Pitch Perfect

Writing Magazine – December 2022

Time is money, so submitting articles to magazines speculatively does not make business sense. Instead, professional writers pitch their ideas first. They approach an editor with their article idea, and if the editor likes it, they’re commissioned to write it. Easy!

However, pitching can be daunting for those who’ve never done it or who’ve tried with little success. And it can be frustrating because editors don’t always respond to every pitch, simply because of the sheer volume they receive. Sending out many pitches and getting no response is disheartening. 

Thankfully, perfecting your pitching technique is something you can develop. All it takes is a little practise.

Time Saving

The problem with submitting articles speculatively is that there’s a high risk of rejection. Yet it’s how many of us begin our writing journey, including me. 

I soon realised some of my rejections had nothing to do with the quality of my writing (which is what we frequently assume when our work is rejected). Instead, it was down to poor timing or not knowing what features the editor had already scheduled for the future. 

One editor rejected my article because he’d commissioned something similar from another writer the previous week. Another was rejected because I was targeting an anniversary event the editor had already commissioned someone else to write about several months earlier.

In both those cases, had I pitched my idea first, I would have learned this information and saved myself the time and effort I wasted writing the articles.

Conversation Starter

When we submit an article speculatively, there’s generally one of two outcomes: acceptance or rejection.

When we pitch, there’s an opportunity to tweak or amend the idea. A pitch can be the start of a conversation. If we pitch an idea focussing on one aspect, but the editor wants us to focus on a slightly different angle, they may still commission our idea. 

Alternatively, we might pitch a certain word count, but the editor commissions a different word count. That’s the beauty of pitching. It provides an opportunity for both parties to get what they want. The writer gets a commission, and the editor gets the piece they really need.

Pitch Practicalities

The perfect pitch answers three key questions:

  • Why will your idea appeal to the magazine’s readers?
  • Why now? (Or, why for the specific issue of the magazine you’re targeting?)
  • Why are you the best person to write this?

Analysing a publication is important when pitching ideas. If an editor is going to take the time and trouble to read our pitch, the least we can do is pitch an idea that’s appropriate for the magazine’s readers. There’s little point in pitching an article about how to water your two acres of lawn during a heatwave, if the readers of your target publication only have small patios capable of holding a few pots and planters. 

Likewise, a walking magazine whose readers are mainly young families will not be interested in your idea of tackling the 268-mile Pennine Way long distance footpath in two days.

So, a pitch needs to explain what the idea is and, therefore, why it will interest your target publication’s readers. Sometimes, the angle of the idea is enough to explain why it will appeal to the readership. Pitching an article idea to Your Dog magazine for their November issue about how to keep dogs safe and calm on Bonfire Night will clearly interest the publication’s readers. (I know, because I pitched it and was commissioned to write it.)

When pitching an idea, target a specific issue and explain why your idea best suits that issue. This is vital for anniversary pieces, but any topical hook will help. Magazines are put together months in advance, so having articles that are relevant for the specific issue in which they will appear is important.

Finally, think about why you are the best person to write this piece. Personal experience is one of the best reasons. If you’ve been there, done it, and got the t-shirt (or, better still, some photos), that’s vital experience the editor can’t ignore.

Alternatively, you might be the best person to write an article on a subject because you’re qualified in it, or are known as an expert on the topic.

Dear Editor

Email is the most common way to pitch an editor. Some professionals prefer to pitch by phone, but as with all phone calls, you never know if you’re interrupting someone at a critical time when you ring. (That’s assuming they’re not too busy to pick up the phone in the first place.)

It’s important to pitch to the right editor. Check the latest issue for up-to-date names and contact details. Many editors quote their email addresses in the publication.

The glossier and larger circulation publications sometimes have several editors. Avoid Editors-in-Chief and Executive Editors. They tend not to be involved in the day-to-day running of the magazine. Instead, target the Features Editor, the Commissioning Editor (always a good clue!) or the relevant section editor (travel, health, food, home, etc).

Address your email to a named editor and write in a business-like manner. Avoid emojis and light-hearted banter until you’ve built up a relationship with them. 

Calendar Conundrums

Timing is vital, so it’s worth thinking about when to pitch your ideas. Editors at monthly magazines are often planning issues three months ahead, if not further. For some issues, planning may start more than twelve months ahead. (An editor of a weekly publication has recently commissioned me to write an article for their December 2022 issue, because I need to travel to take Christmas photos of the venue during December 2021.)

For weekly publications, planning can be anything from six to twelve weeks ahead, and quarterlies are often thinking a year ahead. 

Pitch early for major anniversaries. Many writers will target those. 

Chasing Conundrums

It often feels that you spend ages carefully constructing the perfect pitch, click Send, and then never hear from it again. I chase my pitches, but I take a cautious approach.

Firstly, editors are human beings (apparently). They’re allowed annual leave, have stressful days when their children are sick and so have to go home early, or are just so busy when a magazine is sent to the printers that they don’t have time to look at emails. It doesn’t surprise me that many of my commissions arrive by email on a Sunday afternoon.

I tend not to chase for two weeks. Sometimes I leave it three weeks during peak holiday periods. I simply forward my original email and enquire whether the editor has had an opportunity to consider my idea.

I leave it another couple of weeks and then drop the editor another email. Some of my commissions have come from these first and second follow-up emails. If I hear nothing after the second email, I assume the editor wasn’t interested.

Sowing Seeds

Sending out pitches is like sowing seeds. Many will fall on stony ground, and you never know which ones will germinate, if at all. Sometimes, a seed can germinate months after you’d forgotten about it.

An editor once commissioned me to write a piece I’d pitched six months earlier. Having chased twice and not heard anything, I assumed the idea wasn’t suitable. Then, out of the blue, the editor got in touch. A writer had let him down, and he needed four pages filling within 48 hours. My pitch seemed ideal.

For magazine writers, pitching is important. It makes great business sense because in the time it takes to write one speculative article, it’s possible to submit several pitches.

The more pitches we write, the better we become at it, and the greater chance there is of being commissioned. Nothing beats that feeling when an email drops into your inbox from an editor who loves your idea and commissions you to write it. That’s when you know you’ve written the perfect pitch.

Business Directory – Example Pitch

Here’s an example pitch that resulted in a commission from Canal Boating Times. 

Dear (Editor’s name),

It keeps him fit, it’s reduced his blood pressure, and he meets some amazing people. John Smith is seventy and a volunteer for the Canal & River Trust. I met him at a recent Trust open day, and we chatted about why he enjoys volunteering and the things he gets up to.

Would you be interested in an illustrated 1,000-word feature, called Helping Out, for your Waterways section, about volunteering for the Canal & River Trust, perhaps to coincide with National Volunteering Week, which takes place during the first week of June this year?

The article will:

– tell John’s story – why he volunteers, and what he gets out of it (he joined after his wife died, he loves meeting people – especially foreign tourists exploring our waterways, and loves the fact that this ‘old technology’ still works so well),

– explain to readers some of the other volunteering opportunities that exist with the Trust. (If the idea is of interest, I’ll approach the Head of Volunteering at the Canal and Rivers Trust for quotes on this subject.)

– include a boxout with contact details about how to volunteer, where to find more information, and volunteering opportunities in your area.

I’ve attached a couple of photos, which might be useful for illustration purposes if the idea is of interest.

Notice how this reveals why I’m the best person to write the piece (because I’ve met and interviewed John), which section of the publication I’m targeting (Waterways section), and which issue I think this is most appropriate for (first week in June). I’ve also stated where I’ll get more quotes from, and clarified that I can also supply photographs.

© Simon Whaley