by Ericka McIntyre
So you want to write for magazines and websites…great! Writing articles can be an excellent way for authors to promote their work, build a platform, hone their skills, and get paid. How do you start? With a pitch, of course. But how do you make sure your pitches will land the way you want them to? Allow me to share with you some of the wisdom I have gleaned from over twenty years working in media and publishing, most recently as Editor-in-Chief of Writer’s Digest magazine.
After so much time on both sides of the editor’s desk—as a full-time freelancer, and as an acquiring editor – I’m confident I’ve seen the best pitches, and the worst ones. I’ve sent out both kinds of pitches in my own career too!
Here’s a list of some of the biggest OOFs! I’ve seen writers make (myself included). This list isn’t intended to shame anyone—I’m giving it to you so you can avoid making these mistakes in your career.
This one may seem obvious, but believe me, it is not. If I had a nickel for every pitch I’ve gotten addressed to “Dear Sir” or “Dear Mrs. McIntyre,” I could pay someone (well) to write this blog for me. It’s the twenty-first century and dated forms of address make you look behind the times, and possibly even sexist. Even if you mean it respectfully, it lands with a thud. Don’t assume an editor’s gender or marital status.
Do your homework.
Most publications have submission guidelines on their websites. Find them and follow them. If for some reason the editor’s information is not in these, it is simple to discover. Most of us live on Twitter and many of us give you our pronouns in our bios. Ninety seconds of Googling will usually make it clear how and to whom you should address your pitch, regardless of whether the outlet is big or small, national or local, print or digital. If you have found an editor’s email or postal address, go the extra three inches and figure out how best to address them. Those three inches can carry you miles.
Know what the outlet has published recently
This dovetails with my first point. If you have sent a pitch addressed to “Dear Sir” and it is also clear that you have no idea the kind of content an outlet publishes, the editor is going to make an assumption about you, and it is very likely going to be correct: You’re spaghetting it.
What’s “spaghetting it”? The term I made up for writers who are throwing out pitches everywhere at random to see what sticks.
Don’t do this. It’s the fast track to the slush pile. Editors want to know that you have taken the time to find out who they are, and what their publication is all about.
When you pitch an editor something they’ve recently done a piece on, or something that they seem never to cover at all, it proves that you’re not a regular reader of the outlet you’re pitching. Before I query a website, I go out to the site’s search bar and type in the topic I am thinking of—usually in seconds I know if they’ve done a piece recently, and if my angle is unique enough to pitch. Or, if my topic is the right one to pitch at all.
Editors sometimes field dozens of pitches per day so it is critical that you pitch correctly. Editors don’t have time to spend more than a few minutes assessing your pitch -- why it’s good, and why you should write it. They just don’t. It’s not personal.
Make it as easy as possible for them to pick up what you’re putting down. In my freelance life, I have one cardinal rule for myself: Never make my editor’s job harder than it needs to be. It has served me well over a decade of freelancing.
Know WHEN to pitch, especially with print outlets.
For websites, content calendars are generally set only a month or so out. For print? Whoa. It can be up to a year. I would get great pitches at WD, only to have to email a writer, “I’m so sorry, but print is full for months. This would have been great for July, but July has been full since October.”
Print publications work far in advance, and with limited space. A print magazine needs to allot a significant portion of page count to advertising and regular columns, leaving sometimes only twenty or so pages for freelancers’ work. Last-minute pitches are typically not accepted.
Here’s a good rule of thumb for pitching print: Pitch at least six months out. If it’s July, pitch for February. Many print pubs actually provide their editorial calendars online, or, will let you know what they are if you ask (nicely). Do that quick web search again, and you can set yourself ahead of your competition.
It’s also important to note that while websites generally have shorter lead times than print, and more space, they still have methods for publishing, and for good reasons. If a site only does two posts per day, don’t pitch them a third. If they only post short pieces (because they know their readers don’t have the attention span for more than 500 words), don’t pitch them a 2,000-word deep dive on a topic.
So you’ve sent a great pitch—it’s addressed to the right person, the right way; it’s the right topic with the right angle; and you’ve sent it at the right time. Great! But then, you don’t hear anything back from the editor. For a week. For two weeks. For a month. Sigh.
When and how do you best follow up?
Keep in mind how many pitches editors get, and that most in-house editorial staffs these days are thinner than a sheet of paper, and know this: The editor probably very much wants to get back to you quickly, but is simply too buried to do so.
I advise waiting two to four weeks before following up on most pitches (six weeks for print). Then send a very calm, friendly, easy-going follow up. If an editor wants your piece, they’ll say so.
