The freelancer’s handbook: How to pitch to an editor

Pitching a story to an editor can be a disheartening experience. You send your idea out into the ether and wait… and follow up… and wait some more… and then finally, you get nothing back.

It’s like throwing a tennis ball at a wall only for a black hole to appear and swallow it up.

For freelance content creators, pitching is an unavoidable reality, it is your bread and butter. It’s how you earn new business. So, how do you get your pitch noticed?

Understand your editor and why they open their purse strings

The first thing to remember is that on the other side of the black hole sits an editor who is being thonked on the head by a tennis ball every couple of minutes.

An editor has options, too many options. PR companies, advertisers, industry experts, internal staff, freelancers, part-time writers and even members of the public are all pitching them potentially newsworthy stories.

The most challenging part of this for a freelance journalist is a lot of this content can be written for free, or at least quite cheaply.

The first question an editor will ask themselves about a pitch is: ‘Will this resonate with my readers?’

Or in other words, is this story worth paying for?

The reality is, the strength of your story will be determined by its potential to reach new audiences, by selling more magazine copies or getting more shares on Facebook.

Before you pitch, ask yourself whether your story will add value to the publication? What are you offering that internal staff cannot?

Understanding your publication

As a journo, you probably consume a lot of media and have a good feel for what works for different publications or agencies.

The nitty gritty of website analytics have given editors more insight on their readership than ever before and this means they select stories more carefully.

A story may get rejected because it fails to tick just one box, whether it’s because a topic tested poorly (yes, it happens) or appropriate images can not be sourced.

The more you understand the publication you are pitching to, the higher your success rate will be.

Read what they are reporting and how they reporting on it. Can you tie in your story to anything they are reporting? Can you tie your story in with their coverage?

Phone or email?

Have you ever called an editor and started pitching your story, only to be interrupted and told to “put it in an email”?

It’s feels like a brush off and it might be, but if an editor is interested in your story they’ll tell you to put it in writing. A concise overview in writing works because:

  • It gives the editor time to consider the story’s value.

  • An opportunity to do their own desktop research.

  • A paper trail they can revisit.

Everyone likes to complain about how many emails they receive, but it’s the best starting point for a pitch, especially if you are pitching to a new editor.

Once you’ve pitched by email set yourself a reminder to call. When you call will depend on the timeliness of your story. 

Leave a message if you don’t get through, then they’ll know you are trying to get through to them. A bit of persistence may be required before you speak to them,  but being polite and congenial on the phone goes a long way. Try to build a bit of rapport if possible – your conversation doesn’t have to be all business.

Play a long game. If this pitch doesn’t hit the mark your next one might.

How to structure your pitch

A good pitch starts strong. You have just a few seconds to hook a reader, it’s no different for an editor.

Impart the most important, shocking, and/or newsworthy information straight away in the subject line. You don’t need to be sensationalist, you certainly should not stretch the truth, but there is little point in holding back.

In the body of your email, introduce yourself briefly, and then keep the pitch short. Think about how you tell the whole story in under 30 words. The initial contact should be top line – you can explain the details down the track. 

Include one line on the audience you will speak to and what they will add to the story, and another on what images (if any) are available. Almost nothing gets commissioned without an image these days.

Finally, you are new to the editor, so write a bit about yourself. Tell them where you have been published and how long you’ve been a journo/ content creator. Put a link to your blog, website or Twitter – in this instance, there’s nothing wrong with a shameless plug. It could win you a commission.

Before you shoot off the email check you’ve nailed the punctuation, spelling, and grammar. Nothing will turn off an editor faster than basic errors, and it’s not them being petty about minor typos or casually misplaced commas. How can they trust you to write a good story if your pitch has been written without care?

A final piece of advice: don’t send a completed story. You should not spend time crafting a story that might not sell – and who has time to read these? It’s better to start a dialogue with the editor with a well-crafted pitch, a follow-up call and a bit of polite persistence.

Here’s a checklist to run through before you hit send on your pitch email

  • Does my subject line summarise the story and pack a punch?

  • Have I introduced myself and my experience?

  • Is my one sentence story summary strong and gives an overview of the whole story?

  • Do I have a handle on the publication’s tone and style?

  • Am I offering value? Can my story be easily covered by internal staff? What’s my point of difference?

  • Have I done a spell check!?