Freelancing is tough! It can be an unpredictable, unreliable grind, and sometimes things fall through even if you’ve done everything right.
As Smarter Living editor at The New York Times, the bulk of my job is working with freelancers. On the slowest days, I’ll get around a dozen cold pitches in my inbox; on busy days, almost 200. (Lol sorry if I owe you an email, promise I’m working on it.)
The thousands of pitches I’ve read over the last few years usually fall into one of three categories: great (very few), something we can work with (a small, but decent, amount) and bad (everything else).
Before we go on, it’s worth remembering: A bad pitch is not the same thing as a bad story idea. Pitches get turned down for countless reasons — you pitched the wrong outlet, the wrong editor, your idea wasn’t fully fleshed out, the timing wasn’t right, etc. And especially as news outlets are evolving in their approaches to digital storytelling, publications are increasingly open to nontraditional storytelling structures. So don’t be shy about getting weird sometimes. (I, for one, love when I get an ~out there~ or innovative story idea.)
But most bad pitches are bad for the same few reasons, and they’re often salvageable with some tweaking. After consulting with about a dozen editors who commission stories at publications ranging from small, niche blogs to national magazines and newspapers, I’ve pulled together the six most common mistakes freelancers make when pitching — and what you can do to impress an editor.
(1) You don’t know what your story is.
Most editors are willing to take a chance on a great story idea, even from a new writer — 75 percent of the stories I commissioned last year were from first-time New York Times writers. But we can’t help you if you don’t know what you’re pitching.
The most common variant is this: “Hi, I’m a freelance writer and I’m interested in covering [x topic] for your section.” I’m glad you’re interested, but…what’s the story?
Another version is the super-lengthy email pitching a meandering, unfocused “look,” “exploration,” or “deep dive” into a topic. I’m glad you’ve thought so much about your topic, but don’t forget to think of the actual story you’re telling.
Even worse: You want me to tell you what your story is.
“Freelancers should always come with story ideas,” said Sarah Kessler, deputy editor of Quartz at Work. “I get a lot of emails that just say, ‘I’d like to be a contributor for Quartz at Work.’ That isn’t much help.”
A good safeguard against this is to write a solid, clear, powerful nut graf. It’ll be just a draft — after all, you won’t have done all the reporting for the story yet — but knowing exactly what your story is about is crucial to piquing an editor’s interest.
(2) You didn’t check the archives.
Even if you think you have the most original idea in the world, and you’re 100 percent sure the outlet you’re pitching has never done it, check to see if the outlet has already done it. Then check again. Skipping this step shows you’re either blindly shooting off pitches en masse, or you just don’t care enough to look.
Meet your new best friend: Google site search. Just type “site:[newsoutlet.com] [your keywords]” and you’re set. (Do not rely on a news outlet’s built-in search engine.)
“Pitching a version of something I’ve already published, or a version of something the writer has already published but for a different pub” never works out, said Lisa Bonos, editor of Solo-ish at The Washington Post. “This latter one REALLY gets me. You don’t get to sell the same personal essay more than once. If you’re writing a variation on a story you’ve told before, be upfront about how this new story is different.”
(3) You pitched the wrong editor or section.
It’s sloppy and it shows you didn’t do the basic research required to get your story published. Be absolutely sure that your idea fits within the section or outlet you’re pitching, and that you’re emailing the right editor.
“Pitching me something that doesn’t make any sense for the publication, subject-wise or tonally, shows me you haven’t read through the site,” said Gina Vaynshteyn, editor-in-chief at First Media. “If you haven’t done your homework, I wonder how diligent you’ll be about your story.”
(4) You’re too aggressive with following up.
“It’s O.K. to follow up on unanswered pitches, but wait a week, not 24 hours,” said Kristin Iversen, executive editor of Nylon. “When a freelancer’s pitches are turned down, they should not follow up with more pitches a day or two later; please don’t pitch me more than once a month, unless it’s something very timely.”
(5) Your story is too low-stakes or narrow.
This mistake is a little hard to define, but it probably accounts for at least half of the stories I decline. If you’re going to ask an editor to pay you for your idea, make sure it’s an idea worth paying for. Think scope, reach, and impact.
This problem emerges in a lot of ways, but the most common issues I see are: Your story requires very little — or no — reporting; it could be written by anyone; it applies to a very small demographic (caveat: this isn’t a problem if that’s intentional and the publication is interested in that audience); your story has a very limited shelf-life (again, not a problem if that’s intentional and you know the outlet would be interested); or it just doesn’t have any sweep or scope. Editors want important, substantive stories.
Ask yourself: If an editor responded and said, “So what? Who cares?” — would you have a real answer?
(6) You don’t disclose conflicts of interest.
Most publications have codes of ethics and/or guidelines around conflict-of-interest disclosures. They can vary widely, so always — always! — err on the side of over-disclosure. The worst-case scenario is that outlet finds out you had a conflict after publication (and they will find out), which usually results in a correction with the disclosure and that writer possibly being blacklisted from the publication.
A travel editor at an international outlet shared this story:
I’m not allowed to accept press trips, and same goes for people who write for us. I can usually tell when someone went on a press junket even if they don’t disclose it, because multiple writers all pitch me the same story about the same destination all at once. Often, it was a trip I was invited on myself and had to decline.
A writer pitched me one of these stories, and I wrote her back politely giving her a heads-up about the no-press-trips rule. Her response: “You must have figured out I was on a press trip because YOU’RE STALKING ME.”
Good tip: Don’t accuse editors of stalking you. And also be honest about stuff.
So now you know what not to do — here’s what you should do.
It boils down to basically three things:
(1) Be concise yet informative.
Very few cold pitches need to be more than, say, 10 sentences, and the best ones are often less.
(2) Explain why anyone should care.
Get me interested to learn more, but more important, make me want to tell this story to the readers of my publication.
(3) Show that you can pull it off.
If you want to pitch the huge, ambitious, weighty feature you’ve been mulling over months, go for it. But make sure you’ve laid out how you’re going to put it together, along with the clips to demonstrate that a story like this is within your range.
“The best freelancers use their pitches to showcase their writing skills — especially when pitching an editor for the first time,” said Nick Baumann, an editor at HuffPost. “A pitch gives me a better sense of your raw copy than your edited clips do. If your pitch has a fascinating, beautifully written lede, your story probably will, too. If the pitch is confusing, the filed story is likely to be, too.”
I saw your call for pitches so I figured I’d toss my hat in the ring. Let me know if any of these ideas resonate! [She had sent three different ideas, but I’m including only the one I accepted and later published.]
(Essay) What I wish I know before moving in with my boyfriend — I’d always pictured moving in with a guy like diving into a pool; a graceful, swift action. It turns out I was absolutely wrong. Instead of a dive, it was like doing like the doing the Macarena, in that there’s a series of steps that need to be executed in a certain order for it to be considered a success.
Thanks for your consideration!
Why’s this so good? Four simple reasons: There’s no filler; she told me everything I need to know about the idea without getting bogged down in irrelevant details; she knows exactly the story she’s pitching and how to execute it; and she sent clips with a link to more.
Yes, it’s that simple. Don’t overthink it.
Tim Herrera is Smarter Living editor at The New York Times.