As the editor of “The Billfold,” I get a lot of emails from writers that include some variation of “This is my first pitch.” Sometimes they apologize in advance for the mistakes they’re sure they’ve made; other times they ask me for feedback. No matter how they phrase it, this declaration gets in the way of what a good pitch is supposed to do: tell—and sell—a story.
Pitching freelance work is hard, especially when you’re a relatively new freelance writer. Until you’ve built up relationships with editors and publications, the majority of your pitches will be what are called “cold pitches:” emails sent to an editor you don’t know (or, in some cases, a generic submission inbox), asking them to consider your story for publication.
Luckily, there are a few steps you can take to make the pitching process easier on both you and those editors you don’t know yet!
1. Pitch a story, not an idea.
When you ask someone to consider your story for publication, you need to have the whole story ready to go. Maybe you haven’t written it yet, and maybe some aspects of the story will change as you draft your essay or reach out to people for interviews—but you should have done enough background work to know what story you want to tell.
Then, tell that story in the pitch. Beginning-middle-end. Keep it simple (a paragraph or two is fine) but make sure your editor knows what they’re going to get from the piece.
I often get pitches from people who have ideas about what they want to write—“I’d like to write a piece about food deserts”—but who haven’t yet shaped those ideas into stories. The writers who know what story they’re telling, and why it’s an important story to tell, are more likely to get their pitches picked up.
2. Pitch a story that’s relevant to the publication.
Sometimes I get pitches from writers who are clearly unfamiliar with The Billfold’s work. They pitch listicles, even though we focus on personal narratives; they pitch stories that don’t have strong personal finance elements. If you want your pitch to be successful, it’s got to be the kind of story that’s a natural fit for the publication—and if you don’t know enough about the publication to know what kind of stories they run, it’s time to start reading.
3. Follow the basic pitch template.
Editors’ inboxes are perpetually full, and we have to make quick decisions about which pitches to accept and which pitches to reject. Pitches that are overly long or contain inappropriate digressions (“ever since I was a child, I have dreamed of becoming a freelance writer”) are more likely to get rejected—so keep your pitch short, easy to read, and professional.
I suggest using the following template:
One sentence introducing your story.
One paragraph telling your story.
Two sentences about you.
Here’s how the template might look in practice:
Hi! I’m Nicole Dieker, and I’m pitching a story about food deserts in rural Iowa.
When people hear the phrase “food deserts,” they often think of low-income, urban areas with little-to-no grocery store access. However, rural areas can be food deserts as well—even if they’re surrounded by farms and cornfields. This 3,000-word piece will profile three families in rural Iowa, taking the reader through a day in the life, the weekly (or in one case, monthly) grocery shop, and the effort each family goes through to ensure there’s food on the table. It will end with a look at what the nearest town is doing to improve food access in the area, and whether its initiatives are likely to be successful.
A bit about me: I’m the editor of The Billfold, and my writing has appeared in Lifehacker, Boing Boing, Popular Science, and numerous other publications. Learn more at nicoledieker.com.
Note all of the information contained in that short pitch: what the story is about, how the story will be structured, how long the story will be, and what the reader is likely to take away from the story. Your pitch might not contain all of those elements, but it should contain as many of them as possible.
By following this basic pitch template, you won’t need to open your pitches with “This is my first pitch.” Instead, you’ll be able to send off concise, well-written pitches to editors who will be more likely to accept your work.
If you have more questions about how to pitch, consider signing up for my June 11 course in Juneau, “Getting Started as a Freelancer.” I’ll be discussing pitching, building relationships with editors, establishing a freelance beat, and growing your career.