How to Be a Writer: the art of pitching like a pro

How to Be a Writer is a series that is titled exactly as it sounds. In the digital age, writers are facing new issues on top of the old. As publishing continues to shift and change, not only are writers forced to change as well, they’re establishing themselves entirely differently, making breaking into the scene even more challenging. In this series, we offer up tips, tricks, and general commentary on the journey (or slog) that is being a writer.

Can you work alone in a room for more than eight hours a day? Have some writing talent? Then writing may be the job for you! It’s just the getting work part that can be a bit troubling. All writers must face this hard truth: you need to learn how to pitch well. Your entire career can depend on you being bold enough to pitch for work.

Pitching is auditioning. Writers may not be natural “performers” but we are storytellers. Therefore, when it comes to pitching—whether it be an elevator pitch to a perfect stranger, a cold pitch email, or one to an editor you have years of a working relationship with—writers (and) freelancers must master the art of pitching.

Warm-up act

Before any self-respecting freelancer can pitch, they need to be as well-prepared as possible. The ideas must be brainstormed and picked, the research accurate and double-checked, the sources confirmed for availability, etc. The story should be firm enough to stand on its own and flexible enough for changes and edits to be made per the editor’s suggestions.

The story is set, but you still want to get paid, right? So, it’s time to shop it around to publications, but not without some research. Check which publications are looking for freelancers or the contact information for these publications.

Establish a relationship, if possible

The best way to get a pitch noticed is to create a tailor-made pitch for the publication and editor. How do you know what the editor or publication likes? See what they post on social media. Favorite these posts/tweets/blogs and mention or comment on them. Eventually if you feel like there is a correspondence between you and the editor through social media, private message them and ask what they look for in a good pitch. Do you have friends in publishing? Do they know someone? Ask for an introduction in an email. This is networking in the 21st century.

Cold pitching

There is nothing more terrifying than cold pitching. It’s kind of like walking up to someone in a bar and asking them out on a date before you ask their name, except through an email they can likely ignore. Cold pitching, no matter how scary, is the boldest way to get a foot in the door at your favorite publication where you know no one.

Cold pitching has its own set of informal (and formal) rules and protocols to follow. The most important thing to remember is that a cold pitch is all about the subject line. Make it very clear that your email is a pitch. In Danielle Elliot’s cold-pitch guide for Contently, she recommends even specifying that it is a freelance or freelancer pitch. It makes it easier for editors with hundreds of emails to find your pitch later. So the subject line should read something like:

Freelancer pitch: Proto-headline that sums up your article and invites them to click through

The content in your subject line should be treated like a headline: you want to make the editor click through just like you’d want a reader to. Consider phrasing it in a way that offers the meat of the story without offering the whole dish.

If your subject line is successful, an editor will click through, expecting two grafs of information. A graf (not the German countess), is a short paragraph used in journalism to explain the news value of the story. In essence, the first graf is where you need to sell why this story needs to be told (and sold). Detail the story as best as possible in a tight paragraph while also selling why this story needs to be told at that publication.

In journalism pitching, a graf tells the editor why this story is newsworthy and timely, and why it deserves to be told through this publication. A story about the mysterious death of honey bees is timely for food production and harvest season and relevant to environmental issues, for example.

If you’re writing more of a personal essay or blog piece, consider writing a graf that is just as tight, but more audience-focused (as it is less newsworthy or timely). For example, your confession of why you ditched law school to start a career as a freelance graphic designer should outline why this is relevant and interesting to the publication’s readers.

The second graf is where you need to sell yourself: why are you the person who needs to write, report, lament your story? This is where you can state your qualifications, link to your other work, give contact information, etc.

And after you have spell checked and read over the email a thousand times, you hit send.

How to Cold Pitch Like a Pro

By Emily E. Steck

All freelancers must master the art of pitching. Here's what you need to make sure you do and don't do to get the gig.

  • Selling Not Telling

    By Emily E. Steck

    Use some good storytelling techniques: show don't tell. Better yet—sell don't tell. Write those grafs as a pitch to read the full-length story and how you are the only person needed to tell it.

  • Never Say You Are a "New" Writer

    By Emily E. Steck

    Even if you mean you are a "new" writer to the publication, it often reads as a new "green" writer in general. Never sell your experience short, but also never oversell. 

  • Specify It's A Freelancer Pitch

    By Emily E. Steck

    In the subject line, write something like "Freelancer Pitch: (headline/grabber)." It makes it much easier to find when editors are looking for new pitches.

  • Look at Publication Guidelines

    By Emily E. Steck

    If the publication has a specific format or instructions on how to write the pitch or subject line, follow them exactly as written. Your pitch/email may be disregarded before they even read it.

  • Never Fib Credentials

    By Emily E. Steck

    You may want to sound impressive as an "expert" in your field, but labelling yourself can be problematic if you aren't a well-known expert. Editors know the experts. Prove your expertise in the pitch.

  • Specify If It Is Time Sensitive

    By Emily E. Steck

    If the pitch is time sensitive, you'll want to mention that. An article about the World Series or Eurobowl is only relevant at specific times. 


    By Emily E. Steck

    Unless you want to shout at someone, don't let your finger near the caps lock key. It's difficult to read and can be perceived as rude.

The hard part

As agonizing as a cold pitch can be, the wait after you send it can be worse. More experienced writers and freelancers know this. In fact, many keep rejected submission letters and wear them as a sign of future success: you are one step closer to getting there.

The phrase/campaign “it gets better” isn’t a lie. This pitching thing gets better. You even get better at handling rejection until that fateful day when one editor takes a chance on you and says yes. It’s up to you to make sure that yes is the best story you’ve ever written. So write, pitch, fail, write, pitch, fail again and again until you get a yes. Practice makes perfect.

Ways to Handle Rejection: A Writer's Story

By Emily E. Steck

Treasure these moments. You'll probably experience it another 1,000,000 times until that tiny chance of success.

  • Do Something Stupid

    By Emily E. Steck

    But not too stupid and not for too long.

  • Write Back (But Please Don't Send It)

    By Emily E. Steck

    Sample script: "Dear Sir or Madam or Monster, I see you have rejected my offer to work for your company where I would have kicked butt … Sincerely, Me. P.S. I have no dignity. Please hire me."

  • Frame It

    By Emily E. Steck

    Everyone loves a future success story. 

  • Create A Meme

    By Emily E. Steck

    Or put this one on social media.

  • Audition for a Reality TV Show

    By Emily E. Steck

    It could really help your stagnated career! 

  • Wallow In Self-Pity

    By Emily E. Steck

    Eat some ice cream. Feel sorry for yourself.

  • Write A Half-Finished Screenplay

    By Emily E. Steck

    Maybe it's about the experience. Maybe it's laughably bad. Maybe it will win you an Oscar one day. Maybe it will take your mind off of things.

  • Try Again

    By Emily E. Steck

    One thing in life is going to set you back? Try again until your next rejection letter. Rinse repeat. Eventually, one day, you might just get a yes.  

Image: Antoine Schibler/Unsplash

Understand how Quietly can help play a role in your content marketing efforts.

Speak to a Strategist Today

Get a free consultation for your content marketing strategy.

Speak to a Strategist Today