Writing a good pitch is really tough. Writing a bad one is easy. Editors see the same mistakes over and over again, even from good writers. A few weeks ago, seven editors from a variety of publications participated in a round-table discussion, in a series of group emails, about how NOT to pitch. I started the conversation off with questions, and then we talked among ourselves about our horror stories, pet peeves, and practical advice. Think of The Open Notebook’s Pitch Database as a lesson in how to make editors say “yes.” Below, dear writers, is how to inadvertently make us say “no.”
Editors participating in the discussion were:
David Corcoran, The New York Times
Christine Dell’Amore, National Geographic News
David Grimm, ScienceNOW
Meg Guroff, AARP The Magazine
Laura Helmuth, Smithsonian
Robin Lloyd, Scientific American Online
Adam Rogers, Wired
Laura: Let’s start with one logistical question: email or phone?
Robin: Email pitches please.
Christine: Yes, definitely email pitches.
Meg: Email by a mile. The phone is intrusive. Email lets me see how you write; lets me forward your pitch to colleagues for consideration; and lets me ask follow-up questions or send a quick “no thanks” without getting dragged into a 20-minute conversation.
Adam: Glad to see I’m not alone in preferring emailed pitches … and then emailed again, because I will admit to being the kind of editor who probably needs a prod to respond. Email is great for time-shifting, obviously; but the risk to the writer, especially one whom I don’t know, is that unless the idea is a killer the email could fall below my horizon. And in truth, I often prefer a little preview-teaser email with just the logline of the idea, allowing me to say, “sure, tell me more,” instead of the full pitch. It’s weird how off-putting I have come to find the experience of clicking open an email only to have to wade through a two-graf anecdotal lede I’m not sure I’m going to care about. The best sales pitches, I think, start with a personal connection—and an opportunity for me to tell a writer, “Nope, I’m the wrong editor for this, you should email TK.”
David G: Calling is a definite no-no in my book. I find it very unprofessional, and I especially hate when press officers do it (which is becoming a more common occurrence).
David C: Agreed on email pitching. I don’t like cold calls and I respond to them coldly. Freelancers seem to have gotten the message, because I get very few phone queries these days (and several a day by email). PR pitches are another matter, but let’s not talk about them.
Laura: What’s the most common mistake you see in pitches?
Robin: Most common mistake—pitching a topic, rather than a story.
Christine: The most common mistake I see is freelancers who don’t do their homework and read our website first. I.e., the majority of new pitches we get are for 10,000-word feature stories, like you’d see in National Geographic magazine, whereas we publish mostly 600-word-or-so news stories.
Meg: I’ll agree with Christine that a lack of familiarity with the publication is the most common. Another is presenting a story as something you’re dying to write, rather than as something our reader would be dying to read. Successful pitchers don’t lead with their own desires or credentials. Instead, they focus on what’s amazing about a story and how the story would fit into what the publication is trying to do.
Adam: The most common mistake I see is a lack of familiarity with the magazine—pitches that are aimed as web articles, pitches on subjects we’ve covered (that don’t advance the story), pitches for stories in a format or with an approach that Wired would never do. As an editor, I only want to feel loved, like the writer knows my true soul. Otherwise: no relationship.
David G:—Not knowing the outlet (i.e. pitching us technology stories, which we almost never cover)
— Just forwarding a press release
— Pitching the same stories everyone else is pitching (i.e. Science, Nature, etc)
— Pitching after the embargo has lifted
David C: The single most annoying thing I see in first-time pitches is a lack of awareness of context. Why is this story suitable for the Times? What, if anything, have we said about it before? What makes it new? Why should a reader care about it now? This is basic homework every writer should do; if I don’t see it, I’m most unlikely to read on.
(I do try to respond to all emails that were individually sent to me.)
Adam: Ooh, can I add one more tiny pet peeve? When a pitch consists solely of a writer saying, “Hey, did you see this? Might be worth a piece.” And then copies in a URL.
That is … not helpful to me. And it happens a lot.
