Answers to the 8 most common questions about pitching
Don't overthink it. Really.
(Illustration by Matt Lubchansky)
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Now, for the goods …
After years of reading thousands of pitches from freelancers, and after wading through 1,000+ questions that have come up during my weekly Zoom panels, I’ve realized there are a few questions every freelancer wonders about. So I thought it would be helpful to put the answers to those questions here, where you can read them forever.
But before we get to that, my overall message is this: Stop overthinking it. If you get the big things right, the little things truly don’t matter. Will you get shot down if there’s a typo in your subject line? Is there a best day of the week to send your pitch? Is there a “correct” structure you should use for pitches? These things don’t matter if you have a strong pitch about a strong story idea. (And, fwiw, the answers to those questions are no, no and no. We truly don’t care!!!! Honest, I am not being dramatic about this!!!!)
Also: These are just guidelines, and I’m just one person, so try not to think of these as the end-all, definitive answers to these questions, but rather just things to keep in mind.
How much pre-reporting should I do for my pitch?
Probably less than you think! You definitely don’t need to have done every interview — and, sometimes, any? — or have locked down every single source. But you should do enough pre-reporting so that 1. You know what your story is, and 2. You know what’s important about it, and 3. You can clearly convey that information to an editor. Sometimes that’ll take an interview or two, or some deep research, sometimes not. This will vary by story, publication, editor and more, but, generally speaking, if you can write a skeleton of a nut graf for your story, you’re probably set. (That graf will drastically change, of course, since you haven’t yet done the reporting, but if you can sketch it out you’re good.)
*One caveat: If your entire story hinges on access — say, a Q&A with someone, or celebrity profile, something like that — you should secure access before pitching.
How do I ask for more money?
For editors you have already written for: After you get your next commission, include this sentence in the next email you send (yes, you can copy/paste it):
“Thanks again for this assignment! I just wanted to ask: We’ve done X, Y and Z stories together, and I’m wondering if with this new assignment we could revisit my rate? I’d love to be at around [rate]. Thanks!”
It really is that easy. (Okay, asking for more money is never easy, but the more you do it the more comfortable you feel doing it. Here’s a great story about negotiating money.)
For editors you’re working with for the first time: Talk to your freelance networks about what others have made working with this editor (rates within publications vary widely, and even editors in the same section may offer different rates). Use that as a general guide, then maybe ask for slightly more. After two or three assignments with this editor, ask for a bump using the language above.
I’ve heard of freelancers getting blacklisted for doing X. Is that real?
Unequivocally no. The concept of a “blacklist” exists only in our collective imagination. The type of infraction you’d have to commit for a publication to do whatever is the equivalent blacklisting is on the level of plagiarism, inventing facts/sources, hiding conflicts of interest, things like that. You’re a competent journalist, so you wouldn’t do that anyway.
Are you sure? I heard from a freelancer friend who had a friend who said their editor was blacklisting them.
That editor is a jerk and he was just being a bully. Blacklists do not exist, full stop. And even if they did — and, again, they do not — you wouldn’t get on one unless you committed a Cardinal Sin like those listed above.
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What are some pet peeves editors have?
You really shouldn’t worry about them! Again, get the big stuff right and any pet peeves won’t matter. (If you do want to agonize over this, you can read this guide to pitching I wrote for Harvard’s NiemanLab, which covers some of that territory.)
Okay, sure, but I’m in this Facebook group and someone said …
Really, don’t worry about it! There are countless things that add to the anxiety of being a freelancer, and worrying about whether you’re going to slightly annoy an editor shouldn’t be one of them. I did a whole thread about why you shouldn’t worry about this stuff.
How long should my pitch be?
A dozen or so sentences, tops! IMO — and I wrote this in that NiemanLab guide — there isn’t a story in the world that can’t be pitched in under a dozen or so sentences. If you’re unable to do that, it’s generally an indication to me as an editor that you’re not entirely sure what your story is or what’s important about it. Every editor can tell you stories about the winding, overlong journey pitches that meander for 800 words without ever actually saying what the story is. Concision is your best friend when it comes to pitches.
*This is a general guideline, not a rule; editors will not stop reading a pitch they’re interested in if it’s 13 sentences. Just try to be in the ballpark.
What should my subject line be?
Easy one: “Freelance pitch: [proposed headline of the story].” This is also a guideline and not a rule, but in general this is the most successful format I’ve seen. (Join a Sunday panel to hear me talk about why you should do this — it’s more important than it seems!)
Should I include clips? What about a link to my portfolio?
Yep and yep. Three or four of your best clips is enough — they don’t have to be germane to the topic you’re pitching, but it doesn’t hurt — and include a link to your portfolio if you have one. (NBD if you don’t, though!)
Why was my pitch rejected? Should I just give up?
There are thousands of reasons editors will decline a story: budget reasons, their publishing schedule is full, internal changes at the outlet/section, they just don’t have the time this week, they’re simply not looking … it’s a lot. Truthfully, the majority of the reasons an editor will decline your story have nothing to do with you or your story. It’s a complicated process and editors don’t always have the final say in everything!
That said, I go into detail about the most common ways pitches fail in my NiemanLab article.
However, as I wrote in that story: A bad pitch is not the same thing as a bad story idea. And a no from one editor is not a blanket no that means you need to give up on the idea. Take it elsewhere! Workshop it! Make sure you understand what your story is!
Okay, last question, but it’s more of a statement tbh: Why is such basic information like this so hard to find?
Because the industry is not designed to be inclusive, and for decades it thrived on a “who you know” system. So many of us are trying to change that, but it won’t happen overnight. Subscribe to Study Hall, tell your friends how much you make and call out bully editors.
Oh, a few other things …
• If you’d like to donate to help offset costs for this project, here is my PayPal. Anything above the costs for maintaining this — $365 per month — will be contributed to the Journalist Furlough Fund. I’ll publish receipts of contributions in this newsletter every month. Reminder: You do not need to contribute money to participate in Zoom sessions.
• I’d love to hear what topics you’d like panels on in July and August! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Topics” in the subject line. (I’ve already got on the schedule sessions about book, travel and longform writing, as well as the business of freelancing, so no need to request those!) Tickets for July sessions will be available next week, and I’ll announce them in this newsletter.
• Follow me on Twitter for updates throughout the week about sessions.
Okay bye ily!