How to Pitch a Story to an Editor in the Media

Here's my best attempt to encapsulate what I've seen work -- and not work -- in pitching editors at various media outlets.

Jan 12, 2014 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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Just pretend I'm telling you all this stuff on the phone. That's what I did when I wrote this!

What do I get asked more than anything else? (Besides: "How do you get verified on Twitter?")

That would be this question: "How do I become a writer?"

Well, here's the very simple answer to that question: You just write.

But I realize it's way more complicated than that. If you want to get published, it also involves pitching editors. 

So contained below is my advice for pitching any media outlet in my time working as an editor, writer, freelancer and wanna-be over the years. Here's what I've seen work -- and not work. I've also tried to give a few examples that are pertinent for xoJane, but for the most part, this reaches across websites and print publications.

Incidentally, if you are interested in actually pitching this site, I recommend you read Mediabistro's guide to pitching xoJane, which Emily authored and is very on point.

Q: I have a lot of great ideas, and I'd love to bounce some ideas off of an editor. What is the best way to do that?

A: The cold hard truth is that most people who work in media are drowning in a very high volume of email. As a writer and freelancer, it is a perfectly legitimate (and understandable) desire to have a back-and-forth discussion on what stories might work for an editor, but honestly, taking this route is working against you -- in the same way that asking to bounce ideas off of a potential employer might not be in your best interests.

Two words: "research" and "anticipate."

Media folks are severely strapped for time because of the volume of emails we receive. (I'm sure you think this is drama and exaggeration, but honestly the level is truly one of absurdity -- and not because we're so popular or fabulous or busy having tons of awesome authentic human connections all the time. Rather it's because of the volume of publicists, writers, editors and readers involved in the equation of the 24-hour news cycle and this almost farcically forever-connected social media culture we live in.) To strengthen your chances of pitching, do what I recommend when you are applying for a job: Do a lot of advance work. Streamline beforehand. Put the prep work in ahead of your initial email, demonstrate value and always be asking: "Am I communicating as efficiently as possible?"

Q: Anticipate? Demonstrate value? I just want to know what kinds of stories to pitch.

A: Here's one example. Anywhere from the New York Post to xoJane, I've received a lot of requests from people who are looking for jobs and want to do the whole "picking your brain" route. It's a fine way to go, but it's not realistic, and a lot of times it ends up putting the burden on who you are asking to do the work for you. Don't do that.

Instead, do the hard work yourself. Distill and crystallize and focus your ideas with a lot of advance work before you send your pitch -- instead of relying on an editor to do your soul searching for you. Do your due diligence on the editor and the media outlet in question. Write out some of your best ideas after spending some time (I recommend a few hours) checking out some of the more popular stories on the site you are pitching first. What seems to do well? What do they seem to go for? Do you have any story ideas like that?

Have fun brainstorming! Then whittle it down.

Also, in terms of demonstrating value, realize the power there is in specificity and niche and subculture. One common mistake freelancers make is wanting to do more generic stories that pretty much anyone could write -- particularly anyone on staff. Like saying: "Hey, I want to do 100 of the Best Moments in Fashion From 2013. What do you think?" I would respond, "A round-up story like that is almost always going to be done by someone on staff. You have to think of it in terms of: 'What can I offer that no one else can?' Do you have access to some new trend that very few people know about already or you've had an incredibly unique experience? That's your highest value as a writer and as a freelancer."

Examine your life like a detective. Write out a few headlines -- in the the style of the outlet you are pitching -- and examine them critically. If you weren't you -- and you knew nothing about your life or the backstory -- would you actually read that story?

If you need a second opinion, ask a friend who is always honest with you.

Q: So are you saying to pitch multiple ideas?

A: I think pitching 1-3 story ideas to any editor is smart, but I also think that pitching one idea is not a bad idea, either, if it's a strong idea. I would not pitch more than three ideas. Any long email reads as "stress" to modern media people swimming in their own in-box. Keep it short and snappy and to the point. Here's a sample pitch email I feel would get a response (written in the style of xoJane):

subject: "I Just Met My Birth Mother After She Tracked Me Down On Facebook, and Now I Wish She Hadn't"

body: I'm a huge fan of the site, and I'd love to become a contributor. I've written in the past for the Village Voice, Slate and I also have an active Tumblr here: [link to Tumblr]. Essentially the story is this: I was given up for adoption, and now at the age of 28, I just heard from my birth mother, and after a lifetime of therapy seeking peace about being given up for adoption, I feel like it's all come undone. Would xoJane be interested in the story? If so, please send me the rate you are offering, and I will send you the completed piece within a week. If I don't hear back from you within 2 weeks (1/25), I will take it as a pass and pitch the story elsewhere. Thank you so much for your consideration. You can reach me with any questions here: [phone].

So why is this a pitch I like? The headline is written in the style of the publication -- and it shows you already have an idea of what the headline will be and have actually figured out what your point and focus will be. The story is explained within sentences and you've anticipated next steps (for example, you've saved an editor the time and burden of having to email back to track down a phone number). I also think it's great because you give yourself an end date. This is far preferred than multiple follow-up emails on a pitch that no one has bitten on the first time. Also, did you see how short that pitch was? Super short. It allows a harried editor to quickly see who you are (a link to your personal site) and get a very clear sense of what the story is about: (1) the point of it is clear, (2) there are stakes that will be explored (in other words, it's not just "I met my birth mom, and it's kind of weird" but rather "This major event happened and not many people have experienced it."

Q: So what would a good email look like that had multiple story ideas in a pitch?

