With publications scaling back on in-house staff and remote working on the rise, freelance journalism is becoming an option for many who want to make a living from their words. To succeed in the industry, you only really need one thing: great ideas. But getting them in front of the right people is the difficult part. Since editors read hundreds of email pitches a week, how can you make sure yours doesn’t instantly end up in the trash folder?
Whilst we can’t guarantee you a commission, we can give you some insider knowledge to boost your chances of one. We chatted with editors of a variety of publications and grilled them on their top tips for perfecting your email pitches.
Before you start sending out pitches, take some time to make sure it goes directly to the right person. Generic email addresses won’t work here, so do some digging to find the contact details for the editor or, if the publication’s large enough, commissioning editor for the specific section you’d like to write for. LinkedIn and Twitter are both great tools for finding contacts and, in particular, editors often put a call out on twitter for pitches too. Larger titles and publishing houses tend to have a set format for email addresses (such as first name.surname@ ) so once you’ve figured this formula out, you can usually make an educated guess.
It goes without saying that you’ll need to be professional on your hunt for contacts and go through the official channels. Don’t be tempted to slide into an editor’s DMs unwarranted in order to make your pitch!
Start as you mean to go on
Before we even get to the contents, the subject header of your email really is crucial. Without it, you risk your email being deleted before it’s even been read. Avoid vague subject headings like ‘story idea’. “Put the headline in the subject box,” advises former features editor Eimear Hosie.
Short but sweet
It might be tempting to share every aspect of the story but simple really is best in this situation. “Pitch no longer than a paragraph or possibly two if absolutely necessary. Basically be as succinct as possible as quickly as possible as most editors just won’t have the time to read something lengthy,” adds Eimear.
Another way to keep things simple is the structure of your pitch. “Headers make everything easier to read. I want to be able to scan through it without having to read it like a novel. Editors are busy, so the simpler you make it the more likely they are to pay attention!” explains Lottie Gross, travel writer and editor.
Lottie suggests using a simple 3-part structure: the headline, the ‘hook’ (more on that in a moment) and then the details of the piece (setting out the story in a couple of paragraphs, with information on what’s involved and who you’re interviewing.)
Finding your hook
One of the first questions an editor might ask is: why now? It’s best to always have this answer in the back of your mind; rather than just send over ideas on a whim. “I’ve had lots (of pitches) in the past where someone would like to write something about ‘insert broad subject topic here,’ explains Emma Shephard, previous commissioning editor of The Guardian’s Professional Networks. “Be very clear about what your angle is and the impetus for the story; why should we tell this story now and at all?” she adds.
A hook can take several forms: it might be the time of year (such as a key awareness day on the horizon) or it could be in response to recent events in the news.
“If there is a news hook, make sure it’s clear” suggests travel editor Linnea Dunne, “along with relevance for the publication/audience.” Just because something’s all over the news doesn’t mean it’s always suited for the publication’s demographics. In turn, timing is key for your hook. If there’s a news angle, act fast before the story fades from the headlines. If the angle is pegged around a specific time of year, then plan ahead. Whilst digital titles might work to shorter deadlines, monthly magazines are likely to have Christmas all wrapped up before summer is over.
Give the editor what they need
Whilst its good to keep things concise, don’t scrimp on the key details; since most editors won’t have time to fill in the gaps. “Don’t make the editor find the story for you” explains Emma Shephard. If you are pitching a case study, Eimear Hosie always recommends you include photos. “Visuals matter,” she adds. Whilst if it’s a travel piece, then fill your editor in on the logistics of the trip. “I’d add the practicalities at the bottom,” suggests Lottie Gross, “e.g, I’d say when you could do the trip, when you can file by and if you are offering pictures or just words.”
Dealing with an empty inbox
It can be disheartening to not receive replies but don’t despair. Sometimes things can slip the net. So, if you haven’t heard back, don’t be afraid to send a polite follow-up email after a week or two. It could be worth refining the time you send your pitches too. It goes without saying Friday afternoons are a no-go, as are pitches sent late into the night. If the idea can’t wait, consider using an email scheduler so it gets sent out at exactly the right time. Most publications have regular (if not daily) planning meetings, so timing emails for early in the morning so they can take your pitch to the table could be an idea.
When it comes to making a living as a freelance journalist, it’s clear that good email etiquette is the key to succeeding, so do your homework and keep these tips close at hand for the next time inspiration strikes!