A major part of finding success and growth as a creator is being able to pitch your product to someone who’s willing to pay for it. This means not only having a good way to communicate what you do, but also knowing what information is the most relevant.
I’ve worked in journalism for ten years, and by now I’ve sent hundreds of pitch e-mails. Not all of them have been successful, but I think I’ve gotten to the point where I can craft a good one; this post is about the format that’s worked the best for me, and what I think will work for you.
Step 1: Gathering information
The first step to pitching someone is to know how to get ahold of them. Ideally, you’re looking for a name of an editor that handles the game or niche (esports, mobile, etc) you want to write about. The easiest way is to do some legwork: find an article that’s in the niche, find the writer who wrote it, then ask them on Twitter how to contact their editor.
Otherwise, look on the web site for an “about”, “staff”, or “masthead” section. These will usually have a list of e-mails or Twitter accounts for people to reach out to. I would avoid “tips” e-mails unless you’re especially desperate, as these are usually for people to give the publication topics to write about, rather than connecting new writers to editors.
From there, ask a question in a way that doesn’t make you seem like a robot while not giving your idea away:
@SampleEditor Hey, I was hoping to pitch an idea for [Publication]! Can I get an e-mail to send you something?
It can really be simple as that. Do not pitch a piece in a tweet (as, well, other people can steal it if they see it) and do not make a public reply (that is, to .@username tag) to the editor.
The idea is to ask for a way in without putting unnecessary public pressure on the editor to accept it, because well, we hate feeling obligated to work with people when the idea isn’t that great.
Before you pitch, also read the site you’re pitching to, and be familiar with the approximate word length of pieces like the one you want to write. Be aware of the other elements (pictures, videos, embedded tweets) that you might be able to include with it. Having all these elements in mind before you write your pitch is really important.
Step 2: Gathering mindset
Mindset is important because many editors have a simple policy: if you waste their time, you’re showing you aren’t doing initial research and expecting them to hold their hand. They don’t want this to continue during the actual work process, so it’s likely they’re going to not accept your pitch, even if the idea is good.
So, before you pitch, make sure you empathize with the editor you’re pitching, and remember things like the list below:
- How much work is the editor going to have to do in order to manage my piece? How much extra resources is the company going to have to put in in order to get value out of my product?
- How familiar will be editor be with my subject? Is it too niche that no one will be interested?
- Will my editor need to co-ordinate anything on my behalf (photographers, licenses, etc). Will that cost any money?
- Will the editor and publication need to risk reputation to publish a piece if it’s controversial?
- What can I bring to the table in terms of guaranteed audience (through social media) and expertise?
- How well do I know this editor personally?
Essentially, when I get a pitch, I want to get a story that will improve or make money for my publication (preferably both). I want a writer that is easy to work with and receptive to edits, as well as willing to learn things about the style of the publication that they might not know. I am overworked and underpaid, and I likely have dozens of other plates spinning in the background.
Dealing with a freelancer should not be the most stressful part of my day, especially if our site’s budget for work could be better spent investing in our own personalities and staff.
So, with that in mind, it is up to you, the freelancer, to present the piece as a no-brainer to accept. This means doing the legwork and making sure that as many parts of it are arranged beforehand. Doing your own travel? Golden. Set up your own press pass beforehand? One less thing to worry about. Sourcing your own photos? Amazing.
Each one of these means less work for the editor, and will increase your bargaining power when it comes to price; if the publication doesn’t need to send a photographer to an event because you can take your own photos, it means more money for you.
Step 3: Writing the thing
The first thing I suggest when writing pitches is to have the subject line be “PITCH: [insert subject line here]”. It helps separate your e-mail from others in the inbox and makes it evident what you want out of the editor. Do not BCC or CC multiple sites in one e-mail; it’s in really bad taste.
Update 1/12/2018: I’ve been informed by a larger site’s editor that marketers have ruined the “PITCH:” format, so your mileage may vary. Try to vary it up while making it clear it’s a pitch.
When I write a pitch, I like to follow a structure that involves three elements:
- The flavor
- The pitch
- The boring details
The flavor usually is the hook that gets the editor interested in the pitch. It’s the “elevator pitch” people talk about, where you may only have a sentence or two to explain what makes your subject special. And example would be:
“I’ve been happy that [publication] has been expanding its coverage into esports; I noticed your articles on Dota 2 around when the International was in session.
I’ve mostly been working in esports in League of Legends, which is huge in its own right. However, what got me into Dota 2 (and what’s been huge for Counter Strike: Global Offensive) is the ability to bet in-game items on competitive matches. This has been spearheaded by two “Lounge” sites: CSGOLounge and Dota2Lounge. Both integrate with Steam and allow you to put up your inventory to win more.”
This section is 1-2 paragraphs at the most, and should not overload the reader with details; the idea is to get people interested and wanting to read how you’re going to pull the project off.
