I remember vividly the Tuesday afternoon in April 2019 when I received an email from Karen Kaplan, a senior editor of Nature Careers. She asked if I was available to chat about possible stories for the section, which covers the scientific workforce around the world. I was excited that an editor had reached out to me but also a little worried about how the conversation would go, as I had never spoken to an editor in this context before.
About four months earlier, I had started working as a freelance science writer. I was fascinated by the work of Amy Maxmen, a senior reporter at Nature, who—among other things—has covered Ebola in Liberia and genetically engineered cassava in Nigeria, where I’m based. I introduced myself to her by email, and soon we were messaging back and forth. I would email her my story ideas, asking about which editors and publications to pitch. Kaplan’s email was a confirmation that Maxmen had passed along my name to editors at Nature.
Kaplan and I talked over the phone, but our conversation wasn’t great. I was nervous to talk to an editor for the first time and struggled to pitch my story idea convincingly.
I’m not the only reporter to find it difficult to approach an editor for the first time. To start with, it can be hard to even find the contact details of an editor. And when you do have them, making that first approach can be intimidating, especially for writers who lack experience.
Although there is no standard way of introducing yourself to editors, most science writers make first contact by email, including at least a preliminary story idea, if not a full pitch. So, writing a persuasive, compelling email is key to having a successful first-time contact with an editor. Experience can be helpful, but don’t allow your lack of a track record to prevent you from taking that first step to getting a commission. It could be the start of a lasting relationship with an editor.
Finding the Right Editor
Once you’ve identified the publication you want to pitch, the next thing to do is find the right editor to approach. It might sound obvious, but it is vital to find the most suitable editor for what you want to pitch, whether that’s the news editor, features or commissioning editor, or a section or topic-specific editor. This saves time and reduces the chance that your email could go to the wrong person and languish, ignored, in their inbox.
Victoria Jaggard, executive science editor at National Geographic, recognizes writers’ struggles in finding the right editor to approach. “It could be hard to pin down who’s the right editor to pitch for a particular topic or story,” says Jaggard. The situation is complicated by the fact that the title “editor” can mean a lot of different things in a publication, depending on which function the person performs.
A good first step is to scroll through the publication’s website to find the masthead—a list of staffers, including reporters and editors. You might find this at the bottom of the home page or in a section called “About,” “Team,” or something similar. Mastheads usually include editors’ names and job positions and often their email address or other contact details.
You can also ask other writers you know for hints about which editors to contact at publications they’ve written for. Kirkland, Washington-based freelance science writer Roberta Kwok used this method when she was starting out as a freelancer in 2007. She wanted to pitch a story to Science News for Kids (now Science News for Students) but wasn’t sure whether to send the pitch to a specific editor or the publication’s generic email address. So, Kwok asked another science writer whom she’s acquainted with for advice. “The science writer confirmed that I should email that person rather than the generic editorial address,” Kwok says. “It really helped that I emailed a specific editor in the publication.”
While no single directory of editors exists, there is information out there. Journalist Robin Lloyd maintains this list of science outlets that take freelance work, which includes information about editors to contact and in some cases their contact details.
If other methods fail, you can search the publication name on Google, Twitter, or LinkedIn to try and find the name of the best editor to contact. Then, you can search their personal social media accounts to try and find an email address.
When possible, it is best to find actual contact information of editors. The Open Notebook’s Science Journalism Master Class on pitching recommends that reporters address pitches to “an actual editor” and advises that if you are unsure which editor to contact, take your best guess with the hope that the person will forward the email to the appropriate colleague.
Sometimes, you may not be able to find specific names or contact details of editors. In these situations, you might be able to find an online pitch form on the publication’s site or else a generic email address. For example, National Geographic has an online pitch guide, which provides information on how to write a pitch for the publication as well as a form to automatically direct pitches to a specific desk or section. Undark also has an online pitch form, alongside submission guidelines for each type of story it publishes. These guidelines include the day and time of the team’s weekly pitch meeting, allowing reporters to factor this into the decision of when to submit story ideas.
However, you cannot be sure that all online forms or generic email addresses are checked regularly. So, these are probably the last resort for contacting most publications.
Making a Great First Impression
After you have found the editor you want to contact, the next thing to do is reach out. Most freelancers contact editors with a pitch via email. Although sending an email is simple, contacting an editor that you have never met before can make you feel awkward or unsure. What should you put in the subject line of your email? What, and how much detail, should you go into in the body? It can be easy to overthink the particulars and find yourself paralyzed by doubt.
A simple subject line like “Contact from a freelance science writer” can do the job. If you’re pitching a specific story idea, put “Freelancer pitch” in the subject line, to help distinguish your message from the countless PR emails that editors receive every day. The body of your email should be succinct and direct. “Some of the emails that I really liked as an editor were the ones that were straightforward and personal,” says Yasmin Tayag, a science editor and writer based in New York and former lead editor of Medium Coronavirus Blog. “They would open with something like, ‘Hi, my name is [name]. I’m a writer based in [location]. I’d love to write for you, and this is the topic I’d like to write about, but I would also like to learn what stories you’re looking for so that I can tailor my pitches to you,’” says Tayag. “That’s a great approach because it seems the writer is interested in the work that I’m doing as an editor.”
Tayag says it’s easier for her to remember writers who tell her what areas they’re interested in covering. “If I need to commission a story about climate change, I could remember the writer who said they’re interested in climate change—that makes my life easier!”