I do not recommend doing what I have seen some writers do: call every day; email every day; send increasingly aggressive follow-up emails; tag editors on social media (repeatedly); go down the masthead and call the sales director wanting to know why the editor hasn’t responded (seriously: DO NOT do this). An already overloaded editor will not appreciate this. At all.
Is it frustrating to put all the hard work and effort into crafting a pitch, and not even get the common courtesy of a “thanks, but no thanks,” in return? Yes, it is. Which is why, when I was in the editor’s chair, I tried to give this courtesy to everyone. But at some publications, that line about “due to the volume of requests we receive, we cannot respond to each one” is not bogus—it is completely legit. Don’t take it personally.
Do what Sinatra sang: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.” To be successful in this business, patience and resilience are key. Make sure you hone yours.
Now that I’ve shared what not to do, here are four tips that will help you deliver a winning pitch:
1. If your pitch is similar to something recently done, but you feel strongly that it should still be considered, clearly delineate WHY your pitch is different. Share what sets it apart from the rest. Do you have access to experts that other writers may not? Do you have a truly unique angle on an oft-covered topic? Say so.
2. Refer to a recently-published piece you enjoyed, and tell them WHY you enjoyed it. Give specifics.
3. If you are pitching this piece to multiple outlets, say so. (Note: You increase your chances of acquisition if you are pitching exclusively.) Keep in mind, many publications will not accept simultaneous submissions. Do your homework and check the submission guidelines. Always.
4. Break your pitch down clearly for the editor. Give a headline/title, summary graph, bullet points. Give the reasons why you’re the best writer for the topic. (Are you an expert in this field? Do you write regularly on this subject?)
This blog really can only scratch the surface of the art of and science that is pitching. I recommend two resources for good advice on how to pitch specific outlets: Mediabistro’s “How to Pitch,” and Writer’s Digest’s “Market Spotlight.”
Do you have pitching experiences to share, from either side of the table? Are there questions you’d like to ask Ericka? Share them with us in the comments below!
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Ericka McIntyre is a freelance writer and editor. She has over twenty years of experience working in media and publishing, for a wide array of employers and clients. She is also currently Editor-at-Large of Writer’s Digest, a 100-year-old brand serving the writing community. In her current work, she focuses on writing for a handful of regular clients, with a heavy emphasis on editing and book coaching for independent authors. She works on fiction and nonfiction, across multiple genres. She development edits, copyedits, and proofreads. Learn more about her and her work at www.erickamcintyre.com.
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Terrific post, Ericka--applicable to any kind of pitching, I would think--to agents and book bloggers, podcasts, etc., as well. I'll be sharing in my newsletter. Thanks!
Thanks, Tiffany! We're honored to be in your newsletter. 🙂
Tiffany! That is so awesome of you to do. Thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed the post.
Ericka, thanks for sharing information I've wanted for a long time! I know how busy these editors are and I don't want to waste their time. I feel like we have an advantage in the internet era...way back when, we'd have had to buy the magazines to get a sense of them. Now we can just browse the web.
Either buy the magazines, or make a daylong trip to the library to research the old fashioned way....I still have some dusty Literary Marketplaces on my shelves! Actually, spending a day researching in a library doesn't sound half bad right now...Ha!
Right? I so miss browsing my library. Curbside pickup is getting me by, but it is not the same.
Truly! There is nothing like just losing an hour wandering the stacks... SOB.
Wonderfully informative post, Ericka. Thank you! Patience is something we all need to cultivate.
I think sometimes we tend to forget that editors and agents are people with busy lives, work and otherwise.
It's like I always say--Editors are people too! 🙂 It's easy to forget. When I was editor, it killed me when I had to reject someone, or when I couldn't get back to people right away. A little patience and mercy goes a long way...in everything!
I'm lucky in that I've "accidentally" fell into my work. They came to me. But, I've used the skills I have to create great product.
Agree on doing the research for whom you're pitching to and make sure your genre of writing matches what they're publishing.
Exactly! That way you don’t waste their time...or yours! Time is definitely money to freelancers. Making sure you’re spending it wisely can make your business.
