Empathy: The Secret Sauce of the Perfect Pitch

When it comes to pitching editors your story ideas, your success relies on one simple question:

Are you making the editor's life easier?

The editor-writer relationship is a funny thing. One of the first Google results for "Why do writers need editors?" is actually an article called, "Why do writers hate editors?" This pretty much sums up the power struggle that sometimes takes place.

Editors can seen as the gatekeepers, grammar police, and realists who fail to "get" your big idea, assassinating your darlings without batting an eye. As a writer, you're used to putting yourself in others' shoes and seeing all different perspectives...but that empathetic perspective often gets lost on editors. 

To differentiate yourself and increase the success of your pitches, expand that empathy to the editor you're trying to reach. Always craft your email cognizant of the fact that:

1) Editors are busy and generally harassed by pushy PR people--and now they're even getting emails from robots (it's hard to tell these days). Add the pressure from their own bosses, co-workers, deadlines, and the general uncertainty of the changing media landscape.

2) Editors want to believe in you--they need thought-provoking content! You just need to give them every reason to believe you can deliver.

Pitching is tough, but there are so many things you can do to swing the odds in your favor. Taking the extra effort to strengthen your pitch seems time-consuming (what if it's all for nothing?), but truthfully it makes your job way easier. It forces you to confront the gaps in your story that makes editors hesitate in the first place. It gives you the confidence to know that if an editor hypothetically called you five minutes after receiving your email, you could pick up the phone and sell your idea to them intelligently. 

Virtually any question you may have about the process can be answered by sticking to this key principle. And when you continue to make editors' lives easier by following your bulletproof pitch with a punctual, clean, amazing piece, you'll stand out as a diamond in the rough and build real, lasting relationships.

Here are a few key guidelines that considerably up the ante on your pitching game...

Your email subject line is your lifeline.

The irony is that subject lines are often dashed off as an afterthought, after hours of research and playing with words to perfect the body of the email. Yet, if your subject line doesn't capture the editor's attention, your pitch has zero chance of getting published.

Write at least 10-15 titles for your story idea, experimenting with different sentence structures and approaches--you'll be surprised what you can come up with when you dedicate just a bit more time than usual. Then, start the email subject line as, "Article Pitch" or "Story Pitch," followed by your proposed title (unless the publication has writer's guidelines that instruct you to do otherwise).

What's your angle?

If the subject line is your lifeline, I'd say your angle is life-support. Don't pitch a general topic, but rather what it is you're trying to say about that topic. For example, you wouldn't want to pitch "a story about reiki." Instead, you could propose a look at how reiki is being integrated into hospitals and therefore is being seen as legitimate in the eyes of medical professionals; how pet parents can soothe anxious pets during the holidays with reiki; or how a former convict is hosting a widely popular reiki circle in your hometown. It's perfectly okay to pitch a few different angles to different publications and see what sticks.

Spelling out a clear angle sticks to the cardinal rule of making the editor's life easy, which consequently makes it harder to shoot you down. Figure out what central question you're aiming to answer. What are the narrative elements, who are the characters, and what is the conflict? 

Track down the correct editor and department.

Always dig around to see which editor and department you should target. Including a real name instead of "To Whom It May Concern" goes a long way, and it's usually pretty easy to figure out thanks to social media. Although I'd refrain from pitching editors on social media itself--sticking to work email addresses is a better bet. Joining Mediabistro's AvantGuild is also well worth-it; membership provides access to hard-to-reach editor email addresses and gives specific tips for a variety of outlets.

These aren't the only details you need to figure out. Eliminate any questions the editor might have, such as: What word count do you foresee? What images could accompany this piece? What deadline could you deliver by? What format would be best for telling the story? Why would readers of XYZ care? Why is this timely? Has the topic been covered by the media before--if so, why is your approach novel or unique?

Keep it short and sweet.

Although some articles require more explaining than others, try to keep things as brief and straightforward as possible. Editors will appreciate that you respect their time. It also shows you have a real focus, rather than a half-baked idea that isn't quite there yet. 

Go a step beyond.

Identifying sources and reaching out to them ahead of time proves you're a committed, credible storyteller. 

How are you supposed to do that before your idea's even been accepted? Simply make some calls or send a short, honest note explaining who you are, and why you believe they'd add valuable insights to the article. Most people are happy to speak to you ahead of time. If you can include a quote from a source in the pitch that supports the story, even better. 

Why are YOU are the one?

If you’ve already locked down sources, then you’ve shown one reason the story should be yours. The second ingredient to creating credibility is a professional website with links to your best work. Add some testimonials to that website, and you're further breaking down the trust issues that prevent editors from answering you.

Triple-check for grammar and spelling--it's pretty frustrating to be turned down because of a simple error. Email the pitch to yourself before sending it out just to be positive.

Keep track of your pitches.

This tip is about making your life easier! Keep a Google Sheet or Excel Spreadsheet with the following categories: Outlet, Editor Names & Contact Info, Pitch Date, Follow-up Date, Proposed Title, and any additional comments. This makes it infinitely easier for you to measure the status of all your great ideas, as well as see what's working and what's not.

Always follow up when you don't hear back. The timeline varies depending on a number of factors (like the urgency of your topic), but a good rule of thumb is to give editors at least three days before reaching out again. Definitely don't be afraid to send a friendly reminder--lots of editors are just drowning in emails, not purposefully ignoring you. 

There's no formula out there that guarantees 100% approval, and that's due to a zillion different reasons--many of which have nothing to do with you at all! Don't get discouraged, and keep writing as many pitches as you can to improve, all with the mindset of making the editor's life easy. Put yourself in their shoes, always. In the process, you'll refine, refine, refine--and transform into a pitching powerhouse. Now get out there and unleash your best pitches into the world!

Here's some additional resources to help you:

  • Who Pays Writers? gives you a good idea of what each publication pays–and may influence who you reach out to first.
  • Prof Net and HARO can help you find expert sources.
  • The Open Notebook’s Pitch Database is full of successful examples.