My top eight rules for pitching

by Rachel Smith
25 October 2013

In a perfect world, you’d sit and twiddle your thumbs while editors came to you. They’d always commission stories on interesting topics and offer to pay $1.50 or even $2 a word. The deadline would dovetail nicely with other stories you’d secured, the money would roll in on a regular basis and you’d spend your days in a cosy blur of writing, never worrying about meeting mortgage payments on your palatial beach house.

Back in the real world, you’ve got to pitch for your supper – and it’s a bit of an art, no matter which corner of the creative world you’re in. Every pitch I send, I learn something. Sometimes an editor will write back and re-angle an idea of mine in a genius way I just didn’t think of, but can file away for next time. Some of my pitches are bought immediately, other stories I think are awesome never get traction. It’s a gamble. But here are my rules for getting the green light more often than not.

1. Make pitching part of your work week. In our July pay rates survey, 46 percent of you said you source work through a mixture of pitching and editors coming to you with ideas. That’s pretty much how I work too, and while sometimes I crave more of the stories-dropping-into-my-lap thing, I know it’s good to keep pitching. It keeps you sharp and the more often you do it, the better you get. Our pitch tracker is a great way to monitor the pitches you’re sending and your overall pitch ‘hit rate’.

2. Address the person by name. Writers pitch to one of my other blogs all the time and a big bugbear for me is getting an email that starts with, ‘Hi…’ or ‘Hey…’ or no greeting at all. My name is in the contact form and in different places all over the blog. I tend to think if you’re really serious about a) making contact with someone and b) getting their attention, you’ll find their name and use it. Otherwise you just come off as rude and off-hand.

3. Get the person’s name right. Is it hyphenated? A name that could be spelled multiple ways, like Rachel, Rachael, Rachelle, Racheal? Take a couple of minutes to Google the person, check their signature, check their byline in the publication or on their website. If it doubt, don’t shorten it unless you know the person well. I don’t particularly mind if people I don’t know call me Rach, but some people – like Fairfax journo Alexandra Cainreally do. As she says, “If you want a favour, at least get my name right.”

4. Pitch length depends on how well you know the editor. This is just my personal rule, because I know every editor wants pitches a certain way. Some want a mini version of the story complete with experts you’d talk to, case studies, break-out boxes. Others are happy with a succinct one-liner outlining the nugget of an idea. But here’s the thing: editors are slammed. If I’ve written for the editor before, I send a 1-2 line pitch. If I’ve never written for them before, I send a 1-2 paragraph pitch and the offer of a longer synopsis if required.

5. Write a headline and think in terms of coverlines. ‘7 Things Never To Say To Someone Who’s Grieving’ or ‘Signs Your Marriage Isn’t Going To Make It’ may be a bit click-baity but these headlines encapsulate the idea for an editor who’s probably too busy to focus on much more in your pitch. I like to think if that headline piques their interest, they’ll return to your email (and hopefully ask for more info or commission you).

6. Send one crap idea and two gold ones. Most of the time, unless I know the editor well and am pitching on the fly with something topical that can’t wait, I’ll craft a three-idea pitch. One of those ideas will always be the weakest and always at the end of the pitch. (Strangely, that’s often the idea they want.)

7. Proofread it. Spell-check it. I’ll read an email 2-3 times before sending to make sure there are no mistakes. I’m so sub-editor anal about it I even wrote back to an editor after a pitch apologising for a typo that slipped through. (He was amused. I was mortified.)

8. Don’t take pitch rejections personally. They may have run the story recently, they have a story like it ready to go, you didn’t present the idea in a way that made the editor want to buy it, their budgets have just been slashed but they can’t tell you that – or the fact that they’re rejecting all pitches right now. If the editor gives you any feedback, good or bad, file it away; that’s gold for next time you pitch.

What are your foolproof pitching rules? Does pitching work for you, or do you rarely do it? I’d love you to share in the comments.

Rachel Smith

14 responses on "My top eight rules for pitching"

  1. Thanks for sharing these tips, Rachel – I find it fascinating learning how others approach the pitching process. I’m going to give the three idea pitch a go!

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Let me know if the dud idea gets through! It’s a baffling phenomenon but I stopped losing sleep over it ages ago 🙂

  2. Leo Wiles says:

    Great tips Rach.
    All I would add is the need to follow up pitches one or two days later to close the Communication Loop and make sure that your great ideas landed.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Isn’t that a blog post in itself… when to follow up and when not to 🙂

  3. shauna says:

    Thanks Rachel, great post and wonderful practical advice for a new writer like me who is trying to break into freelancing.

  4. supergirl says:

    As per usual Rachel is generous with her excellent ideas.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Thanks very much supergirl and Jennifer!

  5. A keeper.Thanks for the tips Rachel!!

  6. Great tips, Rachel. Like the ‘one crap idea and two gold’ — I don’t often do that one. I also find that each time I write the pitch, it gets better. So I’ll start with a good idea, send it off. Get a rejection. Then see how I can improve it. Send again, another rejection. Third time lucky — is that just becuase I’ve made the right fit or is it because the idea is that much sharper… I reckon both.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Yes, that’s a great tip Claire. I try to do that too but not as much as I should – sometimes I’ll just abandon it thinking it was a dud idea when it actually probably needed more of a spit’n’polish.

  7. Hi Rachel,
    Lovely post and great tips – always a good reminder. I’d also throw into the mix “keep the social chit chat minimal if you don’t actually know the editor”. As the person pitching, it’s so tempting to do this to build some sort of rapport, but as the recipient of the pitch, it’s a pain and incredibly transparent. I never realised how much so until a few years ago when PRs began pitching me suggestions of clients I might want to profile in some of my regular columns. Cutting to the chase is so much better than asking about my weekend and talking about the weather for before getting to the point. I know, sounds so ‘bah humbug’, but it’s true. It’s really helped me cut that stuff out of my own pitching, until I actually KNOW the editor – then, chit chat away.
    Sue 🙂

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Thanks for weighing in Sue, I must admit this is one of I have been TOTALLY guilty of. As you say, the temptation to build a rapport is there, especially if you’re pitching them for the first time. I’m going to work harder on canning the chit-chat and cutting to the chase!

  8. shannylm says:

    Hi Rachel, thanks for this great post! I’m still learning how to craft the perfect pitch, but what I’m learning is that different editors want totally different things. Some want one pitch per email, others want all ideas in the one email. Some are very blunt and don’t reply, others are happy to chit chat and discuss pug videos (my favourite type of editor).

    But I think having a catchy subject line and trying not to waffle is important. All editors are extremely busy! Also a lot of editors seem better at replying later in the arvo (like 4 – 5pm window). So it seems to be a good time to pitch/follow-up.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      The subject line is so important, Shanny – it’s your foot in the door so to speak so getting that right is crucial. I agree too that every editor is so different so it can be a minefield, but once you start working with editors over and over, pitching becomes so much easier. Good luck with yours, I hope lots are hitting the mark!

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