1. If I were Leslie Knope, I would constantly refer to Amy Gray as a generous, smart and genius-level ginger tabby cat. Her bylines are many, her game is strong, and she has kindly agreed to share some of her past successful pitches, with commentary. (And basically tips on everything else, too.) She has given us not one, not two, not three, but SIX WHOLE PITCHES to look at with wonder. We thank you, Amy. LAP IT UP, ALL! And follow Amy on Twitter.

    I am a full time freelance writer. My time is spent either pitching or thinking about pitches. I aim for 3 to 5 articles per week, which can mean up to 7 pitches or more per week.

    Understanding Editors

    Most articles are an attempt to answer a question the writer is tumbling over in their head. The trick is to convince editors your question is an interesting one.

    First up, you’re not just submitting work from a remote place to an organisation. You’re pitching to a person. You should be trying to develop a relationship with editors. Get to know them and how they work.

    The more you write, the more your pitches will vary based on your relationship with the editor. You get to know them better and – through that constant agitation of acceptance and rejection – you learn what gets them interested, how they respond and how they work. Plus, they get to know you and will start contacting you with specific commissions.

    Central to this is understanding that most editors are completely overworked and haven’t got time to hold anyone’s hands. Your job isn’t just to write, your job is to somehow make an editor’s job easier: your pitch needs to arrive in a format that suits them, at a time that suits them, and gives them the information they need to make a decision for an audience you had better understand.

    Understand their schedules – when do they have their daily/weekly meeting to discuss stories? Get your pitches a minimum of two hours before (more applicable for print news op-ed).

    Understand what they want – not only by reading their publications but, if possible, meeting or talking with them and finding out their interests. This is where you discover their pet interests and preferred working style, information that helps refine your pitch. Can’t talk or meet with them? Read their social media for clues.

    Understand what you want to say – what is the topic and how will you answer it? Unless you have at least 3 months of regular writing with them under your belt, there should be no surprises between pitch and submitted piece. Tell them the issue, your argument and if there are particular elements you’re going to include.

    The easier you make an editor’s life, the more likely you are to get published.

    How I pitch

    I have a few different ways of pitching because I’m generally chaotic or incredibly flexible, depending on who you ask. 

    Some pitches aren’t time sensitive – they need time to percolate but you don’t want to lose them. I have a framed picture at my desk covered with Post-it notes. They’re ideas that occur to me at home or that I’ve transcribed from fevered bashing on my phone while out. Each note is a pitch waiting to happen and either just features a question or one word to cover the topic. It all looks a bit like SEO for serial killers, to be honest, but it reminds me of ideas I need to work on.

    Each idea will be honed as pitches to different editors and can take place via email but also via Twitter, Facebook, text message or phone calls. Very rarely do they take place in person because I’m working this whole hikikomori thing right now and don’t do face-to-face (and neither does anyone else). 

    Feature writing pitches

    My favourite thing (and for most editors) is to give them options. That means 4 pitches at once. Though this only generally works with feature articles, with this technique you’re generally assured of getting at least one commission.

    This works really well for some eds – I used to write lifestyle features and would send the ed 4 pitches on a Thursday morning for Tuesday delivery. This helped her because it fed into her work schedule and helped plan content for the week ahead. I only discovered this because a) she already responded to the four-at-a-time approach and b) I asked her how to best pitch to her and fit into her schedule.

    Pitch example 1 (email)

    Hello ma’am,

    Here are some pitches for the day

    Why do men send crotch shots? - with Anthony Weiner back in the spotlight for sending more crotch shots, it has to be asked: just WHY do men send shots of their junk to women? I’m hopeful of getting interviews with at least two men but they may have to be under assumed names. Snappy, fun piece to explain the motivations and reactions to that most ubiquitous of shots.

    In defence of vices - with sitting declared the new smoking and the old smoking about to face another tax hike, we’re fast running out of vices to enjoy. Can there be a ‘good’ vice? What vices are considered ok and are we being warned away from too many of life’s pleasures?

    Grown up toys
    - Sales of vibrators are apparently going through the roof these days, with an ever increasing array of styles and prices. I’ll interview a popular sex toy blogger (man, there really is a blog for everything these days) about the changing market, why they are so popular and their curious history.

    Turning off -We have smart phones and enough gadgets to ensure we’re always contactable or able to broadcast and do five things at once. But are we getting more done or is productivity at an all time low?

    Let me know your thoughts :)

    Result? Three out of four picked up.

    I would try to pitch ahead of the cycle, finding emerging stories with a slower burn. Find a dominant practice? Pitch against it. Scan social media, or even Google searches, for emerging trends.

    Also, because I researched the editor’s previous articles, I knew she was interested in certain topics that sometimes resulted in longer word counts, which meant extra money.

    There’s a certain format to features pitching – demonstrate the trend, introduce the argument and list any article elements.

    Pitch example 2 (Facebook message)

    Me:  HI DO YOU HAVE SOMEONE TO REVIEW GODZILLA BECAUSE I SAW IT AND HAVE KAIJUFEELINGS AND CAN TURN IN BEFORE 8AM

    Editor: actually we have not got anyone! please!

    Me: HI THIS MAKES ME HAPPY THANK YOU

    Editor: HAVE FUN IN THAT WORD DOCUMENT! PLEASE DON’T SUBMIT ALL CAPS!

    Result: picked up. The above is a fairly different way to pitch but it should be noted I know that editor relatively well, have written for her before and the parameters of the pitch were simple – it wasn’t an opinion piece, it was a review. You know what you’re getting with a review, the format explains it all. This ed in particular will push me for clarity if it’s an opinion piece with an angle I need to explain. And, look, I just really fucking love Godzilla. 

