How to pitch an article and get published, from someone who’s done it

How to pitch an article and get published, from someone who’s done it

One of my proudest life accomplishments is pivoting from a career in publicity to editorial and making freelance writing a full-time job. And this is coming from someone who managed to score front-row Beyoncé tickets at her private concert in Dubai last month. (Which was also a highlight, but actually the result of establishing myself as a legitimate travel writer. Talk about validation!)

But not everyone who yearns for a byline is looking to become a full-fledged journalist. In fact, many people have become experts in their own field. And simply want to write articles or personal essays to share their expertise and/or opinions with the world.

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How to get started

I’ve already delved into the process of pitching and writing a book, but the approach to working with media is completely different. And it can be broken up into three easy steps: researching, pitching, and following up.

Of course (and this should go without saying), you have to be an excellent writer to get published. If this is a skill that you lack or are not confident in, you may want to reconsider the effort you’ll put into turning this dream into a reality.

Editors only want to work with storytellers who will ultimately make their lives easier. Those writers help them spend less time on correcting grammar or ensuring the work is clear and cohesive. Those who struggle to communicate through words should instead focus on building relationships with writers who cover their field or beat so that they can potentially be used as sources for quotes in future articles. This is an easy way to integrate your voice into major publications without having to write an actual story in its entirety. Not to mention, it’s the simplest way to get free publicity to plug you and/or your business. And because so many writers are juggling multiple assignments at once, interviews are many times conducted via email. For those interviews, you can write out your answers however you see fit.

But if you know you’ve got the chops to effectively put pen to paper and want to take complete control of executing a story from start to finish, here is a breakdown of the necessary steps.

The research

Coming up with an article idea is the easy part, but before you do anything, you must put effort into research. This generally includes compiling a list of media outlets that will publish the type of content you want to create. As well as the appropriate editors or submission email addresses to send the aforementioned idea to. A managing editor is typically a good place to start since he or she oversees the entire editorial calendar. But look for editors who oversee specific verticals too. So that your email isn’t in the inbox of someone who gets hundreds a day or doesn’t assign what you’re hoping to cover.

It is also important to do a deep dive into these magazines, newspapers, or websites and see if they’ve delved into the topic before. You don’t want to waste an editor’s time if they’ve rolled out something similar just a few months ago.

I’ve found it helpful to ask these questions:

  • Is this idea novel or at least something that readers will click on because it’s not currently on the site?
  • Why should I be the one to write this piece?
  • Do I have enough connections or knowledge to ensure that I can present the information in a way that is both easily digestible, but also legitimized?

If you can answer these with ease and conviction, you’re ready to move on to pitching.

The pitch

After you’ve identified the appropriate contacts at each publication, it’s time to craft a pitch email. Submission guidelines vary by outlet, so do a quick search and see if they’ve discussed these requirements in detail.

Generally, most editors would like to see a sample headline, a couple of sentences explaining the “why,” and then who you may be interviewing to incorporate an expert voice into the piece. Feel free to also link to competitive outlets who have covered the topic before and what you’d do differently. And if you can speak to the money-making elements like SEO (search engine optimization), integration of commerce links (hyperlinks to relevant products so that the outlets can collect a potential commission), or the story’s ability to translate well on social or video, flag these attributes as well.

If you are completely new to pitching, feel free to also attach a writing sample so that editors can get a sense of your voice, style, and mastery of the English language.

While sending one topic in a pitch email is a-okay to start, I recommend including a few more to show that you’re always full of creative ideas. It also ups your chances of an editor thinking at least one pitch from a handful will work.

Keep in mind that first-person, personal essays are some of the most difficult to pitch (even though they’re more fun and offer room for cleverness). Most publications, especially digital ones, will favor articles that either capitalize on a trending news story and/or will perform well on search. While it is more fun to write an article that is chock-full of personality, they just don’t typically perform as well as the more boring subjects that appeal to broader audiences. Media organizations are also businesses and they don’t succeed unless they attract clicks or eyeballs.

Once something is greenlit, editors will then flesh out details on word count, deadlines, rates, and any other requirements. Use this opportunity to ask any lingering questions you may have to ensure that you deliver exactly what they want, when they want it.

The follow-up

Editors get no less than 100 pitches a day, especially if they are covering many subject areas. While you are not directly competing with publicists who are sending pitches for the products, people, or businesses they represent, you are competing for the editor’s attention. Out of pure and utter convenience, many editors will work with these publicists first (it’s their job to be BFFs with media, after all) and assign relevant and more pressing stories internally.

Sometimes outlets simply don’t have the freelance budget to source a majority of their content externally. This is a major bummer, but a sad reality as media mergers continue to happen and companies cut costs.

That said, if you don’t hear back from an editor the first time, it’s okay to follow up and gently remind them to take another look. You may never hear back from someone or you’ll get a polite “pass.” Rarely do you receive any type of feedback as to why a story won’t work. Don’t take this personally — they don’t mean any disrespect. Instead, put yourself in their shoes and imagine having to answer hundreds of emails on top of your day-to-day job responsibilities. Frankly, it would be impossible.

Also, remember that these editors will be bringing ideas to pitch meetings to run them by the rest of their editorial team. There may just be a delay until this happens and they can get back to you. A general rule of thumb is to allow your pitches to sit in an editor’s inbox for two weeks with a follow-up in between. If you haven’t heard back, it’s safe to assume that it isn’t a fit and you are more than entitled to take these pitches to a different outlet.

The waiting game

Pitching takes time and a lot of workshopping. You’re likely not going to get it right the first or even the fifth time. But practice really does make perfect to make an article idea irresistible.

Another thing to consider is that media, like any other industry, is all about who you know and not what you know. Go out of your way to attend events where editors will be present and put on your networking cap. Face-to-face interaction will make people feel more compelled to help you or at least reply to an email that references a conversation you had with them in person.

But never give up. Once you get that first article assigned (and you will), this will be your chance to impress the hell out of your editor, get your foot in the door, and hopefully receive additional assignments in the future. All it takes is literally one opportunity. And when you get it, milk it for all it’s worth.

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