Laura: It’s nice to see that many of these mistakes are universal—and so easy to avoid. Writers, use the search box. I often get pitches for stories we ran a few months earlier. Especially if it’s a story that’s been around a while, writers shouldn’t assume they’re the first ones to tell us about it. If they have some fresh angle, that’s fine—but they have to spell out why their story is different.
David C, one of the mistakes I often see—and I bet everyone else does, too—is a writer pitching a story from Tuesday’s Science Times. I tend to get these pitches on Thursday. Do they think I don’t read the NYT? Or that I forgot the story within two days?
Adam, I love the relationship image. We want to be taken seriously, loved for who we really are!
As for how to tell a story from a subject, I hope any journalism professors out there invest some more time in teaching this distinction. Better to learn from a classroom, workshop, conference or TON website than to learn from years of failed pitches.
Laura: If you’re comfortable revealing this, do you keep a blacklist? If so, what sort of pitch-related behavior does it take to get on that list?
David G: I only put people on the blacklist after they write for me, usually because they either plagiarized or because their writing/reporting/attitude was so horrendous that I never wanted to work with them again.
Robin: It’s not pitches that induce aversion to a writer; it’s the quality of their writing and rewriting afterward, for me. Some writers send extremely weak pitches such as Adam described, but I’m still willing to work with the writer on those pitches at times, because I know they will do a good job in focusing/finding the story, and in writing and rewriting.
Meg: As for blacklists, there are a few writers whose tone-deaf pitching behavior demonstrates that I can’t rely on them to represent me or the magazine appropriately. I had one writer pitching me periodically for years on the idea of profiling a particular 1970s rocker of whom she was enamored. No matter how frequently, gently, or baldly I declined this proposal—at first on the merits, and then because she was clearly not objective on the subject—it kept coming back, to the point where I was morbidly delighted to see it in my in-box. But of course I couldn’t assign that story to her, or anything else for that matter. I just didn’t trust her judgment.
Adam: You guys have better blacklist stories than I do. I can’t think of a writer I’ve decided never to work with based on pitches alone. It’s always a function of what comes after the pitch—how good the work is, how easy the writer is to work with. I think I have a complicated cost-benefit algorithm involving the time it takes to produce a story versus the quality of the story, the quality of reporting versus the quality of writing versus the willingness to be edited, the quality of ideas (and their timeliness) versus the ability to execute them … I don’t know. When they replace us all with AIs, the EditBot 6000 will be able to articulate all that much better. (But will it dream?)
Repeated mistakes, too, are a good way onto my blacklist. Rudeness or lack of cooperation with fact checkers gets a yellow card and then a red card if repeated.
Meg: I’ve used writers whose pitches demonstrated they would not be able to pull off the story without a lot of help … but it had to be a truly brilliant, original idea, or a story that only they could tell … doesn’t happen often. Right now, I’ve got one would-be personal essayist with an unusual story who kindly agreed to be written about instead of hired.
Laura: What’s the most horrible, ridiculous, epic-fail pitch you’ve ever gotten?
Laura: Mine involved one of the mistakes we covered already—forwarding a press release or news story—only the writer put a special twist on the mistake by not revealing that he was simply forwarding the guts of a newspaper story. He made it look like his own deeply reported pitch. The pitch was about animal cognition and it listed several then-recent examples of surprisingly smart behavior. You’ve probably heard of most of these studies—sheep that recognize individual faces, jays that stash food in different places depending on which other birds are watching, a New Caledonian “cow” named Betty that could bend a wire into a hook to extract food from a bottle.
Not knowing that the writer was merely forwarding a story from the Guardian, I asked some follow-up questions. I mentioned that I assumed he’d just mistyped the cow business and knew, of course, that it was a “crow” named Betty.
Next mistake: he didn’t believe me. No, he said, his “source” confirmed that it was a cow. That’s when I did a search and found the Guardian story and figured out that he’d plagiarized the whole pitch.
He was right, though: his source did confirm that it was a cow. On second reference, the story referred to her as a “bovine” that could bend wire into a hook—another reason publications should have editors with at least a smidge of science knowledge.
