Career Advice

Cold-Pitching a Story? The Secret Is in the Subject Line

By Danielle Elliot September 10th, 2014

I spend a fair amount of time agonizing over pitches. Should I write one or two grafs? Should I introduce the main characters? Should I explain why I’m the best person to write the story? These are all important questions, but as I realized last month, there’s something just as important that often goes overlooked when pitching an editor for the first time: the subject line.

In early August, I sent a pitch to an editor I’d never worked with but had previously contacted a few times. In the subject line, I wrote: “Pitch: the cost-benefit analysis of beer at the ballparks.”

He liked the pitch, but at the end, he added a bit of advice: “P.S. A personal preference: Be careful of putting ‘Pitch’ in your subject line. At first I thought this was a PR thing!”

It caught me off guard, as I’ve always been told to include the word “pitch” so editors can easily identify my message in their inboxes. Then again, his advice made sense; the email did look exactly like the PR pitches I receive each morning. While I had him in conversation, I asked if he had a preferred subject-line style.

Unfortunately, his response captured the conundrum. “[M]aybe ‘freelancer pitch’ or something?” he wrote. “Only for the first or second time you pitch somebody because after that they associate your email name with you, the person, right off the bat. But that’s not ideal either. Interesting journo ethics Q!”

In the past, I’ve used “pitch” without a problem. Since last month, though, I’ve started adding “freelance writer” to the line. It makes the subject a bit bulkier than I’d like, but I’d rather err on the side of too much than too little. Additionally, the whole exchange got me thinking about the right way to approach subject lines when emailing editors for the first time.

Don’t use caps

The first piece of pitching advice I ever received came from an editor at Vanity Fair. He told me to put the entire subject line in all caps. He also added that he rarely, if ever, accepts freelance pitches, so I took his advice with a grain of salt.

The one time I used all caps, I received a polite rejection. When I saw it in my inbox, I jumped. “Who just sent me an all-caps email??” was the first thing to run through my mind, followed by the horrified realization I was the one who sent it. It looked obnoxious, and I’ve never done it since.

When pitching an editor at The Atlantic for the first time, I went with “PITCH: When Treating Autism, Look to the Gut.” The editor accepted the pitch, and so I’ve stuck with this style when pitching him. With new editors, though, I’ve completely cut out caps lock.

Don’t name-drop

I’ve pitched New York Magazine twiceOn both occasions, I received polite rejections explaining my pitch wasn’t right for the specific editor but that I should try a different editor instead. In doing so, I changed the subject line to “Pitch, recommended by ____.” Both of those went unanswered. A similar thing happened with Fast Company, only in that case I had received the editor’s email address from a mutual friend, and I used the friend’s name in the subject line. Again, no response. I took it as a sign that editors want a preview of the story, not a mention of who you know. Save the name-dropping for the body of the email.

Don’t call yourself a new writer

Editors can easily misinterpret “new” for “new to the industry,” as opposed to “new to your publication.” Editors loves a new writer, but few want to be the first to take a chance on one. Don’t even risk it—instead, just say “freelance writer” or “freelancer” to separate yourself from PR representatives and actual first-time writers.

Do let the editor know if it’s time-sensitive

If the story is linked to a certain event, put that in the subject line. When I pitched a broadcast piece to ESPN, I wrote simply: “World Cup feature pitch.” I had a slight advantage since the coordinating producer was already familiar with my work, but adding the timeframe let her know the pitch needed to be opened soon if we wanted to get the story completed in time.

Do tease the story

Let the editor know what the story is about in as many characters as you’d use in a tweet. In my most recent pitch, I went with: “Pitch from a freelance writer re: college football recruiting.” I heard back faster than usual. After our conversation, I asked the editor his thoughts on my subject line, and others.

“It’s just helpful to me if it says ‘PITCH’ or ‘Story Pitch.'” he wrote. “That way when I lose track—which we all do, because I average about 60 in emails a day, and sometimes 15 pitches in a week—I can find them.”

The note brought me back to advice I’ve received in the past. It highlights what we already know: Every editor has personal preferences, and there’s no way of knowing them until you ask. But few editors will respond to an email that broadly asks “How do you like pitches to be addressed?” Because honestly, what editor has time to respond to that?

Before you establish a relationship with an editor, the best you can do is to avoid anything that will turn them off. Don’t name drop, don’t use all caps. Tease your story, and tease your experience. Using this approach, I’ve cold pitched a handful of editors in the past few months, and all have offered the assignment. Of course, they never would have if they hadn’t been compelled to open the email in the first place.

Image by Everett Collection
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