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3 mistakes freelance writers make when pitching online publications

By March 24, 2021 5 Comments

There’s no doubt that there’s an art to pitching and sending query letters to editors. During conversations with editors over the years I’ve realised freelance writers are making common pitching mistakes. In fact, the first mistake is that writers don’t differentiate the way they pitch depending on whether the publication is in print or online. It sounds simple, but if you don’t get this right when pitching online publications, your pitch isn’t likely to get commissioned or even read.

3 mistakes freelance writers make when pitching online publications

There are numerous online publications to write for.

Digital publications are either standalone websites or digital platforms of a print magazine.

In my conversations with editors, I’ve found that there’s a common thread why why freelance writers aren’t getting their pitches across the line when it comes to digital publications.

1. Not thinking about the headline first

A few years ago, when I was breaking into travel writing, I pitched an editor of an online travel section at a major international newspaper.

He came back to me with this response:

“While your ideas would work well on certain outlets (I would read them!), what we’re looking for is more curious, quirky, unusual stories that will pique the interest of our readers.

What I find helps is to think about the headline first.

Could you imagine seeing the headline making waves on our homepage?”

This was such useful advice and when I thought about it, it’s actually quite obvious.

Often online readers will just see the headline and an image, so your headline has to sell the story you are writing.

After I received the editor’s response, I found a story that I thought would be perfect for the publication and pitched again.

This time I followed his advice and really thought about what headline I would use – and got the commission.

And this isn’t just one case for one editor.

Recently, I heard an editor say:

“If I already know what headline I’ll use from reading the pitch, then it’s a good pitch.

The key thing from an online perspective is that you can have the best written article, but if no one clicks to read it you may as well not have written it.”

[If you’re looking for more ways to get an editor’s attention, here are 3 easy ways to get an editor’s attention in the subject line of your pitch]

2. Not knowing the business model when pitching online publications

It’s easy for freelance writers to just focus on the obvious task at hand – writing.

But it’s a mistake if you don’t also take into consideration the influences and pressures that publications face every day.

One of the main business models of digital media is selling advertising.

As one editor I spoke to recently told me:

“Our business model is how many ads we can serve and how many page views we can get.

Advertisers pay for certain number of page views over a time and if we don’t deliver, we have to give them advertising on another part of website.”

So, when you want to pitch an online publication, think about how your article is going to serve advertisers.

How might it drive traffic or increase page views?

These are absolutely crucial to consider if you want to be published regularly on digital platforms.

Of course, this isn’t the case for every digital outlet and for some writers, this is pretty unappealing.

Some writers feel as though they are compromising their ethics by writing clickbait-style articles, and others don’t want to think about the commercial decisions behind why a pitch may or may not get commissioned.

But the truth is, this is the current state of the industry.

When you pitch to them, many digital editors are asking themselves, ‘How can I sell this to the audience? What’s the sell?’

[Related content: If you’re looking for how to write a pitch, you might find this resource useful. It’s a free resource of 10 real-life examples of pitches that helped me get published in national and international publications]

3. Not looking at what is trending

We all know the advice of doing your homework when it comes to pitching a story idea to a publication.

In print publications, the received wisdom is that you have to read back issues of the publication.

This means you become familiar with the kind of stories they run and what the editor may be looking for.

When pitching online publications, there is an easy (yet often overlooked) way to see if your idea is a good fit for a particular digital outlet.

Most online sites will have a ‘most viewed today’, ‘top stories’, or ‘trending now’ section.

Now this section may change position depending on whether you’re looking at the page on a desktop (where the ‘top stories’ are often displayed in a side bar) or mobile (these stories are often at the bottom of the home page).

But before you pitch your idea, take a look at what is popular or trending on the site.

This means you can gauge whether your story might also be able to claim a spot in the top five.

I’ve regularly had online editors come to me with commissions after a story I’ve written has received lots of traffic.

I totally understand that writing for digital outlets is not for everyone, especially publications where the role of advertising plays such a big role.

Often you have to have your eyes on the news cycle and pitch timely stories, as well as knowing that, despite your best efforts, your story still may get a headline that you wouldn’t have chosen yourself.

But as the media industry continues to evolve, it’s more important than ever to know what different editors are looking for.

And knowing online freelance writing markets and what digital editors are looking for means you can build a successful business in print and on the screen.

Do you pitch online publications? Are there any mistakes that you see freelance writers making in the online space?

5 Comments

  • Cat Woods says:

    Great perspective Lindy. While I always want to write really engaging content that does serve editors, I sometimes don’t think beyond the idea being so amazing to really sum it up in a headline that will actually make sure it gets read. Shall keep these tips in mind.

  • JoAnna says:

    This is great advice, Lindy! I am going to be pitching some ideas to a potential client in the next few weeks, so this advice will help me frame my pitches in the context of an online publication. Fortunately, I already subscribe to this client’s email newsletter, so I have a good idea of their trending topics and headline style.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks so much JoAnna. Sounds like you’re well on the way to getting some commissions with the potential client – go well!

  • Thank you for these pointers on pitching. I think your observation that the headline you come up with may not be the one that ends up being published is important. Your idea of what the headline could be serves to capture the attention of the editor and shows that you understand what they need. Everything else is a bonus.

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