a short n’ sweet guide to pitching in the digital/social age

As digital and social media intertwine, and there’s a lot of potential for confusion and miscommunication, I figured, as the current managing editor for a digital music magazine, it might be helpful to freelance writers both of the older generations (it me, old dude) and the younger to provide a general guide for pitching etiquette. Please note: every publication has its individual processes, bureaucracy, and quirks! But these are general guidelines that my team, and many of the editors we know, find useful.

DO: Pitch to work addresses, not social media or personal addresses. If social media is your connection to an editor, either look for a public-facing work email address to send your pitch to or DM the editor to ask what their email address is. Following editors and fellow writers on social media is a good way to network, but it is not a good way to pitch.

There are some writers I am closer with who I work with in DMs because we have established friendships and talk about all kinds of things together all the time, and work just naturally comes up too. I am personally looser about guidelines there (other editors may be different in their personal preferences), but I really prefer work communication to stay in work channels and social communication to stay in social channels. Not only is it good etiquette, it’s also good organization! I always get scared trying to manage several different accounts and dislike digging through message history to look for pitches and deadlines. When in doubt, if you have a personal relationship, just ask the person you’re working with.

DO: Follow up via those work channels if you don’t hear a response within a reasonable time (“reasonable,” obviously, varies on the turnaround time for the pitch and its time-sensitive nature). Keep in mind that editors are likely swimming in pitches and that taking and assigning pitches is not the only thing we do. Sometimes things get lost, though I know we all try for that not to happen! A friendly reminder is a-ok.

DON’T: Follow up through another channel other than the one you pitched in. Don’t tag the editor publicly to make assumptions about why your pitch hasn’t received a response, especially if they have already reached out to you privately. There are many, many reasons why a pitch doesn’t land or you haven’t received a response. Some of those often are:

  • coverage is already assigned for that topic or it was already recently covered
  • there was not enough of an angle presented in your pitch to make a compelling case for coverage (more on the craft of the pitch below)
  • article scope is not in line with the publication’s voice or vision (DO: study the publication closely to see what kinds of pieces they’re publishing over a period of time before you pitch!)
  • your writing and/or ideas need refinement
  • pitch is not timely (timeliness obviously varies between publication and department!)

Due to the aforementioned volume of pitches every editor receives, it’s rare to get a rejection response unless you follow up. That sucks, but we genuinely do not have the time to respond to each and every pitch we receive. Most of the time, if you don’t hear back, it means the pitch didn’t land, but again: follow up if you would like clarification. If your pitch didn’t land: that’s ok! Don’t get discouraged! I don’t have a ton of time, but I try to make time for writers who want to know what they can do better or what we’re looking for specifically, and I know a lot of other editors who do that too.

DON’T: take one pitch not landing as a sign that you should never pitch again, and don’t take it as a personal slight, though I know that’s hard to do. As you can see above, there are so many different reasons why pitches don’t land, and every successful writer you see has been rejected tons of times. Keep working on your craft, and keep pitching! You never know when you’ll hit exactly what an editor is looking for. The more you study the publication, as above, the better your pitches will be, too.

DO: Keep it succinct but thorough. A pitch should be, ideally, a short paragraph: a sentence each on what you want to cover, what angle you’ll use to cover it, why it’s interesting, and, if you are pitching an editor you’ve never worked with before, who you are. One sentence or a link is too brief; a several-paragraph essay is too much. Lean heavier on the angle than the topic! We don’t need you to tell us about the topic, we need you to tell us how you, specifically, will cover it.

DO: be as specific and granular as possible. “I want to interview bands putting out new music,” for example, is a bad pitch. Who do you want to interview? Why? What will you talk to them about? What makes you the person to write about that specific band?

DO: start your email subject line with PITCH:, so it’ll stand out in our crowded inboxes.

DON’T: try to kitsch up your pitch presentation with jokes, graphics, funky formatting, etc. Someone may have told you along the way this will help your pitch stand out, but it’s another layer we have to wade through on our way to your ideas, and, frankly, it comes off unprofessional at best. Stick to clean and clear. It tells us you know what you’re doing and you know how to do it.

DON’T: be afraid to ask for specs once your pitch lands! Ask about deadline, payment, any necessary contractual paperwork, word count, and preferred filing process, if the editor doesn’t address those directly in their first assignment email. Many publications have a how-to packet they’ll be happy to send you. (We do!)

I’ve been asked a bit about specific tips for writers who are just starting out who don’t have significant bylines yet, so here are a couple of those. I personally love bringing in writers who aren’t part of the established system yet; it means a lot to me. Often we over-rely on writers we know already simply because we know they’ll turn in good copy that won’t have to be really heavily edited, just because of time constraints. Here are a couple of personal tips on getting past that hurdle.

  • Have writing samples available, even if it’s on a self-publishing platform like this. We want to see what you can do!
  • Don’t offer pre-published content. Most publications want your original work; if they’re looking for a pre-published piece, they’ll ask you specifically about that piece and republishing rights.
  • If you are a new writer, include a few more sentences about your perspective, experience and ideas in lieu of a list of bylines. What makes you the right person to cover what you’re pitching? What can you bring to the table? Tell us!
  • I can’t stress this enough: there will be a lot of rejection along the way. Every single one of us has experienced it. You will also get redlined to shit at some point. None of this is a personal slight. Rejection is simply part of our world — I’m a well-established writer with big bylines and I still send pitches that don’t land all the time, sometimes to editors who are my dear friends! And getting heavily edited has helped me refine my craft and voice like nothing else could. Writers have notorious ego problems — of course, how could we have the hubris to think people want to read what we have to say otherwise — but publishing is actually a really collaborative process, and learning to really work together with your editors and be able to take rejection without getting bogged down is essential. If you want this, don’t throw a temper tantrum, and don't give up.

If you have any other general pitching etiquette questions, leave a comment below! I’ll expand this document as questions arise that I can answer.

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