experience with an editor and your next pitch.
Quick to query
In the most extreme example of fast follow-up that I’ve seen, a writer actually enclosed his next query with the manuscript of my first assignment to him. While I wasn’t prepared to say yes to the new idea before I’d read the assigned article, the query did get my attention and got on my to-do list. I admit, I felt a certain obligation to give his pitch a look—even before I considered other, unaccompanied queries that were piling up in my inbox.
There’s a danger to this approach, of course. Because the editor is unlikely to say yes to idea No. 2 before at least reading the completed manuscript of idea No. 1, you won’t get an immediate yes. Your query could fall through the cracks or get buried in that inbox. By the time the editor returns to your query, the warm glow from your successful accomplishment of idea No. 1 may have worn off. Your once-hot idea may be greeted with, "Who was this guy again?"
An alternate approach is to give the editor a little time to digest your successful (you hope!) submission before pouncing again. Look for an opportunity to start a dialogue with the editor. If she calls to tell you she liked the piece, have another idea in the back of your mind you can pitch briefly on the phone, maybe with a suggestion that you then send in a full-blown query. Or, if you can’t come up with a follow-up when the editor calls out of the blue, at least take the opportunity to ask if you can query with another idea—and then do so, fast.
If the editor e-mails an acceptance, your path is clear: Reply to the e-mail with thanks and your follow-up idea. Even if your second idea turns out not to be a winner, you’ll have successfully started a conversation about what you might tackle next.
When editors don’t take the initiative to tell you that a submission is acceptable, wait a week or so and then follow up. Your first post-submission contact in that case should be a brief e-mail or call to make sure what you sent was indeed on target and to inquire if the editor needs any revisions or additional material from you. Without being a pest, you can demonstrate that you care about your work and about meeting the editor’s needs. When the editor replies that your article is OK (or when you’ve promptly revised it to her satisfaction), you can respond in turn with your fresh query. (This is one reason e-mail is probably better than the phone for asking "Is it OK?"—it opens the door to an e-mail exchange ending in an opportunity for you to query again in writing. E-mail also lets editors respond at their convenience, rather than putting them on the spot; if the editor hasn’t in fact gotten around to looking at your article, the "Is it OK?" e-mail gently prods them to do so.)
For magazines that send you galleys of your article, returning the galleys makes a perfect excuse to pitch a follow-up idea. The timing couldn’t be better: Your article is smoothly sailing toward the printed page, and the decks are clear for the editor to consider something to help fill the next issue or the one thereafter. (Do not, however, return your galleys with a litany of complaints about your copy being "butchered" or covered with scribbles attempting to undo the editing. Maybe you don’t want to write for this editor again and see your work hacked to pieces, and that’s understandable. But don’t combine complaints about editing with a query to please go through this agony again.)
A follow-up query is also a fine opportunity to "upgrade." If you’ve successfully completed a short, front-of-the-book item, set your sights for the follow-up pitch a bit higher: Is there a department you can tackle? A short feature?
Don’t overreach, though. Even if you’ve done a bang-up job on that 200-word short, the editor will be reluctant to let you leap immediately to an in-depth investigative piece requiring 7,500 words and an unlimited expense account. This isn’t mere editorial pigheadedness but simply human nature. Think of the typical father’s reaction to a request like, "Gee, Dad, now that I’ve just gotten my driver’s license, how about if my buddies and I make a 3,000-mile road trip to Nova Scotia?"
The careful upgrade follow-up, by contrast, lets you
continue to prove yourself without biting off more than you can chew. Get a few
successes under your belt, and then even if you do drop
the ball at some point the editor will be a lot more likely to be forgiving. She’ll know that your failure is an aberration—because you’ll already have proven yourself several times.
But what if you haven’t yet gotten your foot in the door, just an encouraging note with the editor’s "no"? The fast follow-up is still a smart tactic. Use that "close but no cigar" from the editor to open a dialogue, just as if you’d actually sold and delivered an article. Again without becoming a pest, start a conversation with the editor that shows you really listened to his reasons for rejecting your first idea. Make the editor feel he knows you, even that he has an investment in you. Eventually he’ll want to give you an assignment, to see his investment of time and critiquing pay off.
In this case, your follow-up might even be a "downgrade." If you originally pitched a feature and got an encouraging "no thanks," follow up with a query for a shorter, less-ambitious piece. Make it easier for the editor to say yes this time by ratcheting down the risk. If he gives you a 500-word assignment, after all, what’s the worst that can happen if you turn out to be terrible? Much less than entrusting you with a big feature that leaves a black hole in his lineup if you blow it.
Once you do get to yes, of course, you can start carefully upgrading to the kind of meaty, more lucrative stories you originally wanted to tackle. Just remember to follow up promptly with those pitches and not rest on your laurels. The editor won’t think you’re pushy—or if he does, like me, he’ll secretly admire your chutzpah.