Think of your story pitch like a cover letter.
When approaching a new publication, your first freelance pitch is your introduction. It’s your chance to make a positive impression, to demonstrate intimate knowledge of the magazine, to prove you’re well suited to a 400- or 800- or 1,200-word article.
Of course, there’s also the potential to blow it, like the interviewee who wears wrinkled jeans to the nice corporate office where the other employees are donning suits and ties. The freelance writing world has its own unwritten manual of proper decorum and standard etiquette—general rules of behavior that, if ignored in your pitch, can put a sour taste in an editor’s mouth before they even arrive at your parting salutation.
This post is part of a series of freelance writing-related posts from Writer’s Digest Managing Editor Tyler Moss. In addition to working with new submissions and a regular stable of freelance contributors to WD, his own freelance credits include Conde Nast Traveler, The Atlantic, Outside and New York magazines.
Follow Tyler on Twitter @tjmoss11.
While it should be said that none of these grievances hold true in every single circumstance (or for that matter, with every single editor), the following are some common pet peeves I’ve found through discussion with fellow editors, from my own freelance writing experience, and from my time as managing editor of Writer’s Digest. Take the simple steps to avoid these bête noire and you’re far more likely to make a good impression.
When pitching a new publication, freelance writer’s should avoid:
- Pitching a story similar to something the publication has recently published.
This shows you haven’t done your research, either reading recent issues of the magazine or conducting a simple search on their website. You want your story to be an ideal amalgamation: an idea that’s a perfect fit, but that the editor has never thought of.
- Pitching something that’s a poor fit for the publication.
This may sound like common sense, but a number of writers will email out a story pitch en mass, simply copying and pasting different publication titles and slightly tweaking the story details in their template. The approach might be more efficient, certainly, but the fact that the pitch wasn’t specifically intended for their publication is blatantly obvious to an editor. Instead, show you did your homework. Be specific, and thorough.
- Pitching a story similar to something you’ve already published elsewhere.
This is called double dipping, and is just bad form. Editors don’t take kindly when you pitch them the scraps of a previously published story. It makes a writer come off as lazy, as if they don’t have enough new ideas to go around. One caveat here is if the story idea is similar in general genre, but has a very different premise and point. (For instance, if you wrote a roundup of churches-turned-microbreweries for a beer website, then pitched an article about the incredible renovation story of one specific 18th century cathedral into a brewery to a publication like Architectural Digest.)
- Pitching multiple stories at once.
Once you’ve developed a rapport with an editor, pitching numerous ideas in a single email is common practice. That’s because the editor now trusts you, and thus you’ve developed a relationship where you can bounce ideas off of each other to see if anything clicks. With your first story pitch, however, editors want to see you deep dive into a specific story—laying out the hook, a blueprint for the piece and why the story is a perfect fit. Starting off with multiple ideas at once makes it seems like you’re just throwing noodles at the wall, and didn’t take the proper time to prep for any one idea.
- Following up too quickly on a query’s status.
Allow at least two weeks to pass before following up on a pitch. Editors are busy people, and sometimes unread or flagged-for-follow-up emails can sit in our inboxes for weeks at a time. We understand you’re eager to hear back, but reaching out after only a few days have elapsed can make a writer appear impatient—a sign they may be difficult to work with.
- Following up too quickly with new pitches.
If an editor rejects your query, it’s OK to send along new ideas—especially if the editor invites you to submit again in the future (we really mean it!). But take a week to think through a new story and properly flesh it out—don’t rush to send a new one the same day. Editors can tell when an idea has been hurried. Take the time to be thoughtful, so don’t just throw something together for the sake of a speedy reply.
- Calling an editor on the phone.
In the digital age, the vast majority of editors I know despise receiving unsolicited queries over the phone. Emails allow editors to respond on their own schedule. Of the writers who have found my phone number, I’d say that 99 percent of the conversations could’ve easily taken place over email. Some writers believe they’re making a stronger impression by reaching an editor by phone, but more often than not, that impression is a negative one. Though the writer may not intend it that way, an editor can interpret a phone call as a lack of respect for their time. Most publication’s websites detail submission protocol via email or online form, so it’s best to follow the proper channels.
- Getting the publication’s name wrong.
I can’t tell you how often this happens, and it’s almost always an instant deal breaker. Why? It demonstrates a poor attention to detail. We receive many emails addressed to Reader’s Digest, or even the title of a completely different writing-related publication. If there’s a mistake that a superficial scan of the story pitch should’ve caught, it will make editors feel like you consider their publication an afterthought. Very carefully read through every sentence of your query—backwards and forwards—before sending it off.
You wouldn’t believe the number of submissions that accumulate in an editor’s inbox. With so many pitches to read through, sometimes all it takes is one simple strike to lead an editor to pass on a pitch. Maximize your chance of success by steering clear of these story pitch pet peeves, and you’re more likely to win your query a full, fair evaluation.