David C: Wow … I can’t top that, and can’t really think of the pitch from hell. I get a lot of mediocre pitches but nothing dramatically, howlingly awful. There was the correction from hell, which resulted from a freelancer’s completely misunderstanding government data and confusing reported problems with actual injuries—a distinction the writer seemed incapable of grasping even after his sources explained to him that he’d gotten it wrong. This required me to write a whole new corrective article for the next week’s section. Needless to say, he has never written for us again on anything remotely involving interpretation of data.
David G: As far as worst pitch, that would have to be a freelancer who pitched me a couple of years ago about an AIDS study. It was a very controversial study, promoting (if I remember correctly) an unusual therapy. Fortunately, I passed the pitch by our AIDS expert, Jon Cohen, who did some digging and found out that the freelancer’s mother-in-law was an author on the paper. I confronted the writer about this, and he told me it wasn’t a conflict of interest because he could be objective about the study. As we were going back and forth I noticed something else troubling: The freelancer himself was mentioned in the paper’s acknowledgments. When I brought that up, I didn’t hear from him again.
Robin: I can’t remember an epic fail pitch, but almost every pitch I get is fundamentally flawed—overly topic-driven (not a story), not tailored to our publication(s), full of structural problems, too long, too short, too publicity-driven, or has factual errors in it. So I’m starting to rethink pitching and consider adopting these positions: a) pitching well is very hard to do, especially to multiple publications with their diverse audiences, tones and themes, and b) it is my job to work with writers who pitch to me to see if there is a good story in there for SciAm and to help guide them/us to it.
Meg: Ha, I defer to the son-in-law and the wire-bending cow. Most of my favorite horrid queries never get anywhere close to acceptance—they tend to involve writers going on for pages about themselves before mentioning a story idea. Once in a while I’ll get a pitch from someone who wants to profile a celebrity, but wants my assurance that we’ll take the story before even
approaching the celebrity to request an interview! As if the mere fact that this person had heard of the celebrity were enough to merit an assignment.
Adam: Worst pitch ever: I don’t remember. I mean, the really bad pitches are easy. You just politely say no, and you never speak of them again. And the really great pitches are easy: You say, “Writer, here is money to do the thing you say you can do for me. Please don’t suck.”
The really hard ones are the pitches that almost get there. A pitch with a great idea embedded in really terrible writing just kills me. What do you do? Take a flyer on the writer? Make an inevitably ham-fisted attempt to buy the idea but assign it to someone else? No good options there. A well-written pitch about something that isn’t right for Wired, or that we already did, often earns a “no, but please pitch again.” A great idea in a pitch that won’t get past our meeting process engages me—I work hard to develop pitches before my colleagues ever get a chance to evaluate them.
Meg: On a seasonal note, does anyone here respond favorably to Christmas cards from writers they’ve never hired? I’m on several of these lists and I think it makes the writer seem sort of lonely and bad at prioritizing. It’s not a blacklisting offense, but not something that makes me want to hire the person, either.
Christine: To answer Laura’s question, I don’t keep a blacklist. I can’t think of an epic-fail pitch, though there has been epic-fail behavior. We had a writer a few years ago who would pitch us a story then obsessively follow up. For one, he’d call each of us not long after emailing the pitch (we all sit in the same room, so each of our phones would ring in turn) and email us continually asking for an update. He became so annoying that eventually our managing editor had to remove him from our contributor roster. So I guess there is a limit to telling writers to be persistent!
I’ve never gotten a holiday card from a person we haven’t hired as a writer, though I think it’s nice to receive them from contributors. (That said, I think birth announcements, which we often get, are a bit weird!)
Laura: Christine’s anecdote about the writer who followed up obsessively immediately after sending in a pitch raises one question: How persistent is too persistent?
Laura: We occasionally have a writer pitch a story to one editor, get turned down, then send the identical pitch to a second editor, get turned down again, and pitch again. That is too persistent. And a good way to get blacklisted—it’s sneaky, and this business requires a lot of trust.
I usually reply to pitches within a week and don’t mind getting a polite nudge if a week has gone by. If it’s sooner than that, or not so polite, that’s too persistent. (Exceptions for breaking news or a story with travel arrangements that need to be made immediately.)
