Career Advice

3 Questions Every Freelancer Needs to Answer Before Sending a Pitch

By Jordan Teicher May 13th, 2015

On The Freelancer, we publish about 20 stories per month, and for those 20 slots, I get about 60 pitches. Making those selections can be challenging because it’s a not a clear calculus of 20 good ideas and 40 bad ideas; I rarely get a freelancer asking to write “31 Ways Freelancing in the Digital Age Is More Exciting Than Origami.”

Most pitches sent my way are detailed and backed by intriguing angles. Therefore, when I make decisions about what to accept and what to reject, the finer points of pitching become very important. Over the last year, I’ve noticed that many of the pitches I decline lose out in three main areas. So to get you thinking about how to create the most effective pitch, I’ve turned those common issues into questions every freelancer should answer before shooting off an idea.

1. Is your idea right for this publication?

I’m not breaking new ground by bringing up this question, but I think a lot of writers struggle to answer it correctly. The “right” idea doesn’t just mean a “good” idea. Hopefully all your ideas are good, but they need to fit perfectly for the specific place you’re pitching.

The distinction here is that your pitch has to be original enough to stand out, but it still has to stay rooted in the major concepts, angles, and style that you usually see from this publisher.

I’ll use The Freelancer as an example. We relaunched the site about a year ago, and as we were testing what exactly our audience wanted, we published some pieces related to topics like journalism ethics and protecting sources. There are plenty of people who love to read about those topics, but on our site, a lot of these pieces flopped. So as time went on and we got a better sense of how our audience would respond, we cut back significantly on those stories. I still get pitches about these topics from a number of writers, and even though a lot of the ideas are strong, I turn them down and explain why.

As an editor, I can’t just ignore a year of data and stubbornly accept a pitch that won’t drive any traffic just because an idea seems interesting to me. The evaluation process is more complicated than that.

For writers, focusing more on this process when brainstorming is a subtle way you can get more pitches accepted. Instead of just skimming a few recent pieces on a site before pitching—I’ve been guilty of this myself—check out every article posted in the last month from the section you want to write for. Pay close attention to social stats and try to see if there are any trends that pop out. Maybe funny listicles perform really well. Maybe personal essays about your dating history are hit or miss, but profiles of new dating apps get a ton of love on social.

If you think about why your idea is right rather than just rationalizing why it’s good, you probably won’t have to deal with as many rejections.

2. Do you have enough credibility to write the story?

Freelance writing is a really shallow profession, especially when it comes to pitching. Your experience has to align with the publisher’s reputation in the media world. If not, some editors will just turn you down or ignore your email regardless of the quality of your idea.

Since freelancing is a lot like dating, I’m going to make the greatest analogy of my life. One of my top five celebrity crushes is Alice Eve, who is a gorgeous British actress and Oxford graduate. In 2010, Eve starred in a bad movie called She’s Out of My League, which is about a really attractive girl who gets into a relationship with an average-looking guy, and for the whole movie, every supporting character explains how the relationship is going to fail based on the disparity of their looks.

I happen to be engaged, but let’s say hypothetically both Eve and I were single. Even though I consider myself to be better than average-looking, I’d basically have no shot at getting her. (Just want to stress this is a hypothetical since my future father-in-law is probably going to read this.) Why? Because superficially we are too far apart. She’s rich and famous and gorgeous; I’m handsome, but I’m also writing this blog post at 2 a.m., which should tell you how rich and famous I am. If I saw her at some bar and went up to talk to her, I’d get humiliated. She probably gets hit on constantly, and I hate going to bars, so there’d be no way for me to make a good impression.

However, in the spirit of optimism, there are some wrinkles to the idea of credibility that could improve my chances. Let’s say I write a screenplay that gets optioned, and Eve gets a part in the film. I’m on set pretending to look busy, we’re introduced, and we start talking about how we both majored in English. Turns out we both love Junot Díaz’s short stories. What… she agrees to get tea with me after we hit it off so we can talk about her character in the script? It’s a date—even though she explicitly says twice that it’s not a date.

Or maybe, in a slightly more realistic hypothetical scenario, we have a mutual friend. That mutual friend vouches for me, keeps telling her how handsome I am despite my propensity for staying up too late to write blog posts with great analogies. The friend thinks we’d get along, so maybe Eve decides to take a chance on a tall, gentlemanly writer from New Jersey.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yeah—the point is, credibility is crucial to getting someone to seriously consider your pitch (or date request), and you can probably tell beforehand if your qualifications match up with where you’re pitching. If they don’t, you’ll need to either adjust your expectations or get creative to make a good impression. If you can bring a personal connection to your pitch, you’ll stand out from other freelancers because an editor has reason to believe you have access to unique sources and know a lot about the topic. And, in a slightly more realistic scenario, you can try to find a connection who will get you in contact with the editor—that friend who vouches for you is one of the most valuable assets you have as a freelancer. But just remember not to ask your editor out on a date.

3. How much work have you already done?

One of the most frequent issues I encounter as an editor is when writers come to me with ideas that haven’t been developed at all. I’ve been burned a few too many times by freelancers who plan to reach out to sources and then come back to tell me that someone won’t agree to talk. Now what? Now we have a potential story that might need a new peg or a new expert interview subject and more than likely needs a new deadline while the writer scrambles to find a replacement.

Things happen, and freelancers don’t always deserve blame when an interview falls through. But if you research and make contact before you send the pitch, it’s easier to avoid disaster.

Writers can also go too far on the other end of the spectrum. If you send me a completed draft as your pitch, you’re probably hurting your case. Pitching a full piece on spec eliminates your room for error. Odds are the draft is not going to be perfect, and if you’ve already interviewed the wrong sources and included the wrong data, I’ll probably reject the pitch instead of trying to figure out how to recycle the good parts and rethink the bad ones.

But to be clear: It’s in your best interest to get the ball rolling on your piece before you email an editor. The happy medium is to do some background research on any data and important sources, and get verbal confirmation from interview subjects.

For anyone about to send a pitch, I’d recommend going through this checklist to make sure you have a good answer to each question. There are going to be times when a pitch gets rejected for reasons that are beyond your control (a new budget, a full calendar, etc.), but freelancers can still improve their acceptance rates by putting more thought into the piece prior to sending it out. And if you happen to know Alice Eve, do me a favor and make sure she never reads this.

Image by Blaj Gabriel
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