I got my first rejection letter as a freelance writer when I was 19 years old.
I remember tearing open the letter from Random House expecting a contract of some kind and instead staring at a scrap of paper addresses to ‘Dear Author’. The publisher didn’t even want to spend money on a full sheet of paper on me. I was crushed and determined that if the largest publication in the stratosphere didn’t want me, then I was worthless.
Clueless would have been a better assessment.
Over the years, I got over myself. I nursed my bruised ego and got a clue about how publishing really works, whether it’s for magazines, websites, blogs, books, and beyond. It’s all really the same process.
The key to a successful freelance career is in the pitch. But the art of pitching is more than just asking for an assignment, it’s about giving the client exactly what they need so they can’t say no.
Swallow your pride and crush your ego by performing deep research.
Your pitch is not about you and what the company can do for you. Always approach a client with the understanding that the pitch is all about what you can do for them.
Spend time researching the company’s brand, the staff, the advertisers, and the readership to understand exactly how the editor works.
Study their direct competition for inspiration on new ideas and how to help the publication you want to pitch. Impress the editor with your deep understanding of what the publication needs from you as a writer.
Become fluent with the writer’s guidelines.
Look for writer’s guidelines or study the content the editors wrote for the publication themselves.
If you’ve never seen a guest contributor writing for the Entertainment section, then chances are it’s only done in-house. Investigate the easiest and fastest way to break into a publication.
Ask for writer’s guidelines if there are none available online, and simultaneously warm-up the editor for your correspondence. Keep it light and to the point. Don’t lay out your entire blueprint for how you will win them over with your cunning research and pitching prowess. Editors are busy and read through mounds of desperate writer emails every day. Don’t be one of them.
Outline your article.
You don’t necessarily need to craft your entire article before pitching a publication. In many cases, it’s to your benefit if you wait. This way you can angle the story to various publications you’re pitching. But you do need a specific outline, or your lack of confidence in what your piece is about will show through.
Make notes in your outline to how specific areas will benefit the publication you’re pitching and highlight those in your pitch.
Write your pitch like a pro.
Address your pitch to a real, live person. Do not use ‘Dear Sir or Madame’. When in doubt of the gender of the person you’re addressing, just use the letter M. For example, an editor with the name Pat Ambry can be addressed: Dear M. Ambry.
Craft a compelling and lucid pitch. You need a captivating hook to draw an editor into your world. Keep it informative, light, entertaining and under 5 paragraphs. If you ramble too long, you’ll lose the editor before you get to the juicy parts.
Tell the editor where the piece should appear. Is it for a recurring sidebar in the front of the magazine? Is it a feature for the dining column? Don’t pitch blindly and expect them to figure it out – if they disagree with your suggestion, they will tell you.
Include like-minded stories and articles. Did the publication run a similar piece a few months ago and yours will complement it as a follow-up? Show the editors you’ve done your homework.
Pretend you’re writing the pitch to a friendly acquaintance you don’t know too well. You would speak to them like a real person, not in a stiff and dry manner. Without personality, the editor will not care about who you are or what you can offer.
Proofread your pitch at least 3 times over a week-long period. If you dash it off the moment after you write it, the probability for typos and inconsistencies is extremely high. You rarely have more than one shot to make an impression on an editor, so make the first correspondence count.
Ask a friend or writing colleague to look over the pitch for advice and to ensure everything is clear.
Follow up without being annoying.
Editors need follow-up; it’s not their job to get everything off of their plate to devote their attention to you.
If you don’t hear anything back in 2 weeks, follow-up with a short, friendly email and ask about the status.
Dealing with rejection
If your piece is rejected, look for clues. Did the editor say the piece was fantastic but they’re about to run something similar? Take that as a future yes and pitch again promptly.
Did the editor indicate it’s a bad fit for their publication? Accept that you missed the mark on your research and understanding of the publication and try again.
Move on and don’t look back. If you get a rejection or no response at all, just move on. You have a solid pitch to take to their competing publications.
Rejection is your job. If you want to be a writer, then rejection is part of the paycheck. Embrace it now, and use it as a stepping stone to success instead of wallowing in despair where your bruised ego is the only one who will listen.
Practice the art of the pitch
Pitching is like any other skill that you develop over time with persistence, experimentation, and discipline. If you can train for a marathon, learn to knit, study a new language, or take a cooking class then you can learn to pitch. It’s not a secret formula, it’s about preparation, focus and clarity with the confidence to push forward.