Building Your Business

Get the Assignment: Start with Stellar Story Pitching

By Jennifer Fernández Solano August 23rd, 2023

As a managing editor, part of my job is to assign stories for the brands I work with. While I do assign work outright to trusted contributors for some clients, higher-volume accounts often utilize story pitching.

To me, this is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. Receiving fresh ideas from contributors can help editors commission stories they may not have thought of themselves if they were just brainstorming ideas with the client. But opening a call for pitches can also be time-consuming for all involved, with writers crafting pitches, the ME evaluating dozens of submitted ideas, and the client deciding which stories to move forward with.

However, a good pitch can fly through the process quickly if it hits the mark, which is why it’s worth your time as a writer to learn what editors are looking for. I’ve noticed that many writers, even experienced ones, struggle with story pitching. Here’s how to pitch a story using all the elements that editors want to see in pitches—and some valuable tips on pitching etiquette.

Why structure and length matter

A well-thought-out pitch will catch an editor’s attention and ideally make them want to work with you, regardless of whether they already know you. Structuring your pitch clearly and finding the sweet spot in terms of length will go a long way.

One-liners that don’t go into detail are unlikely to get commissioned. For example, when I send out calls for pitches for one of my travel clients, I include the destinations we want to feature and the topics we’re interested in. I also ask writers to tell me why they’re the best person to write the story they’re pitching. I mostly want to see pitches from locals who know the destination well.

I’m surprised when all I receive is a generic heading with a couple of the places they would include—I want to see the why. Why should we include those places? If I haven’t been there, all I see is a list of random points of interest; you’re not convincing me why we should create an article around them.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the writers who practically write the whole 600-word article in their pitch. While it shows a great deal of effort on their part, it’s unnecessary, and all it does is make me feel bad if I have to decline it.

Once you’ve established a relationship with an editor, a short email with a few interesting ideas may get you a commission. They already know you can deliver, but until that happens, you need to communicate your credentials and explain your ideas in a way that will make them trust you can write the story you’re pitching.

What to include when story pitching

Story pitching is not an exact science, and different editors will have different ideas on what constitutes a good pitch. However, if you’re pitching an editor for the first time, you can’t go wrong including the following elements:

  1. If pitching by email, add the word “Pitch” followed by a colon and your proposed headline in the email subject line.
  2. Start your email by greeting the editor and letting them know you’re either responding to a call for pitches you saw or if you have an idea for a particular section within their publication. You can skip this part if you’re responding to a call for pitches on the Contently platform.
  3. Include a suggested headline and suggested lede to establish the topic and angle you plan to take.
  4. Write a brief description of the story and include anticipated subheads and suggested sources. If your story hinges on speaking to a specific person, include whether you’ve already made contact with them.
  5. Tell the editor why you’re the right person to write the story. Do you live in that place? Do you belong to the community you’d be writing about? Do you have access to a subject matter expert that you’ll be featuring?
  6. Establish your credentials by writing a short bio that summarizes your career. You can include the names of some of the outlets you’ve written for.
  7. Add links to your published work. Select the ones you’re most proud of and are relevant to your pitch.
  8. If the piece is timely (i.e., there’s an event you’d need to attend), feel free to mention it. This will hopefully expedite the editor’s response.

Following up… and letting go

The temptation to follow up if you don’t hear back immediately will be there, and it’s okay to contact your editor to give them a little nudge—but don’t do it right away. The first time I got a pitch accepted from Lonely Planet—a cold pitch, mind you—I had to check in with the editor after I hadn’t heard back. Her reply? She said she thought she had already replied to me. Apparently, her email was sitting half-written in her drafts, so it is possible to get commissions through follow-ups.

In any case, try to wait at least two weeks before checking in. If you replied to a call for pitches, your editor is probably inundated with responses and still working through them. If you follow up and another week or two goes by without a reply, it may be time to take the hint and let it go. I pitched Eater recently and got an auto-reply that said something along the lines of “If you don’t hear back from us in 10 days, please feel empowered to take your story elsewhere.”

I had to chuckle—I would have assumed they were okay with following up. In the Contently platform, pitches expire after 21 days, and editors try to give feedback on all pitches within this timeframe, whether they’re declined, accepted, or still under consideration. It’s common for contributors to follow up on their submitted pitches before the time frame is up.

Lastly, keep in mind that pitches are essentially competing against each other, and there are a limited number of slots available for the stories that get assigned. This means that sometimes your pitch will be rejected, no matter how great it is. If that’s the case, please feel empowered to take it elsewhere.

Image by ThinkNeo
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