Robin: Being reminded every two weeks on a pitch to which I’ve yet to respond doesn’t bother me. More frequently than that is a bit annoying but sometimes it works too—at least for writers with whom I regularly work and who I know could probably sell a story elsewhere if I don’t take it. I know they have to make sales, and that if I tarry, I am holding back their income and they are entitled to pitch elsewhere after some indeterminate amount of time. Relationships matter, again.
David G: I have a current freelancer, who, about two months ago began pitching three to four stories a day (I’m not making this up). He’d send them in a batch, or—even more frustratingly—send them one after another as soon as I rejected the previous one. I could tell from his pitch letters alone that he wasn’t a good writer, and his machine gun pitching was irritating the heck out of me. But … he was finding some good stories. So I let him keep pitching, and occasionally I took some of them. But to cut down on the pitching, I told him he couldn’t pitch me more than one story a day. I still cringe a bit when I see his name in my inbox, but at least it’s not as incessant as it was before.
Meg: It’s a good idea to ask the editor when you should check back. Depending on the publication you’re pitching, the proper interval could be daily, weekly, monthly … I appreciate a polite pester in the time frame I’ve suggested—it shows me the writer is eager and can follow directions.
Christine: I’d say anything beyond an email a week (unless, as Laura says, there’s a time-sensitive element) is too much. Also, phone calls are not really preferred—it’s better to respond to the person after I’ve had a chance to run the idea past the other editors.
Adam: On persistence, I’m reminded of something Atlantic editor James Gibney said at a panel I was moderating: “There is a special place in hell for editors who don’t call people back, and I am going there.” I would say, if I haven’t responded to your email in five working days, you should email me again and ask what’s what. I will then make some kind of pathetic apology and dedicate some time to what you’re pitching.
David C: I don’t fault persistence, even to the border of rudeness; these writers are trying to make a living, whereas I have a relatively secure job. But as noted before, a writer who is clueless about our needs is unlikely to have the wherewithal to write a decent story for us.
Laura: Does bad pitch hygiene get in the way of your relationships with freelancers?
Laura: I mean relatively trivial things like someone not changing the subject line when they send a new pitch. Or answering a question but not appending the earlier email exchange, so I can’t tell what the original question was. Or copying and pasting a pitch to some other magazine without changing the name of the magazine. (I get pitches all the time for stories that would be “a perfect fit for National Geographic.”)
Adam: “Pitch hygiene” is a great term for something that I’ve never been able to name. Like, I know I probably should just let it go when writers think they’re being helpful when they embed a ton of links in a pitch (even though my build of Entourage unembeds them and leaves me with a document shot through with full-sized URLs, rendering it unreadable). I know I shouldn’t hold it against them when a pitch shows up in three different font sizes, five different fonts, and a lot of boldface. And I know that it’s an honest mistake when someone gets my name wrong, or the section I edit, or the name of my magazine.
But I’m going to come clean: This stuff makes me nuts. I am begging of you, dear writers: Make it easy for me to read your pitch. Let me introduce you to my friend, Plaintext. I think you would like each other.
Hey, that sending-pitches-to-multiple-editors thing is hilarious, huh? Six of our assigning editors sit within 30 feet of each other, with no walls between us. That double- (or triple- or quadruple-) teaming thing is something we notice, and are not kind to.
Robin: Thumbs up on pitch hygiene. It slows me down particularly when earlier exchanges regarding a pitch aren’t appended. Then I have to go find the old email, and guess what … I won’t. It’s close to a kiss of death to your pitch. I have so many stories in my brain buffer daily—it’s not that easy for me to remember your pitch/email from a few days ago without context.
Meg: Don’t title your email “From [Your Name Here].” It indicates that you may be an idiot—all email programs tell you who the emails are from. I agree that links aren’t great, but they’re better than scads of attachments. I’ve had people send clips as PDFs, one PDF file per page. If you can’t master this sort of thing, get your parents or children to help you.
