Pitching is the easy part. It’s all the waiting around afterward that’s frustrating. With a full-time job, you at least know where you stand—in at nine, out at five, and a bunch of work-related stuff in between. If you have any questions, you ask your boss. But when your job is dependent on many bosses, each with his or her own deadlines, agenda, and email demeanor, it’s easy to get stuck staring at your Gmail inbox when you really should be working.
There are, however, ways to guard against this freelance paralysis. Knowing the right language to use when following up with editors—be it chasing after a cold pitch or asking for feedback on a submitted story—can save you time and unnecessary stress. Here’s how to navigate a few common scenarios.
Scenario #1: You pitched an idea to an editor you’ve never worked with, but after a week, you haven’t received a response.
Start with a gentle follow-up along the lines of, “I’m circling back about this pitch to see if you had any thoughts or wanted me to elaborate.”
Sometimes, editors only need this one follow-up. I’ve gotten apologetic responses from editors in which they explain they missed my first pitch and would like me to send it again.
More often than not, editors you haven’t worked with will need a little prodding. Your résumé and the quality of your pitch may not matter. Editors trust writers they’ve worked with before. So you have to earn that trust.
If another week passes without a response, don’t despair. Communicating with editors is like a dance: You want to make your presence known, but you don’t want to come on too strong and give them a reason to back away. Patience on your part demonstrates you really want to work for them, and this will only work in your favor. That said, there are ways to guard against sending the same email over and over. You can mix it up. For example, don’t pretend your email is acting up—a hoary excuse because no one actually has that problem anymore—but try something along the lines of, “Just checking in to see if you’ve received my emails regarding the pitch below.”
If your contact isn’t in the first camp of editors who somehow missed the initial pitch, chances are that person is on deadline (if it’s a print publication) or working on a big project. Some editors don’t even read their emails until deadline has passed.
But then another week passes. The one tactic that, in my experience, usually gets a response from editors is the offer of an easy out. Explain you’re writing one last time—the word “last” is crucial—to ask if they have any interest in the pitch because, and here’s the kicker, you’ve had interest from another publication and want to know if they’re interested or passing on your idea. The thought that another publication wants your story, even if not totally true, should make them at least reply with a yes or no.
Of course, some editors are just not nice people to begin with. My husband, who is also a freelance writer, once pitched a story to an editor at a national magazine using the model I’ve outlined above. Nothing worked, so he gave up. Three months later, he published a different story in another magazine, and the day the issue came out, he received a reply to his original pitch. No apology, no acknowledgement the response was three months late. The editor had obviously seen the byline and thought my husband was finally worth replying to after all.
Scenario #2: An editor expresses initial interest in the pitch but then stops replying to emails.
Occasionally, editors reply to a pitch right away but get busy and forget all about you and your idea. However, there’s still a chance to salvage the assignment; after all, the idea caught their attention in the first place.
The key here is to make allowances instead of shooting off emails asking what the hell is happening. If an editor requested more information in the first response, write back and sit tight. I usually wait one week. Then follow up by asking if they had the chance to “go over” your recent thoughts on the pitch or has more questions.
It’s possible an editor will show interest before turning down the pitch. The professional ones will email you to that effect. If you still haven’t heard back in two weeks, it’s time to drop the nice-guy act. No need to be a jerk, of course, but by this stage you are well within your rights to be direct. Ask if they’re “still interested,” because if not, you’d like to “shop the idea around.”
For me, this approach usually leads to a quick response. If you haven’t heard back in two days, take your idea elsewhere. Just be careful you don’t take this approach too quickly—some editors are genuinely busy and want to consider your idea, but it might take them a month. The New York Times’ editors, for instance, can get over 400 emails per day.
Scenario #3: The pitch is accepted, and you submit the article, but the editor is not replying with feedback, edits, or any indication of when the piece will run.
This is the most frustrating scenario of all. You’ve bypassed the usual roadblocks, and now no one is wiling to tell you what the hell is going on.
Again, you have to start off gently and make allowances for time. However, if an editor is not getting back to you, you need to be assertive. After all, you have the right—your piece has been commissioned.
If it’s just a case of an editor being really, really slow to reply, then there’s not much you can do. Some will be apologetic; others you just won’t hear from for a few weeks and suddenly, wham, an edit.
But what should you do when editors are either not replying at all or telling you they still haven’t “gotten around” to reading your submission? I was once commissioned to write a 4,000-word profile about graffiti artists for a respected magazine. It required a lot of face-to-face interviews and research, and I spent over a month working on it before submitting a draft one week before deadline. At first, the editor told me he was busy and wouldn’t have time to get to it for a few weeks. Fine. After a month of silence, I checked to see if he’d had a chance to read it. No reply. Another few weeks went by. Another follow-up, still no reply.
At this point, I thought I was well within my rights to call the guy. I did—he apologized, said he was busy and would get to it soon. But I waited another three weeks and sent another email asking if he knew when the piece might run. No response. By this stage, three months had passed since I submitted the draft.
I realized too late I shouldn’t have let this happen. I should have been more assertive and told the editor if he didn’t want to run my piece, he could pay me a kill fee, and I’d pitch it elsewhere. But I really wanted this byline, so I waited some more and sent another email.
Finally, nearly four months after submission, the editor emailed back to tell me a rival publication was publishing a similar story the following week, and he’d have to pass on it. He paid a kill fee, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the stress and frustration. I learned a lot from this experience; I was so eager to get a byline in this publication that I allowed an editor to abuse his position of power. Had I tried harder to make myself heard, pushed him when things were getting out of hand, I could have saved the situation. But I was too scared. These days, I wouldn’t think twice about emailing him and telling him I’d take the story somewhere else.
If you feel an editor is being unfair, make yourself heard. Time is money, after all.