From beginner’s errors to big time mistakes to wrong place/wrong time situations, we’re counting down 11 reasons your story pitch might have been given the heave-ho before it had a chance to grow up into an article. Plus, tips on how you can move on from your oops!
1. The Topic Has Been Covered Recently
Part of the pitching process is hopping online or logging a few hours in the library to read the back issues of magazines you want to hit up for an assignment. If you skip this important step, you run the risk of pitching a story the magazine—or a close competitor—has covered recently. While the mistake may be honest, it could have consequences: the editor may classify you as careless and think twice about opening a future email from you.
What to do about it: If you get a rejection for this reason or realize your mistake after sending it, there are two things you can do:
- Find another angle and re-pitch: If the editor responds in a friendly or encouraging way, consider rethinking the piece and pitching an article with a completely different spin on it. Editors are always looking for smart new ways to cover an evergreen topic.
- Pitch elsewhere: If you still think the idea is solid, consider tightening your story pitch and trying another magazine. Give them a few weeks to respond and keep trying!
2. “It’s Not a Good Fit for Us”
If you get this response from an editor, the mistake is on you. Again, if you do your homework, you’ll get a good idea for the stories and topics they typically cover. Linda Hamilton, health editor at Woman’s World, told Media Bistro that she’s hesitant to take on new writers because they often don’t take the time to understand her magazine’s style, voice or the type of content it runs. In other words, if you pitch a topic that is obviously not in keeping with a particular magazine, you may be remembered that way.
What to do about it: If you think you can pull it off, you might consider following up with a more apt pitch right away, but the safest thing to do is learn from the mistake and take care when pitching in the future.
3. You Didn’t Follow Up
Radio silence doesn’t always equate to rejection. Technology glitches. Emails aren’t always forwarded to the right person. Inboxes are flooded and individual emails get lost. Don’t take no for an answer—until you get no for an answer. Common etiquette is to wait three-four weeks and then call or email the editor with a polite follow-up. If the answer is no, don’t be afraid to ask why the idea is a no-go. Use the feedback to tighten the idea for another pitch.
What to do about it: Be organized and set up a tracking system for your pitches. Sync it with your calendar so you know when to follow up and have a list of alternate publications ready to go should a pitch be rejected.
4. You’re Inexperienced or Unknown
Editors are increasingly expected to deliver publications chock full of stories that get the attention not just of subscribers, but the world at large. No pressure! You can understand why they might be wary of assigning more than a few hundred words to an unknown writer. In your story pitch, be sure to add a short paragraph that highlights your credits, particularly if you’ve written for similar publications and include links to writing samples online. (If you don’t have writing samples to share online, make this a priority.)
What to do about it: If you want to get your foot in the door and build a relationship with an editor, study the shorter front-of-book articles and pitch something that fits. If you deliver on a lower-risk article, you may be considered for something more substantial later.
5. You Sent an Unsolicited Article
There’s a reason query letters are the standard in journalism: editors don’t have time to read 1,000 words to determine whether they want to buy an article. Even if you’ve got a great story and you’ve written it well, you’re not giving the editorial team a chance to help shape the piece in keeping with their publication’s ethos. They may want you to explore a particular angle that fits with other articles or a themed issue. Give them the opportunity to help you help them.
What to do about it: If you’re in love with a piece you’ve written and are dying to submit it, simply write a query letter based on its content. Most of the time, an unasked for article will be instantly deleted.
6. You Sent the Story Pitch as an Email Attachment
In today’s uncertain world, editors are rightfully leery of opening an attachment in an email from an unknown sender. Another smart reason to simply embed your query letter into an email instead of attaching a Word doc is that an editor can read it on her phone or tablet when she’s standing in line at the bank, waiting for a meeting to start or commuting. This practice also helps force you to keep your query letter brief. People have less patience for scrolling on their phone than they do on their computer. Keep that in mind when crafting your pitch.
What to do about it: This one’s easy: copy and paste your pitch into the body of an email, check that there are no formatting problems and hit ‘send’.
7. You Didn’t Follow the Writers’ Guidelines
Most big publications have Writers’ Guidelines or Submission Guidelines posted on their websites. You may have to dig to find them, but they’re there. (Seriously, sometimes you need to Google “[Name of Magazine] writers’ guidelines” to unearth them! If you still can’t find them, consider emailing the editorial department and requesting them.) When you get your hands on the guidelines, be sure to study them carefully. Publications that take the time to craft guidelines and update them semi-regularly are serious about the rules—which can sometimes include important and unusual formatting information.
What to do about it: Do your due diligence and adhere to the guidelines. You don’t want your pitch to be tossed because an editor who was on the fence about your idea gets his back up about your rule flouting.
8. You Sent Multiple Submissions
Some editors are A-OK with writers sending pitches to multiple outlets at the same time; and some become enraged. As a rule, it’s probably best to stick with one publication at a time, but if you’ve got an article idea with a timely angle, it just makes sense to simultaneously shop it around to various outlets. Just keep in mind that you’re courting an awkward situation if you sell an article to one magazine and then hear back from another that’s keen to publish it. How do you decide which one to let down?
What to do about it: If you really want to send your pitches to multiple outlets, be sure that you say so in your query letter. It may light a fire under an editor to respond to a great idea quickly; it may turn off another editor who wants exclusive pitches. Hedge your bets.
9. It’s Not You, It’s Them
When you’re feeling down about being rejected, it helps to remember that the media has been shaken just as hard by the ups and downs of the economy as any other sector. Some publications don’t have the budget to invest in freelancers very much—or at all. So even if a sensational idea crosses their desk, they may still have to pass.
What to do about it: Keep checking websites and Writers’ Guidelines to be sure a magazine is still accepting freelance submissions. And keep trying. You win some, you lose some. It’s the nature of the business.
10. Your Copy Wasn’t Clean Enough
It only makes sense that editors are meticulous about clean copy. A query letter that’s dotted with typos, grammatical errors or misspelled names is a red flag that the writer’s article will likely need work. As Seattle-based writer and author Michelle Goodman told MediaBistro, “Make it easy for the editor to love you. They really do need good stories. Yours just have to be better than everyone else’s to get an assignment with a new-to-you editor or publication.”
What to do about it: If you know your spelling and grammar can be shaky or you’ve been working on a story pitch for a long time, ask someone who’s great with language to proofread it.
11. Your Story Idea Isn’t Fleshed Out Enough
A query letter is supposed to be a quick and dirty synopsis of an article—but pitches that are too cryptic or not well-planned will miss the mark. A great story pitch is an outline of an article from start to finish, including interview sources and any studies or statistics you plan to cite.
What to do about it: Pass the story pitch to someone whose judgment you trust and ask them if they get a clear picture of what the final article will explore.