One of the questions I get asked the most by people who want to write for a living is “how do I pitch?” Folks simply don’t know how to communicate to a newspaper or website that they would like to write for them. When I first stared writing, this was one of my biggest obstacles. I didn’t know how to pitch, or even if I could—I was just a kid with a history degree and a dream. Imposter syndrome, they call it.
The best advice I ever received was from the writer Kellee Terrell, who told me to “just pitch.” The worst they can say, she correctly pointed out, is no. If being told “no” is scary for you, then you are in the wrong field. Writing is not a career for the easily dejected.
Earlier, I tweeted that I received three rejection e-mails this morning, but that isn’t entirely accurate. I received two rejection e-mails and one no-response, which I take to mean a rejection. One thing that is true about writing is you hear “no” more than “yes.”
The important thing to remember is that a “no” is not a reflection on you as a person, or even you as a writer. One “no” I received was a fairly blunt “we’ll pass,” but I have written for that website previously so they clearly like my writing. People are busy, editors especially so, and they don’t always have time to explain why they’re rejecting your pitch. You just got to take it on the chin.
Another editor (who I’ve worked with for years) e-mailed me to say they already have someone writing about the topic I wanted to write about. It might be a freelancer who beat me to the punch, or who has some expertise I don’t. Or perhaps there is someone in-house who can write the piece, which means they don’t have to pay a freelancer’s fee. Newspapers and websites have a bottom line to consider, and you might not be in their budget.
If you get a response, even a rejection, you should be grateful. Not all editors will even bother to do that much. No responses are frustrating, because I am never sure exactly how long I should wait to pitch the piece elsewhere or put it on my blog. (This is assuming I have written copy, or that I don’t just abandon the idea.) The nightmare scenario is to pitch a piece elsewhere, get a yes, only to later receive a yes from the place you originally pitched. This has only happened to me once, and it was on a weekend when no one was working but the news item was hot so I mentioned I might publish it elsewhere, so both the editor and I forgave me.
How long should you wait for a response before pitching elsewhere? Sometimes outlets will have clearly stated policies on their website letting you know that after a specified period of time, you can assume no response is a “no” and should feel free to pitch elsewhere. Sometimes, writers will say in the pitch how long they’ll wait for a response.
I am not typically one of those writers who give editors a deadline to get back to me. It feels pushy, and I don’t want to be off-putting. I am not saying that is the best attitude to have, but if a piece isn’t particularly “hot,” – meaning that it won’t “go stale” (read: lose relevance) relatively quickly – then you should let editors take their time getting back to you. If it is “hot,” like the one I pitched but haven’t heard back on, it might be better to give an idea of by when you’d like a response. Most editors would intuitively understand the reasoning.
The piece I pitched but haven’t heard back on is “hot,” but it isn’t so “hot” that I felt “I need an answer within 24 hours.” So, I’ll wait another day. If I don’t hear anything by tomorrow, you’ll read it on Medium. Ordinarily I might try to find it another (paying) home, but it’s the week of Christmas and people are busy enough without me bothering every editor in London and New York. Remember, editors are people too, and they have lives outside of their jobs.
Part of why I might not have heard back is because I pitched to a general mailbox. You know, the firstname.lastname@example.org kind of communal inbox many websites and companies will have. That can sometimes feel like shouting into a vacuum. In my experience, it is always better when you have a direct contact, an editor who you can reach out to directly. That isn’t always the case, and some outlets prefer or require pitches be sent to the communal inbox. Best practice is to follow the instructions on their website, at least until you’ve built a relationship with the publication.
You can’t build a relationship on unsent e-mails, though. Don’t be afraid to pitch because you have never written before, or because you’re not a subject matter expert—although that helps, and it’s worth considering whether you have the expertise or experience to write about said topic. But the worst they can say is “no,” and “no” isn’t so bad.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan