I’ve been That Person. The one standing between your travel story and its publication in print or online, in other words, the assigning editor. And the only way to get past me or any other gatekeeper is via the pitch.
I’ve accepted hundreds of pitches, rejected thousands, and meant-to-respond-but-neglected-to who knows how many more. So I feel qualified to answer the questions I often get about pitching. I’ve also been you — the freelance writer — and I know how hard you work, how little you make and how much you want to tell your story. So, this is for you.
First, a reminder that every outlet is different and every editor is individual, so consider these tips as guidelines rather than commandments.
Both are acceptable. But when pitching before a trip, never lob the lazy “I’m going to be in Some Amazing Country, do you need anything?” The answer will always be “No,” unless you happen to be Pico Iyer or Tim Cahill or Cheryl Strayed or Paul Theroux. Always have some concrete story ideas. Pitching after travel, of course, is easier because you should have a notebook full of them; but here, discipline is necessary — pitch only the stories most suitable to the outlet.
It does matter, as there is a rhythm to every editorial calendar, an ideal time when magazine editors are more receptive to, say, stories for a summer issue or digital editors looking to fill their holiday lineup. But it’s nearly impossible to keep track of them all, so here’s a rule of thumb: the earlier the better. A year ahead is not too early for a magazine feature story, nor a month ahead for a digital piece. And get to know the editorial cycle of your favorite outlets.
First, introduce yourself briefly to the editor; if you’ve met or had an interaction, however minor, this is the time to mention that. Then go into your pitch, addressing the following questions: What’s the story? Why now? Where do you see it fitting in the outlet (what section or department)? And, why you? Stay pithy; aim for no more than a page. And even if you’ve corresponded with an editor before, always include a few short lines describing yourself (your specialties, past credits, website, and where you’re physically based).
Don’t do it. Every outlet has its own style and voice, and submitting a completed story almost never works. The exception is if you’re submitting a personal essay to an outlet that publishes them.
Yes, for shorter department pieces (but no more than three or four). Narrative pitches often need more space and individual consideration.
Hmmm. Here’s what I’d do: Give your top outlet a head start of a few weeks. Then pitch other possible outlets. If a second outlet bites, inform them about the story you’re doing for the first outlet, and see if you can reframe the story for the second. The key is disclosure and transparency.
First of all, let’s define what a unique story idea is. A trip to Patagonia, the best cheese shops in Paris, an upcoming solar eclipse — these are not unique story ideas. Editors often get similar pitches or may come up with the same brilliant idea and are free to assign it to any writer they choose. What is not okay is for an editor to take your insider knowledge, use your carefully cultivated sources, or follow your narrative outline without an assignment, or at minimum a discussion and compensation in the form of a finder’s fee. I’m not sure how much of a problem this is but anecdotally, I have noticed an increase in posts about the subject on the online journalism groups I follow. To reduce the risk of this, keep your sources close to the vest until you actually have the assignment, and work with editors and outlets respected in the industry.
This is a tough one because no editor likes to get hounded, but emails do occasionally get buried or lost. I know I’ve sometimes been thankful a writer has followed up. I can’t imagine an editor resenting one follow up a couple of weeks later, especially if a story idea is timely. If you simply want to check if your email was read, sign up for an email tracking software such as MailTracker or Streak.
My prolific writer friends swear by a simple color-coded spreadsheet. Include columns such as Name of Editor, Date Submitted, Date to Follow Up, Reply, and Notes. Here’s one you can customize from Alicia de los Reyes of The Write Life.
Some writers find pitching to be as difficult as the writing itself, but take heart. A well-thought-out pitch actually saves you time. Not only is it the key to getting the assignment, but you’ve just drawn yourself a road map and broadly framed the structure. This is work that must be done if you want to be That Writer that editors love to work with.
Norie Quintos, editor-at-large at Nat Geo Travel and one of our 2018 Travel Writing Scholarship judges gives us a glimpse at what she looks for when editing a piece.
Rejection is never easy. Charukesi Ramadurai shares some tips from her sometimes painful, and always practical, experience.