Listen to people around you. I don't write magazine articles these days but did years ago. One day, I overheard a man say to his styist in the shop I owned, "Well, I have to to go out and see this guy and tell him the misconception he has about his lawn." I walked over to a big strapping guy in coveralls with a lawn care company logo on the pocket. "Do you know ten misconceptions lawn owners have about their lawns?" "Ten?" he said, "I have a hundred." That's a big, mondo red flag for an article. I interviewed him for an hour and then researched markets. I ended up with Kiwanis Magazine by looking at their ads. Ads tell you everything you need to know about magazine readerships. They've already done the research for you. Well, their ads said the readers were upscale males. Which meant most owned homes and homes have lawns. I pitched it to them and they phoned the day they got my query. It came out in the spring and so I led with the point that there are a lot of charleton lawn companies who put nitrogen on lawns in the spring which would "green up" the lawn dramatically... and then kill it. Fall and early winter are when you apply nitrogen. Ended up reselling the same article to about ten other magazines such as "Dental Economics" and others who had upscale readerships also... That's how I did it... Averaged about $30,000 a year in the late eighties writing magazine articles part-time...
That's some really sharp re-purposing there! And an interesting way to find a topic! And you are right--ads can tell you a great deal about a print publication's audience. Online it's a bit harder when you often only see ads for things you just googled a few minutes ago...but that is a solid strategy for print!
Terrific article, Ericka. As an editor of WD you may be interested to know that a former agent of mine just got a query from a Japanese publisher who wants to buy the Japanese rights of one of my WD books, Hooked. Now, they also want the same rights to Finding Your Voice. As you know, Japan is a truly huge market so I'm very pleased.
That's amazing! Congratulations! How many languages are you published in now? It's always so cool to see the editions of books in other languages--the differences in cover designs, etc.
Hi Ericka, I have novels in German and Italian so far. Blue skies, Les
Les! It's so great to see you here in our comments section at WITS. I hope you're doing great!!
Hi Jenny, I wrote a reply earlier but messed up sending it. Doing fine--new novel coming out in November from Bronzeville Books and my novel-writing classes are doing well--close to three dozen class members have published their novels over about a ten-year period. Blue skies, Les
Its my FAVORITE Cincinnati Girl!!! I am overjoyed to see you on WITS. Your post is so spot on. I agree with everything you said. If you are desperate, and editor can smell it on your email. Be confident, and respectful. It is sometimes hard to find who the right person to pitch is- and often you will run into the dreaded- Info@blahblahmag.com I usually just contact them and instead of sending my pitch- I send a query of who I need to contact. I tell people all time- it's a people business- so be nice to the people! After you get in and they publish a piece- shower them with thanks and praise. They will remember you for that. Ericka, I hope you write more for WITS- I love reading your brilliance!
John! My favorite vintner from Iowa! Thanks for reading. Good call on how to figure out who to pitch to! I hope I do get to write more for WITS. I have a half dozen posts in mind on what's wrong with your books! (But also, how to fix it.). Ha!
Great points, John! And I already flung the door wide open for Ericka to visit us as often as she can. This article has so much useful information!
It's great to see you here on WITS. I loved the detailed information here and will have to try submitting to periodicals. (Without the spaghetti, of course!)
I'm wondering about how to address the pitch though. Are there general ones one should avoid, for example? I dread using say, Dear Editor:, because it is so formal and impersonal. I realize that doing the research is the way to go, and even taking a few extra steps as John mentioned to contact the magazine and simply find out.
Hi Kris! Happy to be here!
If you truly cannot find an editor's name, Dear Editor may just have to do. It's inoffensive, if a bit stuffy. It doesn't assume anyone's gender or marital status, etc. It's a safe bet.
When I have not been able to find an editor's name, I have sometimes done something like this:
Hello ! I loved the piece you recently did on . I was so surprised to learn . It gave me the idea for a piece on ... I don't think any editor gets offended by being ID'd by the outlet's name. At least I never did.
Keep in mind too that some outlets, like WD, have both print and web sides. (I recommend you pitch them, BTW, because I think you definitely have some craft articles in you!) It is often easier to get a toe in the door on the web side first, since there is more room there (the online content beast continually needs to be fed--not just at WD, either). Print can be tougher because of what I mentioned in the blog--timelines, space, etc. The print editor these days is Amy Jones (or to me, since I can't type worth a hamfisted darn, "Any Jokes," LOL!). And for web, it's Robert Brewer.
ARGH. My original comment didn't go through right at this part:
Hello (Publication Name)! I loved the piece you recently did on (insert topic here). I was so surprised to learn (oddball tidbit/fun fact not readily apparent in the lede or first 3 graphs). It gave me the idea for a piece on (new topic)... I don't think any editor gets offended by being ID'd by the outlet's name. At least I never did.
See fixes above!
Aww, thank you, Ericka! I will jump in and polish up some articles soon. Hoping for less "hamfistedness" for both of us. Ha!