Being engaged with what the editor cares about is important and should form part of your wider research on the publication itself, says Verah Okeyo, a Nairobi-based freelance science journalist and former global health editor at Kenya’s Daily Nation. “Do your research on the publication,” she says. “It will tell you the tone of the paper, the issues they like covering, and the [audience] they serve.” You must also make sure that the publication hasn’t covered your story idea before. This is especially important for early-career writers who may not be as aware of what’s been covered already, compared with journalists who have worked in science journalism for a long time.
Pay attention to details when emailing. If Okeyo receives a pitch and sees grammatical or spelling errors in the first paragraph, she says, she will stop reading. Those mistakes are a sign to her that she might need to do a lot of editing on the piece and a potential marker of the writer’s sloppiness. “A first impression matters,” she says. “Read through your [email] again and again before you hit the send button.”
Selling Yourself—and Your Idea
When contacting an editor for the first time, it is important to present yourself in the best possible way. When introducing himself, Bryn Nelson, a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor, makes sure he has a couple of ideas that he hopes the editor will like and that match the type of stories they’ve been doing. “I think that’s going to be the expectation of an editor,” Nelson says. When he’s weighing whether to propose an idea to an editor, he considers questions such as: Is this story idea suitable for the publication’s audience? Does it fit the publication’s style and mission? Understanding a publication’s mission and audience is a crucial step to consider before approaching an editor.
The point of initiating a conversation with an editor is to lead to an exchange about a future story, Tayag says. “So, it always helps for you to have some ideas ready or percolating in your head.” But, she notes, story ideas don’t have to be fully fleshed out. It’s fine to begin by inquiring whether an editor might be interested in a story on a topic you’re exploring. If you’re sending a pre-pitch rather than a full pitch, just be sure to identify it as such.
Pitching can be a nerve-racking process for anyone. For newcomers, it can be especially daunting. But, says Pakistani freelance journalist Anmol Irfan, don’t fret over your inexperience. “Many editors are not looking for someone with a lot of experience,” she says. “It’s about how good your pitch is.”
Colin Schultz, news editor at Hakai Magazine, agrees. He is receptive to working with new writers even if they don’t have a track record of past stories. Although freelancers should definitely include links to some of their past work, if they have some, when approaching editors, he notes that looking at writing samples, or “clips,” isn’t necessarily the best way to gauge whether a writer will do a good job, because published stories may heavily reflect an editor’s hand. The writer’s pitch, meanwhile, is all them.
“If they did a good job putting together their pitch, that suggests they’d do a good job putting together the story,” Schultz says. “For news stories, it really comes down to the strength of the story and the angle, which are things that should come across in the pitch.” When assessing a pitch for a feature, he says, editors are looking for a lot of specific things from the writer—colorful and vivid language, solid characters, and strong attention to detail.
Connecting and Building Relationships
Engaging constructively with editors on social platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn can also be useful in building a network and even getting commissioned. Irfan says she regularly follows editors on Twitter to see what topics they’re discussing. This gives her clues to the type of stories they might be interested in. Sometimes the reverse happens, and editors approach writers on social media. One editor came across a Twitter thread Irfan had written about Pakistani Muslim women who wanted tattoos (which is forbidden by Islam). The editor commissioned a story on the strength of that thread.
Abigail Beall, a features editor at New Scientist, uses social media to make herself easily approachable to writers. When she resumed her job at New Scientist in July, she posted a tweet inviting freelancers to send her direct messages via Twitter. “I want to build relationships with [freelance] writers and help make the process easier for them to get a commission,” Beall says. “I know that I’m in a position of privilege and understand freelance writers’ struggles.”
Building writer-editor relationships should be a two-way street, says Richard Fisher, a senior editor at BBC Future. “I believe that editors need to work as hard as writers to find each other,” he says. Many editors sit back and wait for writers to reach out to them, says Fisher. One reason for that is a surplus of freelancers. “If you just lean back, you only get what’s pitched to you. Whereas if you lean forward and seek out good writers, you’ll get better copy for your publication,” Fisher says. “An editor is only as good as their writers.”
Jaggard encourages editors to reach out to writers, too. “I’ve found a lot of great new writers because they pitched me something irresistible, but I’ve also had plenty of instances when I have a story that needs doing and no one in my regular rotation is available or the right fit,” she says. In those cases, she asked other editors for recommendations, searched freelance databases like those maintained by the National Association of Science Writers and Writers of Color, and reached out cold to writers whose work she admires, to see if they were interested.
During the most recent devastating COVID-19 surge in India, Jaggard asked her editors to be proactive about reaching out to writers in India through organizations they were members of. “Our senior health editor, Bijal Trivedi, is a member of the South Asian Journalists Association, and she used her connections to find some fabulous writers,” Jaggard says. “Several of them are now in our regular rotation for public health coverage.”
Asking for help, being proactive, and taking those steps to pitch for the first time will get you in front of many editors who are keen to work with you. Though I was disappointed with myself after my awkward experience talking with Kaplan at Nature for the first time, I didn’t let that first encounter hold me back. I emailed her several days later, detailing my pitch. She commissioned me. Since then, I’ve done many stories for Nature Careers and have a good relationship with Kaplan.
As my experience showed me, if you fail the first time you meet an editor, it’s not the end. Try to learn and grow from every encounter you have and every pitch you write. Just don’t give up.
Abdullahi Tsanni is a science writer based in Abuja, Nigeria, and is currently a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He has reported on science, health, agriculture, and biotechnology issues in Nigeria for publications including Nature, The British Medical Journal (BMJ), Nigeria Health Watch, and African Newspage, among others. He works as a volunteer with Science Communication Hub Nigeria and African Science Literacy Network, and has a degree in biochemistry. Follow him on Twitter @abdultsanni.