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Editors Tell All: What Subject Lines Work Best?

By Katherine Brodsky April 5th, 2016

For as hard as it is to get a pitch accepted, it may be even harder to get an editor to read your pitch. First, you have to dodge those pesky spam filters. Then once your email is safely tucked away in the editor’s inbox, they have to actually open it.

That’s easier said than done. Once upon a time, writers had to mail pitches. Only the most nostalgic among us miss having to go to the post office to send out a story idea, but the convenience of the Internet also means that editors are bombarded with a seemingly never-ending stream of emails. Standing out is difficult, to say the least.

With more competition, the key to an editor’s heart is a good subject line. When done right, it sets the tone for the pitch to come. But just like some of the questionable pick-up lines thrown around in bars, not all subject lines are going to work.

So what makes a good subject line? We talked to editors at The New York Times, Marie Claire, Vulture, GOOD Magazine, Esquire, and The Washington Post to find out.

Don’t pitch like a publicist

You’re a writer, not a publicist. Even if that distinction is abundantly clear to you, editors can’t always tell.

“Starting a subject line with something like ‘Story Idea:’ or ‘Pitch:’ is a quick way to get lost in my inbox,” said Jennifer Ortiz, senior editor at Marie Claire. “That’s how publicists pitch, so I assume, at first glance, that it’s a PR pitch and am less quick to open.” Ortiz suggested adding “from a freelancer” or some other quick note to your subject line.

Daniel Saltzstein, a travel editor at The New York Times, agreed. Since editors typically get dozens of PR pitches every day, he suggested adding something like “Writer pitch:” or “Writer pitching:” to start, or “Pitch for [publication name] feature.”

Some editors also warn about being too clever with a subject line, lest you be mistaken for a PR professional. “Freelancers should just be straightforward, describing what their story is about as simply and plainly as they can,” said Katie Wudel, an articles editor at GOOD Magazine.

Of course, no two editors are alike. In other words, be flexible—and in cases when you’re unsure what an editor likes, it might be worthwhile to see if any of your colleagues have had a pitch accepted (or opened) by the same publication so you can use their subject line as a template.

Note the time frame

One bit of advice that always seems to be making the rounds amongst freelancers is to put “timely” or “time sensitive pitch” in all-caps on pitches to editors. But editors don’t necessarily find that helpful.

“Half the time the pitch isn’t all that time sensitive,” said Jennifer Rogers, assistant editor at The Washington Post‘s Outlook section. “It’s also sort of a given that your pitch is timely, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be pitching it to a news organization.” She said about half her emails declare themselves to be “TIMELY” in the subject line.

What may be more helpful is to try and include specific information on the timing in the subject line, assuming there is a time peg.

“When I fall behind on email, my failsafe is to go back and scan for stories that I know had an upcoming peg,” said Neil Janowitz, editorial director at Vulture. “If ‘for a movie coming out April 8’ is buried in the email, I’m liable to miss it.”

Identify the type of piece, but keep it short

When editors sift through their inboxes, it can be extremely helpful if they can identify some key characteristics—like the section and the type of story—right in the subject line.

“What’s helpful is to identify the type of piece you’re pitching,” Rogers said. She recommended using a subject line like ‘Personal essay pegged to _____,’ or ‘Story idea: Why are all the characters in my daughter’s books male?’ (That was a piece The Washington Post actually ran).

“Get the main point in there,” Saltzstein added. “That generally means naming the place you want to write about, but also the theme.” So, instead of “Writer pitching Paris,” Saltzstein would rather see “Writer pitching a tour of Paris’s least-known bakeries.”

But while you should identify key characteristics, it’s also important to keep it short. “[A good pitch is] something that sums up the idea but doesn’t trail on so far that I can’t actually read it all in my inbox window,” Ortiz explained.

Eric Sullivan, features editor at Esquire, looks for “wording that is both attention-grabbing and explanatory, that uses lively language, [and includes] just five or seven words that guarantees what follows is worth reading.” If you can convey not just the specific detail of a piece, but also it’s greater context while staying brief, then you’ve got a real shot at getting that precious email opened.

“I know that all sounds like a lot,” Sullivan said, “At the end of the day, you should think about what makes the story you’re pitching so unique and essential, and focus on that.”

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