Why you should pitch the editor, not the publication
A little research goes a loooong way
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In the five+ years I commissioned freelance stories at NYT, the best pitch I ever got had “fucking” in the subject line.
If you’ve ever seen me on a pitching panel, you’ll know I love to borrow a wonderfully helpful phrase from our friends at The Writers’ Co-op: “Pitch the editor, not the publication.” This is a piece of advice that I recommend for every single freelancer for every single pitch.
But what does that really mean?
Generally speaking, medium- to large-size publications have many editors commissioning many different stories. And at a lot of those publications — particularly once you get into the large category — every section or desk has multiple editors commissioning stories around the same general line of coverage. So, for example, if you’re pitching the features desk at a national magazine, there are a few editors you could potentially pitch the same story to.
What this means is that even if you have the right publication for your story, and the right section for your story, you may not have the right editor for your story, meaning you could have done every part of the process correctly but fallen down on the last mile. It’s super common, but there are ways you can guard against this. It all comes back to pitching the editor and not the publication.
We have two new events coming up this month!
Dec. 12 @ 2 p.m. Eastern time: How to turn an idea into a story. Join me as I host a free Zoom panel on taking an idea into a concrete, pitchable story. We’ll talk strategies, ways to ground ideas, different storytelling forms, and more. Click here to register.
Dec. 16 @ 6 p.m. Eastern time: The art of structuring a longform feature. Join me as I lead a deconstruction exercise of a published longform narrative story + give you tips on how to use those tools in your writing. Click here to register.
Narrowing your pitch to the editor level takes significant time, but in my experience, that time is very well spent. As editors, when we get pitches that are specifically written for us, as opposed to generic pitches that could go out to any editor who covers similar ground, we can tell — because the pitches crafted for the person are immeasurably better. I could tell within the first few sentences whether I was getting a pitch that was written for Tim Herrera, or a pitch that was written for Generic Service Editor.
To be more specific, you want to get familiar with that editor’s style as an editor. Are they super straightlaced? Within their broad area of coverage, are there specific topics they focus on? Do they like to take chances on ~weird~ stories? Are they interested in more people-focused stories than, say, data-driven stories? Do they have a history of publishing more tongue-in-cheek stories? Do their stories generally have a lot of voice from the writer? These are questions you should try to find out. (A scan of their Twitter feed to see what stories they tweet by writers they’ve edited should do the trick.)
Which brings us back to the “fucking” pitch. It was from a writer I vaguely knew — we had tweeted back and forth a few times — but hadn’t worked with. Totally unprompted, a cold pitch from them landed in my inbox, and it’s something I’m still talking about three years later. The subject line?
“Love yourself and just buy a fucking printer already.”
They knew that I was the type of editor who would respond positively to that; that I was the type of editor who loved stories with this playful, tongue-in-cheek sensibility; and that I was the type of editor who would commission a story that was ostensibly silly but that had genuine grounding and could offer a fresh perspective on a mundane topic. They built a helpful, solid, thorough pitch around an out-of-left-field topic, all anchored in a tone that was exactly what I was looking for.
In short, they did their research about who I was as an editor. I commissioned the story without asking a single follow-up question.
The acceptance rate for a pitch written for a specific editor is orders of magnitude higher than that of a generic pitch. The time you put into researching a specific editor’s style, tone, story interests, and story history is some of the most valuable time you can spend in terms of R.O.I. If you know your audience — the editor — and what they’re looking for, it exponentially increases your chances of selling that story. Part of what you’re trying to do with a pitch is to remove reasons for an editor to say no to it, and give them reasons to say yes. If you know exactly what a specific editor is looking for, you’ll be that much closer to landing a commission from them.
And, because I know this is the question you’re probably thinking: Yes, it is perfectly okay just to ask them! A quick DM on Twitter or a casual email to say, “Hi, I’m a freelancer! I’m just wondering if you’re commissioning right now, and if so, is there anything specific you’re looking for?” is all it takes.
The Seattle Times | Multiple openings, including Business Editor, Amazon Reporter, Climate Change Reporter, Arts and Culture Reporter and Project Homeless Reporter (Source: @gawlowski via Twitter)
The New Yorker | Multiple openings, including Web Art Director, Fact Checker, Editorial Interactives Developer and more (Source: Condé Nast)
Associated Press, New York | Newsperson, Social Content Producer (Source: @JoshCornfield via Twitter)
MIT Technology Review, remote friendly | Reporter (Source: @mat via Twitter)
Queer Media Collaborative / Local Media Association, remote friendly | Editor/Project Manager (contract, part-time) (Source: Local Media Association)
Oh, a few other things …
• I am now offering one-on-one coaching! This can include anything you need help with: pitch feedback, writing and/or editing coaching, story development, story editing, social strategy, and anything else. Book a timeslot here.
• Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram!
Okay bye ily!