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If you're a freelance journalist earning (or hoping to earn) income from writing and reporting, producing an engaging pitch is an essential part of your skillset.

However, even experienced freelancers admit to procrastinating over pitching.

There are a few reasons for this, of course, but most of them boil down to just two words: rejection anxiety. By pitching an idea you're putting yourself out there, which is exciting, yes, but scary too – especially if the story is particularly important or meaningful to you.

As with anything, pitching gets easier with practice. So whether you feel like you've lost your mojo after going through a dry spell, or just want to brush up on best practice, here's some expert advice to make sure you knock those pitches right out of the ballpark.

Pitch a story, not an idea

You might think you have a killer idea for a pitch but before you hit send on that email, hold on a minute – is it a story, or just an idea? Editors will want to see that you've done some research and have a clear angle, as well as access to any sources you may need to interview.

Heidi Scrimgeour, a freelance journalist with bylines at the Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph and Grazia, recommends giving an idea "enough time to incubate" before pitching it.

"So many of us end up rushing the pitching process... firing off a pitch email as soon as an idea strikes without giving it time to prove itself to us," she said.

"There’s really no substitute for letting an idea develop until it’s fully-fledged to the point that it can withstand a robust critique by an editor and sustain a whole feature, rather than a half-baked idea that will fall apart the moment it’s questioned."

Why now, and why you?

Be clear about why it's important that this story is written now, and that you are the one to write it.

Alison Palmer, owner of the freelance network Journohub, highlights the value of finding a news peg or some stats to make your pitch more timely. Even a non-newsy pitch, such as a travel feature or personal essay, is often more enticing with a time-sensitive hook.

"It needs to feel fresh, current, and important it's shared now," she explained.

On a similar note, if you have specific expertise or special access which qualifies you to write this particular story over and above anyone else, say so in your pitch.

If you can supply high-resolution photos, video, or any other multimedia, this will also help you and your pitch stand out.

Pitching is not the time to be modest. Ideally, this also reduces the risk of an unscrupulous editor taking your pitch and handing it to a staff writer.

Length and structure

Precision is key. The ideal pitch is four or five paragraphs long at most. You want to intrigue your editor and give them the facts they will want to know without taking up too much of their time.

"It's always interesting when you can drop an editor right into the story rather than starting with a more traditionally structured pitch," said Julie Schwietert Collazo, a freelance journalist in New York City who has been published by Fusion, NPR, and BBC Travel.

"When you can put the editor in the place or situation about which you want to write, making the stakes clear as early as possible, I think there's a great chance you'll place the pitch."

There's no golden ticket for the perfect pitch – you have to find a style which works for you. Usually, but not always, my pitches look something like this:

  • Paragraph one: Set up the story – What's the context? Why is it important?

  • Paragraph two: Newsy hook – what makes the story timely?

  • Paragraph three: My angle, who I plan to interview, what else I plan to research.

  • Paragraph four: Who I am, why I'm well-placed to write the story, link to my portfolio.

The subject line

Editors can receive dozens of pitches in a single day, so your subject line is the first crucial step in grabbing their attention.

Keep it succinct – eight to ten words is ideal – but convey just enough information to pique the editor's intrigue.

I often visualise a headline for my story and use that. If coming up with headlines is not your strong point, check out Poynter's 10 questions to help you write better headlines, or ask a friend or colleague for feedback.

Preface your subject line with the word "Pitch" and if your story is time sensitive make sure to indicate that too.

Following up

If you don't hear from an editor within a week or two, don't be afraid to follow up with a brief email. Editors, like most of us, aren't always great at email management and may have missed your pitch or simply forgotten to respond.

In my experience, a simple note such as the example below will usually get a response, one way or the other:

"I'm following up to see if you're interested in the story I pitched last week on xxxxx. I know you're busy, so if I don't hear back from you within the next couple of days I'll assume it's not of interest at this time."

And last but certainly not least, if your pitch gets rejected, do not despair. Repackage it and pitch it to someone else. Rejected again? Repackage it and pitch it to someone else. Rejected again? Take a deep breath. Repackage it and…

You get the idea.

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