A: Here's an example.

subject: (three pitches): I Accidentally Sexted My Mom / My Open Marriage is Saving My Relationship/ My Friends and I Started a Secret Makeover Club Where We're Taking On Each Other's Identities

body: Hi there, I have three pitches for your consideration. You can find my writing linked on my Twitter here: [link]. I'd be able to turn around each of these within about a week. Here's a little more info about each:

1. I sent a somewhat lewd text to my mom accidentally last week, and now she won't even talk to me. I feel like everyone jokes about "accidentally sexting the wrong person" but now that I've done it, I can tell you there is nothing funny about it. All it said was "I want you," and then a picture of me topless, but I don't see myself laughing about this any time soon. My mom now wants to know what is wrong with me and does my husband really approve of this? Sorry, mom, it wasn't meant for my husband. It was for my boyfriend. 

2. A year ago instead of getting divorced, my husband and I decided to follow the guidelines in "The Ethical Slut" and see if we would be happier dating other people. Amazingly, it's kind of working. We both get tested every few months, we have very serious rules about what we do and don't share (I don't want to know anything about his women) and suddenly the passion actually seems to be back. The only problem? I refuse to tell my friends. This piece would be my "coming out" piece about the nature of our marriage.

3. I've always been someone who wears hardly any makeup. This is versus my best friend who won't even be caught dead at the grocery store without a full smoky eye. So we had the idea to get together every weekend and do each other over -- as one another. It's uncomfortable (I personally think I look about 10 times older wearing mascara), but it's led us to becoming really close as friends and taking us out of our comfort zones. I've attached a before and after photo so you can see some of the results.

Please let me know if you like any of these ideas, and if so, what rate you are offering. I can deliver each of these stories within about 3-5 days. If I don't hear from you by the end of January, I will pitch elsewhere. Thank you so much for the consideration, and feel free to contact me at this number.

Q: I just read a great piece on another website, and I thought I could maybe write more about that thing. What about that?

A: It's not a definite no, but most media outlets tend to be cooler on pieces after the initial big media hit. Most outlets prefer original takes. Again, nothing is an absolute, but that tends to be the norm. If it's a news peg, that's different, but something new and original is always a stronger sell as a writer.

Q: I have the perfect idea! So I'm all set to email it in as a pitch, right?

A: I would advise that you Google your idea with the media outlet in question. Just to give a few examples here at xoJane, Emily has a kind of informal ban on "Tinder stories" lately as we've gotten so many. I feel like I see so many pitches on "quitting diet Coke" and a quick search would reveal that we've run a few stories on this topic.

Q: How many words for all these outlets? What do they pay?

A: Most outlets don't reveal payment, as it depends story to story, but rates will be assigned if a story is approved. For online outlets, word count often doesn't really doesn't matter. I find mimicking is very helpful when I'm learning the style of a different publication, so I'll take a piece that I want to do something like, cut and paste it into a Word doc, see the word count, see the headline and subhead length.

Q: OK, so for xoJane, who do I pitch to? You're probably a good person to pitch, right?

A: No, I focus on assigning news-driven stories, so if you have a unique, first-person take on something that is current events related, hit me up. Almost always, however, the smartest way to go is to email pitches@xojane.com and if you have written for us before, copy contributors@xojane.com. If you have a working relationship with one of the editors here (they all have a stable of writers they work with regularly), then it makes sense to email them directly.

Q: I think someone should write about this film I made.

A: This could be construed as a PR-related question. I was pitched recently by someone who had a great film. I asked if perhaps there could be a strong first-person piece there (because that's what I tend to focus on).

Instead of answering me back with a way to make that piece happen, there were more questions, way too much information on the project he was pitching ... and then I just let it die.

Send a cleanly envisioned email that I can then forward on to my editors to see if they approve. Do the work for an editor. For this example: Instead of sending me a copy of the film (which I haven't watched), email me a pitch about how one of the contributors from the film can write a great story with envisioned headline and all the rest.

Q: I sent in a pitch to this one media outlet; it was approved, and then nothing.

A: Due to the volume of emails most editors receive, there is always a chance your original pitch got lost, but I would recommend only following up once, and setting an "out" for yourself. Say that you will pitch elsewhere if you don't hear within a certain amount of time. Having been rejected hundreds of times from various venues, I can tell you that no response actually is a response. It's a pass.

Q: Is there anything I can do to increase my chances?

A: The biggest key is to look at your stuff as if YOU WERE NOT YOU. Look at your ideas as a jaded outsider who knows none of the details and the backstory, and then see if what you are pitching is still interesting.

I think it's also smart to have a social presence. If you don't exist online, you're working against yourself as a writer. Lastly, make sure someone can find your email quickly online. There are tons of options for doing this -- from including your email in your Twitter bio to simply creating an About.me page.

Also, be savvy about the time when you pitch. 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday is great. People aren't too overwhelmed, they've had their coffee and they're not annoyed to be there (Monday) or ready to get out (Friday).

Q: I wrote something to an editor in a comment thread on their Facebook once, and then I heard nothing. What's up with that? I thought they wanted a story.

A: Follow up, always, even when you are friends. Be concise and time saving and friendly and positive. Just remember, unfortunately, until a piece is actually published on a site, there's no guarantee.

Q: So do you have any advice on writing in general?

A: I send this to every writer I work with: All the Writing Advice I Would Give You If We Were Having an Editing Session in Person.

Q: Should I keep pitching an editor if I've sent four or five pitches and I get no response?

A: Pitch an editor all you want. It might just be that the right story hasn't hit yet, but honestly, that is a personal call. Sometimes it can be helpful to just go for it. Start writing your own pieces on a Tumblr to begin getting your work out there and start building up your own body of published work. Even a site like Dooce (now a multimedia empire) started as a personal website. If you love to write, keep going.

Any more questions? Feel free to ask in the comments. If I don't answer right away, I promise to answer eventually.