    Pitch example 3 (email)

    Subject: TIME SENSITIVE: Student Protest
    Wrote this - you may like it, you may not. Thought to send to you anyway. Certain to provoke debate. Feel free to edit anyway you see fit without me reviewing. It’s all good.

    Am tussling with [another] piece but will finish soon.

    Result: picked up with some edits required. The “TIME SENSITIVE” was added to the subject line because I know the editor scans her email and might not necessarily read all, also it was the day she doesn’t work in the office so it can be a little bit harder to get in contact.

    The message reads brusquely, doesn’t it? I actually feel a little embarrassed by this and will go apologise to the ed. Thankfully, we have known each other very well for many years and we’re generally attuned to each other’s “Busy. Dropping words. Still like you. KTHXB” voice.

    Despite my brusqueness (and that bizarre “certain to provoke debate” – Jesus, what was that about? My busy voice sounds like Bob Ellis) the above spec delivery features no pitch because the subject line tells her exactly what to expect with the assumption I haven’t ballsed up the format we try to stick to.  There’s also a reference to the production method the Ed and her deputies use.

    Pitch example 4 (text message)

    Ed: Did you send me your pitches?

    Me: I would really like to recount the medieval St Vitus’ dance as metaphor for modern day hysteria. Does that sound ok? Will skew to local phenomena. Includes media, politics and daily life as contaminants.

    Ed: yes, sounds very interesting. Go for it.

    Result: I ended up turning in a piece that broke my rule of no surprises because in the course of more research I discovered St Vitus’ Dance was a far better metaphor for the impact of austerity measures. I explained this when turning in my piece and the editor accepted the reasoning. If it makes for a better piece, you have some leeway – not much, not often, but some – and it is dependent on the strength and duration of your relationship with the editor.

    News Op-Ed

    With news op-ed you need to be quick, you need to be play to the research you already know and you need to come up with a different angle to everyone else.

    There’s far less opportunity to break rules when it comes to news op-ed. These people are busy working to a 24-hour news schedule (less when it comes to print) and don’t have time for your shit or your surprises.

    So know your editor: know their schedule, know how they scan for pitches, know what will interest them and cater to it.

    Pitch example 5 (email)

    Subject: PITCH: Why the hostility to #yesallwomen?
    Hi [name],

    Saw the piece up on [publication] about the Isla Vista killings and thought you might be interested in a companion piece.

    I’ve been writing about the attempts to silence others when violence against women is discussed. It ties in with the recent attack in the US, #yesallwomen trending tag and Australian culture.

    Is this something you’d be interested in?

    Result: Picked up. The pitch, though it appears informal, contains a lot of information. First, I demonstrate knowledge of the site and what has already been published and how I feel my piece would sit there. Second, by telling the ed “I’ve been writing” I’m promising a short turnaround to file the piece. Then I explain the article and its tie-in to social media, an area in which the ed has considerable interest.

    Pitch example 6 (email)

    Subject: PITCH: Geoff Shaw & Victorian Abortion Law
    Hi [name],

    Have you commissioned anything yet on the suspected private member’s bill Geoff Shaw and Premier Napthine regarding abortion law? I would like to write a piece covering how one man has been able to wield so much power to affect so many Victorian women and what that means for the integrity of Victorian parliament and women’s health and choice.

    Let me know your thoughts and when you would like me to file by.

    Best,

    Amy

    Result: Picked up. The pitch is very straightforward – it acknowledges the editor’s commissioning schedule (something I wouldn’t include again as it sounds too nervous – eds do not respond to nervous) and covers the op-ed’s basic concept. The editor involved responds well to this more formal and mellow style so I stick to it in both the pitch and resulting article. Having met with this editor for coffee, I got to learn what style of writing she prefers (not snark, not vehement) and her daily work schedule.

    A note on negotiating rates

    There’s been a move to flat fee, though some places still offer word rate. This varies, so stay informed – find out what titles offer in rates from websites or friends.

    If it’s the first time I’m pitching to a publication I will include a closer that asks about word rate and count plus deadline. If I already know the rate from friends and they accept my pitch, I just send them an invoice without negotiation.

    When it comes to negotiation, I have two dealbreakers: I’m not a fan of giving my work away for free because exposure is goddamn bullshit that won’t pay my rent and I’m not a fan of suffering under a lower than standard rate.

    If someone offers you a lower than standard rate for their publication, try to negotiate for higher or move on: you may not be the only writer in town but they aren’t the only publication in town either. Take it elsewhere.

    Start as you mean to go on – if you accept less than you’re worth, that’s all you’re ever going to get.

    Lessons:

    • If you’re interested in writing long-term, you need to develop relationships and credibility with editors.
    • Subject lines: Summarise pitch as headline, include whether it’s a pitch, spec delivery or time sensitive.
    • Know your ed: get to know how they work because it will help you learn how to pitch to them.
    • Learn which rules you can break.
    • Be confident: eds will be nervous about commissioning you if you sound nervous.
    • Know your worth and don’t get paid less or not at all for your labour.
    • Pitch big: pitch to big titles. There is absolutely no guarantee you’ll be accepted; in fact, you’re almost certain to get a rejection or silence. But you have to try because your career won’t grow if you hide in shallows pitching softballs to places you know will automatically accept you.
    • Get used to rejection: it doesn’t leave a flesh wound so get the fuck over it and keep pitching.
    • Pitch often.

    After that? You just have to follow up with a good piece of writing.

    Get to it.

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