feature writing

What makes an editor say YES to a pitch?

By June 27, 2018 June 29th, 2019 4 Comments

There are lots of articles out there about how to pitch feature articles to magazine and newspaper editors, but recently I’ve been thinking about exactly what makes an editor say yes to a pitch. We all know that pitches usually need to include a timely, “newsy” angle or element, but recently I heard a podcast episode where an editor spoke about the two crucial elements in any publication. His advice made me sit up straight.

What makes an editor say YES to a pitch from a freelance writer?

So I was listening to the Longform podcast, which if you haven’t heard before, is a wonderful, deep-dive of a podcast where a non-fiction writer or editor talks about how they tell stories.

I was listening to this fantastic episode with GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson.

And just as an aside, you may not think it, but GQ publishes some wonderful, quirky and fantastically engaging longform features like this one.

But back to Jim (can I call him Jim?) … Jim was talking about what makes a great magazine, and I think the two essential elements he spoke about are also the bones of a great pitch. 

[And if you’re not quite sure how to structure a pitch or get started as a freelance writer here’s a helpful post]

The two essential elements freelance writers need to include in their pitches

Listening to this episode really reminded me that editors are always trying to get the right balance – they want to curate content that hangs together and is cohesive.

But in doing so, they are constantly walking the delicate tightrope of reassuring readers that they are at home with a publication (it’s warm, cosy and known) but also wanting to publish content that is going to stretch readers and invite them to consider something they have never thought about before, or take a new look at an old, familiar topic.

Otherwise, what’s the point of buying the publication month after month, week after week or clicking onto it each day if you’re always essentially going to get the same read? 

So how can we, as freelance writers, capitalise on these two essential elements in our pitches? 

1. Constancy

Editors want to know from your pitch that you know what their readers want. 

Readers pick up publications and there’s a familiarity for them. They know the kinds of stories they will find. There are regular sections (travel, food, beauty, community, tech trends – whatever it may be), regular columns and a tone or style that is reliable. 

In the past I’ve written about how I don’t believe that you absolutely have to know a publication inside out before you pitch and I still stand by that. 

But by thinking about a publication’s constancy, you ensure that you have the readers at the forefront of your mind. 

So to get your pitch across the line, your idea has to be at home in the publication – does the editor run other stories like this? Does this story fit within the broad themes of this publication?

But of course, constancy isn’t enough. 

Once you’ve established that your idea fits snuggly, you then have to introduce the element of surprise.

2. Surprise

Years ago I heard an editor speak about what made a great pitch. Her answer? The element of surprise.

Your idea has to be surprising enough that it intrigues the editor.

It has to entrance and delight them so they simply have to commission you to write it.

Ask yourself: What is surprising about this story? What hasn’t been told or said before? What are the broader threads or overarching themes?

This all may sound high level and maybe you’re thinking, “But if I’m pitching a story about a new restaurant opening or new research findings, how is that going to entrance and delight an editor?” and fair enough. 

The surprise doesn’t have to be a “ta-dah” surprise – it can be a new statistic or study that shine new light on a familiar phenomenon, it can be that one person’s unique experience is actually shared by others or putting two seemingly disparate ideas or trends together.

Not every pitch you write is going to be the scoop of the century, but every query letter you send out can have constancy and surprise.

After I heard Jim speak on the podcast, the words constancy and surprise rolled around my mind for days afterwards. 

What I love is that those two words go beyond the usual advice about pitching to editors and really break down what editors are looking for. 

Most of us have had the experience of being utterly transported by a book or article we are reading, only to look up and find ourselves still in the familiar surrounds of our home.

Constancy and surprise. 

The building blocks of great writing. 

And if you’re wondering what a successful pitch looks like, I’ve created a downloadable resource of 10 sample pitch letters to magazine editors – all of which were commissioned and published by publications such as The Guardian, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, Sunday Life, The Saturday Paper and more.

What do you think about the elements of constancy and surprise? Do they seem like the core of a good pitch to you? 

4 Comments

  • Claire says:

    You’re right, editors definitely like something their readers will find surprising. The trick to a good magazine that’s popular year after year after year is filling it with articles that make people go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’, rather than another version of what they read last year. My partner used to read golf magazines, but he stopped because there was nothing new in them. The same articles on how to swing a club would appear again and again. Fine if you’re new to the sport, but there was nothing surprising for people like him. I think there’s definitely room for something new and surprising alongside the staples. People do like to be stretched a little and read around their subject.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Claire, you writing that about your partner reminded me that I used to read organic gardening magazines and stopped for exactly the same reason (how many times could I read an article about growing lemon trees?!)
      I love nothing more than being intrigued and surprised and stretched by what I read.
      Thanks for your comment 🙂

  • Karla says:

    Hi Lindy, I recently pitched a batch of ideas to an editor I’ve known for a while. The two that were commissioned are not well known topics, so yes that element of surprise is definitely important (or a really unique take on a well worn subject). In fact, one of the pitches that was commissioned I threw in as an after thought, like "Oh I was just reading about this online and I think it’d be really interesting. I’m thinking I could interview X and X. What do you think?" Perhaps the element of surprise is infectious too.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Oh I love that Karla! I have often found that "oh and by the way" sentences can be really successful! It’s almost like a soft pitch because you’re just letting the editor know about an alternative (or addition) to your idea. Well done – so good!

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