The Number One Problem Writers Don’t Address When Pitching

By Kelly Clay April 16th, 2015

As an editor, I receive dozens of pitches every day from writers looking to land a byline. I used to manage a tech blog and now oversee a blog that offers career advice to mid- and entry-level professionals, so I see pretty much everything on a daily basis when it comes to story ideas. And not all of it is good.

With the emergence of publishing platforms like Medium and LinkedIn, it seems everyone wants to be a published writer. I fully support and encourage everyone to write—it can be a very cathartic experience—and sharing our stories is one way for individuals to impact society. However, if you want to get paid to write, making mistakes when you introduce yourself to an editor just won’t cut it. There are the simple mistakes that could cost you a “real” job elsewhere, such as grammar errors, misspellings, and incorrect usage of “your” and “you’re.”

But the biggest mistake of all when pitching a story? It can usually be found in the first line of the pitch, when people introduce themselves to a new editor.

The main issue

For the blog I manage about career advice, Brazen Careerist, we tend to accept all guest posts, regardless of the pitch. That said, we don’t typically pay our guest writers, offering a back link to the author’s blog instead. However, we do pay regular contributors to write for the site, and there are some situations when we might ask via social media or email if someone has expertise for a paying gig.

When those writers reply to me, I need to know why they’re the most credible person for the article and that their writing background is strong enough to handle this article. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a reply to a call for pitches that reads something like:

Hey Kelly!

I’m so excited you’re looking for a writer about human resource professionals! I’d love to help you with this story. I’ve written for your blog a few times before. Let me know what else you need from me and I can get this to you within the next few weeks. Thanks!

– John

At first glance, this might not seem like a terrible reply. John is really enthusiastic, specifically addresses the article (which saves me a ton of time trying to figure out which topic he’s emailing about), and mentions he’s written before, so I could go through our massive archives and look up his work.

That digging takes time though. We publish approximately 10 articles per week, usually from 10 different writers. If I had to dig through the archives for every person who sent me an idea, I’d spend over 15 minutes per pitch just finding clips to evaluate the writers. Multiply that by a few dozen pitches a day, and that’s not exactly cost effective for the blog.

I saw similar pitches last year when I was editing the tech blog Wearable World News. While I didn’t receive as many pitches from writers looking for a home—instead, I received hundreds of emails per day from PR agencies, which is its own separate nightmare—I came across pitches with similar problems.

A few of the questions I asked daily (mostly to myself): Who are you? Why should you write this? What have you written before? How can you help me?

How to pitch the right way

Over time, I started resonating with pitches formatted in a certain way that caught my attention and made my job easier. These are the pitches I could instantly accept because everything I needed to know about the writer was at my fingertips. Take a look at John’s pitch from above—then read Katie’s pitch for the same blog below:

Hi Kelly!

I’m Katie, a CEO for a startup based in Chicago. I’ve been freelancing on the side for a few years, and I have been published in Forbes, Huffington Post and Entrepreneur. [In a great pitch, those would be links.] Your blog has some really excellent advice, but I’d love to offer some fresh perspective about what millennials should know when interviewing with the CEO of a small company. Looking forward to hearing from you!



P.S. You can also find more about me on LinkedIn and Twitter [Links would here as well.]

You’ll notice Katie did several things differently than John, but the major difference is in the first two lines of her email. Katie immediately established credibility and relevance, explaining why she is the right person to write this blog post. And she also established authority and expertise; I can trust she’ll rock this article because she’s already been published by high-profile outlets. To me, she knows what she’s talking about, and it only took about 30 words.

As editors, we’re often pitched by hundreds of writers for similar columns and freelance gigs. “Why should we choose you?” is really the biggest question you want to answer off the bat. It would amaze you how many times writers forget to even introduce themselves.

This is why, when pitching for the first time, you need to explain who you are and why you’re qualified to write this article. Pitching an idea can be hit or miss; there’s some randomness to the process, catching an editor at the right time and getting lucky with a topic that is both newsworthy and unexplored. But if you give the editor a reason to trust you, there’s a chance you can have a dialogue about your pitch even if it’s not accepted immediately.

Why you need more than an idea

Of course, there have been times when I’ve received an email from a writer with a good idea—but no background as to who the writer is, what he’s written before, or why I should consider his idea.

In my opinion, the idea only accounts for about 15 percent of whether or not you’ll receive a positive response. Ideas hold a great deal of potential, but potential only goes so far, which is why I place little weight on the idea until I know more about the person who came up with it. A great introduction, with good, relevant clips and links to social accounts that suggest you have an engaged following, makes up closer to a 70 percent chance of getting a pitch accepted since those factors let me see how well the writer can execute (especially if the idea is on the dry side).

The rest? That depends on your ability to pitch the editor on the right day and time, and how tenacious you are about following up. Our inboxes get full very quickly. If you haven’t heard from an editor, follow up.

Just remember: You are selling yourself just as much as you are selling your idea. Spend as much time—or even more—making sure the editor has a clear understanding of the value you can bring, and the pitch acceptances will follow.

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