by Kylie Orr
14 December 2018
As freelancers, our income often depends on the success of a story pitch. Naturally, the relationships we build with editors over time influence how our story ideas are received, and the reputations we create for ourselves also help secure work.
We know to construct our pitches with fresh angles, a sense of curiosity about the subject matter and an understanding of the publication we are pitching to. What many of us don’t often consider is in what ways gender influences our approach to pitching.
Freelance writer and editor-at-large of VAULT magazine, Neha Kale, recently spoke at the Emerging Writers Festival and raised the topic of male versus female styles of pitching. She observed the stark variations in approach and tone.
“In my experience as an editor, men pitch with much greater assuredness and confidence in their own abilities and are much more likely to push for their ideas — even after a rejection. Meanwhile, women pitch with much less frequency and can sometimes couch pitches in much more cautious and tentative language — despite strong portfolios.”
Consulting editor Stuart Ridley, who receives a lot of pitches from both male and female writers agrees men do a lot more ‘chest-beating’ about how good they are – it’s mostly about them. “Men tend to be either formal, relying on their qualifications to establish credibility, or really chummy – and if it’s the latter, often the pitch will be something like, ‘Hey mate, got this story idea, do you want it?’ Male journos are a lot more direct.”
He adds that female journos are “more tentative, and put more into building rapport – it’s more about the working relationship. They tend to compliment my work and the publication first, then pitch along the lines of, ‘Here’s the concept, here’s what I can do on it, what do you think?’”
Natalie Reilly, former National Lifestyle Editor for Fairfax Media, has also observed gender differences in pitches. “Women in my experience aren’t apologetic but they will say stuff like ‘if that suits’ or ‘if you like’ whereas men say less personal phrases like ‘any tweaks happy to make them.’”
Although women soften their language, Natalie has found pitch variations are more aligned to the age of the pitching freelancer, rather than gender as a general category.
“Older men tend to write the full article out and then ship it around. If I had to guess I’d say that this has something to do with the idea they might have that their piece is perfect – they just have to find the right home. It’s an attitude that almost completely bypasses the editor!”
When pitches are rejected, Neha says men are more likely to push back, whereas women who’ve had one idea declined are less likely to pitch again. In Natalie’s experience, “older men are much more closely wedded to their pitches and I’ve found if I suggest taking a different angle they rarely like it!”
The aggressive approach rarely gets an editor psyched, adds Stuart, who’s had a range of eyebrow-raising pitches. “I’ve had a male journo pitch me saying something like, ‘I’m doing this piece that I’m probably going to sell to five publications, here’s a version you can have’! Whereas women are much better at the, ‘I’ve noticed you’ve touched on this topic, but you haven’t really gone in depth, here are three concepts for how you can go in depth on it’.”
In a study on gender differences in pitching, the statistics on which gender pitches more, who pushes harder and who ultimately has more bylines, the Science Byline Counting Project showed an underrepresentation of females in science writing, specifically. What their research also found was that it’s possible “women have been socialized to express themselves in a more deferential way because to do otherwise is to ensure rejection.”
Do gendered differences come down to confidence? Assertiveness? Or is it the topics that women and men pitch that mean a higher success rate?
Neha and Natalie both agree that the art of pitching comes down to succinct explanations of the angle and the story you want to write, while using the opportunity to showcase your voice and strength of writing.
“Although I wouldn’t say that men were more likely to include those elements, cold pitching does require a certain confidence and belief in your abilities and factors like gender, race and even class can play a serious role in shaping that,” Neha says.
Natalie reminds us that editors, like many professions today, are time-poor. Irrespective of gender, she wants short pitches that cut to the bones of the story. “A gist is all I need. Even if it’s what you think the headline should be. I like it, it’s clear and concise! It also shows me you can write in a clear and concise way – the most valuable thing in online journalism.”
For Stuart, it’s just about making sure you know the publication and what they’ve covered previously. “Most important components of a pitch is that it’s an angle we haven’t covered yet. And what I do like about how women pitch is they tend to be more generous about the pitch – here are some angles, here’s what I’m thinking, I can help you with X source or photographer, etc. I’ll also always look at what else they’ve written and decide if they’re going to have the kind of writing that I like.”
Listers: have you ever tweaked your pitching style to get more commissions? Or are you thinking you should after reading this?