So you have an idea for a story you’d like to write and you’re ready to put it out there. You just need to convince an editor or publication that your story is worth telling. Easier said than done.
When you pitch an editor, you have to think like an editor, and their job is to give readers compelling, well-written stories. You want to show editors you have what it takes to write a compelling piece for them that will require minimal work.
The trouble is, many new writers don’t think about pitches from an editor’s perspective. They think, wow, I have an amazing story, an editor would be crazy not to pick this idea! And then they send a too-long pitch or a vague pitch or a pitch without enough information. Editors get so many pitches every day, and they quickly weed out the ones that have been done or don’t make any sense or just seem like more trouble than they’re worth.
The Come Write With Us course has an entire lesson on Pitching 101. If you’re a new writer or even an experienced writer who needs help pitching ideas, we recommend taking the course, where you’ll get a simple pitching formula, important guidelines for pitching, and real examples of pitches we’ve sent.
In the meantime, at least make sure you’re not making these seven common pitching mistakes.
Mistake #1: Sending Topics, Not Stories
All too often, writers send editors general or vague topics they want to write about, which doesn’t help the editor. Anyone can come up with a topic, but editors looking for stories. What’s the difference? In simple terms, a topic is general; a story is specific. For example:
- Topic: “I’d love to write about capsule wardrobes”
Story: How I learned to build a capsule wardrobe for under $1,000
- Topic: “I’m passionate about mental health and would love to write about this for your site.”
Story: A Chicago coffee shop is raising awareness around suicide prevention
A story has a plot or an arc. There is a who, what, when, where, how, and why. When you pitch a topic without any context, the editor has no idea what the story is. A good rule of thumb: If there’s no headline in your pitch, there’s no story.
In some cases, it’s okay to pitch an editor a complex, nuanced topic you’re mulling over and ask if they think there’s a specific angle you could take to tell the story. This is usually the case for complicated topics, stories in which there could be multiple angles, or when you have a history of working with the editor. In general, though, you start with a topic, then turn it into a story.
Mistake #2: Sending a Too-Long Email
Most editors get many, many emails throughout the day. You have about ten seconds to grab their attention, so don’t start your email with a long paragraph about your life story.
If you’re lucky, the editor will skip through all of that to actually read your pitch, but more often than not, they’ll move on to the next one. Keep your intro short and get to the point quickly – don’t overwhelm them with a bunch of info they don’t yet need.
Mistake #3: Pitching a Story They’ve Already Covered
This is a question we get from writers all the time: Why bother pitching or writing my idea when everything has already been written about? To some extent, that’s true. Everything’s been done — but maybe not the way you could do it.
In other words, although a story may have been covered, it’s not been covered with your unique take or experience. The problem is, most writers don’t pitch their unique take or experience. They pitch the same old story that’s been done.
Let’s say you want to write about how getting a dog changed your life for the better. That’s certainly been done, but perhaps your situation is unique. Maybe you drove across the country with your dog on a road trip, talked to him out loud, and it helped you come to terms with some issues you’ve been battling for years. Maybe it felt like therapy. That’s a fun, specific angle to the story — taking a week-long road trip with my dog made me come to terms with my divorce. But many writers would pitch that as the headline, then rehash the same old story about how dogs are good for the soul.
When you’re pitching, make sure the meat of your pitch isn’t the same old story the site or publication has published before. Everything has been done, but it’s up to you to find what is unique about the takeaway of your story, and then articulate what that is to the editor or publication.
Mistake #4: Making the Editor Do the Work for You
Don’t pitch an idea that’s heavily supported by research and then not link to any of the data. Don’t make a bold assertion or opinion without proving that it has merit. Don’t pitch an editor a vague topic without giving them a few points you’ll cover, hoping they’ll see what you’re getting at. Don’t ask an editor how to pitch them or who else you should contact when that information is outlined on their publication’s website.
In other words, don’t make the editor do the work for you. Give them everything they need upfront so that they don’t have to Google your topic or ask you to send them more information, because they usually won’t bother.
Mistake #5: Pitching the Wrong Editor
This is a pretty common mistake because some publications have so many editors. It can be tough to figure out who to pitch. Some editors get annoyed when you pitch them a lifestyle idea because they’re the “culture and lifestyle” editor, not the “web lifestyle” editor.
As a freelance writer, this is frustrating because you’re writing and pitching multiple places to make a living — it’s understandable that you don’t have every publication’s editorial staff memorized. Still, you want to make sure your pitch gets the right place. Traditionally, you can check a publication’s editorial staff via their masthead (which is like the title “credits” page of a newspaper or magazine), which many online publications will include under their About page. Mediabistro shares editorial staffing information for various publications with their paid members, but sometimes the info is hit or miss and can be out of date.
Twitter has been the most useful — and free — resource we’ve used to find information on who to pitch. Search the [publication + editor] and you’ll see a list of current editorial staff, provided they put that information in their bios, which most of them do. Often enough, they’ll also include an email address for pitching them. Sometimes, they’ll even Tweet out a call for pitches on specific topics.
Mistake #6: Challenging the Editor
If your pitch is rejected, even if you think the editor is wrong, they have their reasons. And they may not have time to explain to you the nuance of why they don’t think your story will work for the publication. Their job is to pick stories they think readers will like, and nothing more.
Many writers will follow up with a rejection explaining why they think the editor should reconsider. This doesn’t do anything but solidify in the editor’s mind that you’re difficult to work with and that they made the right decision to pass on your story. Unless an editor explicitly asks you to clarify or invites you to further explain why you think the story could work, accept rejection gracefully and try again later.
Mistake #7: Writing an Unprofessional Email
This should go without saying, but make sure your email is professional and free of any major typos or grammatical errors. Most editors won’t judge you too harshly for a small typo or two, and many will work with you if English isn’t your first language (we always suggest disclosing this in your pitch, though). But the number of unreadable, sloppy emails editors get is surprising. And it’s especially disappointing when the writer has a solid story idea, but you can tell by their email that editing them will be more trouble than it’s worth.
This is why we hate the “it’s a numbers game” advice at Come Write With Us. Many writers will tell you that you have to send out hundreds of pitches to get one accepted, but not only is this inefficient and a waste of your time, we’re convinced it’s also why so many sloppy pitches make it to an editor’s inbox. Rushing to win the numbers game, writers will send pitches that are littered with typos, formatted badly from copy and pasting, or addressed to the wrong person entirely.
Don’t play the numbers game. Focus on writing a compelling, quality pitch.
Pitching can be tricky, and it takes practice. All the writers we know who have high success rates with pitching seem to have one thing in common, aside from coming up with solid ideas: They take pitching seriously. They’re strategic about it, they consider the editor’s perspective, and they take the time to think about how to write the pitch well. Pitching is a form of writing in and of itself, and the good news is, it’s a skill you can learn fairly easily if you’re willing to focus on quality over quantity.