David C: Thanks, all. I can’t really add to those good thoughts, except to say multiple pitches are especially annoying—especially three or four in the same e-mail, or the same week- or two-week period.
Christine: I’d say not really that much if the person has already proved herself/himself as a solid writer/reporter. I also tend to give people the benefit of the doubt at least once, probably because I’ve made similar mistakes myself as a freelancer!
Adam: I do agree that I don’t need to see a flurry of PDFs. When I’m ready to look at clips, I’ll ask for them. Odds are if I’m thinking of working with a writer I’m going to Google him or her myself and root around, anyway.
Laura: Do you have any advice for good writers (not the ones who misspell your name or pitch subjects rather than stories) about how they can make their pitches clearer, stronger, more efficient?
Robin: For writers with whom I have a relationship, sometimes they figure that means they can send short, two-sentence pitches all the time. I’d still prefer a longer pitch of three or so brief paragraphs. Some pitches go on for four or five lengthy paragraphs, or longer—that is too long for my purposes.
David G: Final advice:
— Always write “pitch” or “query” in the subject line, so I know it’s not a press release (and so I don’t automatically delete it).
— If you’re not sure what to pitch, write me and ask me what sorts of stories I’m looking for.
— Don’t pitch the big stories from Science and Nature. That’s what everyone else pitches. Find me the cool, under-the-radar stories that will become exclusives.
— Since you’re pitching me a web story, always mention if there’s multimedia. Sometimes that can put a mediocre story over the top.
Robin: Oh yes. I want to underscore these points of David’s:
— write “pitch” in subject line please
— don’t pitch from Science, Nature, PLoS or PNAS—I’ve got those covered
— if you’re not sure what to pitch, email me and I will send back a standard “what I seek” email that I have prepared for such purposes.
Meg: Advice for good writers: Trust your story. Don’t start your pitch with who you are or who we know in common. Grab me with a lead-in that shows what a fantastic idea you’ve got and what a fantastic writer you are. Then you can briefly state the qualifications that make you perfect for the assignment, including anyone I know who can vouch for you, if there’s anyone.
Don’t offer to provide photographs unless they are rare historical images. We’re a glossy magazine that works with top photographers, and unless you regularly shoot for National Geographic, your photos are not going to cut it. The offer makes you look like you don’t understand what we’re doing.
Be nice. Life is short and editors are human beings. I would much rather work harder to coach someone who is open-minded and pleasant than invite a known jerk into my life, no matter what their copy looks like.
Christine: In our writing guidelines, we ask freelancers to send us a potential headline and 135-character summary along with their pitch. This helps zero in on the news quickly, especially if their pitch is rambling or unclear.
Echoing my first comment in this thread, I can’t stress enough that the person shows some knowledge of the publication in their pitch. If they’re pitching a news story about a new species of Indonesian frog, mention that covered another species in the genus in March 2010 and this would be a great follow-up, etc.
Adam: Meg, I disagree with you about starting a pitch with a zinger of a lede. Even if it’s great, that’s two paragraphs I have to slog through before I know what the story is about—assuming it’s a magazine-y anecdotal thing. I’d much rather my first round with writers—whether I know them or not—be less formal to start, on the order of, “Hey, I have a story about TK; it’s important for these reasons … would you maybe be interested?” I may be wrong about this, but I also prefer that kind of informal exchange as a way to assess writing skills. It’s all an audition, right?
Advice for good pitches? Don’t write a pitch longer than the story you’d be assigned. Our front-of-book section stories rarely go longer than 300 words. Know what section you’re pitching, and maybe even what kind of item. Start essay? Prototype? Feature? Using the terminology of my magazine has the double benefit of making my life easier by saving me from having to think about something, and also proving that you know whom you’re pitching. Be clear and concise—there’ll be time for stylistic shenanigans later.
Guest contributor Laura Helmuth is a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine, where she handles most of the magazine’s science, nature, technology, and environmental coverage. She was previously a writer and editor at Science magazine, and she has written for Science News, National Wildlife, and California Wild. She is a member of The Open Notebook’s advisory board.
Photo at top by Shutterstock.