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3 mistakes freelance writers make when pitching digital publications

By March 12, 2019 October 1st, 2019 5 Comments

There’s little doubt that there’s an art to pitching and sending query letters to editors. Over the past year I’ve had conversations with a number of editors and I’ve come to realise that many freelance writers don’t differentiate the way they pitch depending on whether the publication is in print or online. This is a big mistake. Through conversations with editors, I’ve found that there are 3 main mistakes writers make when pitching to online outlets.

3 mistakes freelance writers make when pitching to digital publications

There are numerous online magazines that are looking for writers, and these are either standalone publications or digital extensions of a print magazine.

In my recent conversations (in person and online) with editors, I’ve found that there’s a common thread running through why freelance writers aren’t getting their pitches across the line when it comes to digital publications.

1. Not thinking about the headline first

I recently pitched an editor of an online travel section at a major international newspaper and 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 practical 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 of digital publications

It’s easy for us as freelancers to just focus on what we are doing – thinking of ideas, pitching, writing, following up and so on.

But it’s a mistake if we don’t also take into consideration the influences and pressures that the publications we are pitching 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.

Thinking about how your article is going to serve advertisers, drive traffic or increase page views is absolutely crucial 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 in order to become familiar with what kind of stories they run and what the editor may be looking for.

With 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.

It’s worth knowing that 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).

Before you pitch your idea, take a look at what is popular or trending on the site to gauge whether your story might also be able to claim a spot in the top five.

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 both 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 and clients are looking for, and that print and digital outlets are two very different beasts.

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


  • 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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