How to pitch an editor
Plenty of freelancers ask me how they can write for my publications. I’ve had essentially the same guidelines for 15 years, at many sites. It seems sensible and useful to share them widely.
Here’s the pitch template I send each of my would-be authors:
- Proposed headline. This may be descriptive or clever, whichever works. Err on the side of descriptive, since you want to sell this idea.
- Assignment summary, also works as the proposed deck-or-teaser. Think of this as “the text under the headline that makes the reader want to click.”
- Expected word count to do this justice. (Are you suggesting a topic that could be covered in 800 words or does it need 2,000?)
- Sources: What expert sources will you cite for this article? (Or type of sources? Where will you find them?) If you are the expert and do not plan to quote or cite other sources, now is the time to tell us.
- Who’s the target audience for this article? Think job titles, if this is a business-related article.
- Relevance: Answer the “so what?” question. Why will the target audience want to read this article? How will this story advance the discussion, create value, and benefit them? Describe the takeaways for the reader.
- Supporting research: What’s been written on this topic already? (Show a few URLs.) How will your article be better, different, and/or more comprehensive? (This item isn’t always necessary, unless you’re suggesting Yet Another Intro to Common Technology. But it rarely hurts, since it shows you know the material already.)
Editors don’t always need this much detail. The real Mad Libs approach is:
- Why the audience cares
- Why I’m the right person to write this
In fact, sometimes all I need is the tweet you’d write.
If we are new to one another it’s a good idea to be more explicit — at least for setting expectations. For instance, I’ve sometimes written back, “Could you do this article, but for the sysadmin who has her hands on the keyboard, not for the CIO?”
How much background do you include? Well, it depends on the publication and its editor. If you’re pitching an article about the history of science fiction to an SF magazine, you would not need to explain much. If you’re pitching that article to the editor of a literary publication (who might wrinkle her nose at genre writing), you might need more explanation. And you might need more if you’re pitching to a non-fiction audience (say, a sports magazine). If you’re unsure, include a link (“I’m not sure how much you know about the history of women in SF; this link would bring you up to date”). Don’t belabor the point, particularly since it’s your job to sell the article, not write the article inside the pitch.
If we are new to one another (“Friend suggested that I write for you!”) it’s a good idea to supply links to other articles you’ve written. The ideal writing sample points to something very like what you’re pitching; it lets the editor see that you can write competently about this topic. (You want me to think, “Oh look, she’s written about women in SF before! But this has a unique twist.”)
But mostly we editors want to see that you can actually write. You get extra points if it’s for a known publication (because that implies you could deliver to some kind of deadline, rather than when the whim strikes you). But academic writing is fine…. except that it’s usually dry. If it’s related to the topic, that’s okay, because it shows you know the background.
Squirrel it away
Always keep your pitches, by the way. You usually can use them in writing the article you ultimately submit. That’s because the same concerns apply to the audience as to the editor (how much does the reader know? how much background does he need?).
I often see writers submit the final article with a new, weaker headline and deck. You already put in the hard work — capturing the article’s message — and it already worked (that is, it sold me). So absolutely see if you can use those. Nine times out of ten, the proposed headline and deck are suitable to use with the article; in fact, it’s a sign to both of us that you delivered what you promised.
Want to know more about how to pitch? I go into more detail in An Editor’s Advice for Writers on Pitching Well. And if you don’t already follow me on Twitter, you should.