The pitch is the actual meat of the e-mail, and should have the details about the piece itself and how you’re going to do it. It’ll read something like this:
I would like to write an article for [publication] about the betting community, talking to fans, power players, developers of the sites and commentators. As betting has become a part of the games’ ecosystem (with Twitch chat lamenting “My rares!” when they lose, and the meme referenced by commentators), it would be interesting to see how a third-party service influences peoples’ decisions to watch games that they otherwise wouldn’t.
I would also attempt to explore the potential for this system to be exploited, including some recent allegations of match throwing for expensive items bet against their own teams.
I believe this article would be a perfect fit for your [section] section, in the vein of [previous story].”
This section clearly spells out what you want to do for the publication. There is nothing worse than reading a pitch and thinking “okay, what do you want me to do with this?”; it is not the editor’s job to fill in your blanks and give you a job. They have staff writers for that.
Remember, it is about minimizing the amount of work the editor has to do.
Finally, the boring details lets you get a jump on a lot of tedious bureaucratic stuff that the editor doesn’t want to have a back-and-forth for for another couple e-mails. It shows that you’ve done the previous research work and that you don’t want to waste his/her time.
“I’ve been in contact with the owners of Dota2Lounge, and have been able to secure a time for an interview next week. I would be able to have this story to you by the end of the month, and estimate it would run about 1000 words; as a fairly evergreen story, it would be able to be published around your schedule.”
Other details (for a different story), would read like this:
“I have secured my own press pass for [event X] ahead of time, and have been in contact with event staff to get photographer access on stage. I would be able to provide a small gallery of photos with my story that would enhance the piece. I would need a response by [date] in order to finalize my involvement/travel.”
If you don’t have these kind of things figured out beforehand, don’t stress, but don’t bring it up right away: a pitch is about accentuating the positives, and hiding the negatives (for now). Eventually you’re going to have to bring up that you don’t have a press pass, or would need travel expenses: however, you want to make sure you have interest in your product, first.
End the pitch with a brief summary of who you are, why you’re worth listening to, and some previous work that might be similar to what you’re pitching. This isn’t a listing of your resume, but something brief that gives an idea of whether you’re a waste of time or not, how committed you are, and what your writing style might be like.
“My name is Matt Demers, and I’ve been writing about esports for three years. I’ve previously published work for theScore eSports, Riot Games and Azubu. I’ve previously attended the League of Legends Season 3 Championship, The International 2016 and EVO 2014 as a member of the press. You can find more on my Twitter, or personal blog.”
We put this at the end because it allows you to ease them into the idea of working with you based on the strength of your pitch. Then, if they’re interested in the idea, they can find out more about you.
Keep in mind that you can send the same pitch to multiple publications; however, tailoring each pitch for the same story to each publication is worth it, as it shows people you’re paying attention.
Step 4 (Optional): Follow-up
Keep in mind that editors usually have a lot of workload, and if they pay, getting something set up through appropriate HR channels (especially with bigger publications) can take time. They may not get back to you immediately — even if they want to work with you — because they don’t have the process set up and don’t want to confirm anything.
Depending on the timeliness of your story, you may want to follow-up after a week; if it’s something like “I want to recap why this game that was just played was special”, you can assume you’ll receive a more prompt reply, if at all. If you don’t get a response to a follow-up, you can assume they’re declining, and move on.
The weird thing about this is nuance based on how you feel the editor will respond. If I’ve talked with them on Twitter when I’ve asked them how to pitch, I can toss them a “Just sent you a pitch!” tweet once, so they know they’re expecting something. However, this may not apply in all cases.
Again, do not publicly tweet about your pitches to pressure editors. Do not publicly tweet about your ideas or stories in progress until they’ve been published. Plans change. Stories get killed. Pitches die. You just kind of look silly if people expect something that isn’t coming.
Other assorted do’s and don’ts:
- Be honest about your needs. This is better than a surprise later.
- Be honest about the risks of the story. This is better than surprises later that may get us sued.
- Be willing to be flexible on your ideas and how they’re shaped. You may have only 50% of your story be interesting.
- Make sure your forward-facing accounts (social media, portfolio) are good. A bad impression usually means less chances of being accepted.
- Meet your deadlines.
- Be as low-maintenance as possible.
- Spam e-mails for follow-ups. This is a quick way to not get ignored.
- Spam messaging on personal accounts (Facebook, DMs, etc) about work. Work-life separation is a thing, and this will annoy editors quickly.
- Tweet about getting your story published.
- Act as if you’re an employee if your pitch is accepted. You are not. You’re a freelancer. You do the work, you get paid, and that’s the contract.
- Make decisions or promises to others on behalf of your publication. You don’t have the authority to do that.
I hope this helps! Please tweet at me if this post helped you, or you’re an editor or want anything added.
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