Three ways to triple the odds of your pitch being picked up

“Wouldn’t life be easier if we didn’t have to pitch?”

The late-night text dropped in from a colleague who’d spent their day spinning their wheels.

I could relate.

Most freelance writers, even those who’ve been at it for years, obtain their work via pitching story ideas to editors. (Here’s why you should keep pitching, even when editors come to you.)

Pitching sounds straightforward.

However, pitching can be a time-consuming and frustrating part of the job, due to a high rate of ‘no thanks’ responses or, often, no response at all.

Pitching is partly a numbers game

Pitching can feel like throwing darts at the wall, while drunk and blindfolded, just hoping that something hits the target.

That’s because the odds of getting assigned a story at all seem vanishingly remote when you consider the figures.

According to The Propel Media Barometer – Q1 2024, only 3.15 per cent of pitches received a response of any sort (even the ‘no thanks’ response).

Admittedly, the study focussed on the work of PRs, but when you consider that these results were based on the performance of more than 425,000 pitches sent out by PR during Q4 of 2023, it gives some idea of the numbers that understaffed editorial offices are grappling with.

The response rate that most freelance writers get is, fortunately, better than 3.15 per cent.

However, I’m always looking to kick mine higher.

Here are three strategies to double, triple, quadruple or even quintuple the chances that an editor will drop a delicious ‘yes’ in response to whatever it is you’re proposing.

1. When pitching, the more, the merrier

Presenting multiple pitch ideas in a single communication increases the chances of at least one of them resonating with the editor.

(Usually, it’s not the one that you’d expect.)

So sing your story ideas from the rooftop. So long as each one is tailored to fit the publication’s audience and style, this strategy provides multiple opportunities for acceptance.

A man sings into a microphone amid flashing lights and smoke.

It’s not a hard and fast rule though.

When I get to know an editor, learn more about what they like, and (oh happy day!) stumble across a story I know they’d love, I’ll often fire away with a single idea.

But there are sound reasons for submitting multiple story ideas, particularly when you’re submitting to a publication that’s new to you.

First, even if you’ve studied the publication, you’re less familiar with it, simply because you’ve not written for them before.

You haven’t developed the nuanced understanding of requirements that comes via an editor’s comments and questions over time, and which slowly shapes your understanding of whether your story idea will be greeted with a yawn or a ‘yes’.

Second, because you’re not as close to the editorial action, you have no idea if what you’re proposing has already been covered in an upcoming (but not yet published) issue.

Third, there’s something in psychology called single-option aversion, which simply means that people are unlikely to pick an option – even an attractive one – when it’s the only option on the table.

Include additional options in any choice you present and editor will naturally compare them to each other, rather than assessing each option in isolation.

They’re more likely to choose the option they passed over when it appeared as a  standalone.

(For editors who care about freelance writers’ feelings, rejecting a single idea also seems a lot less churlish than rejecting half a dozen outright.)

Just don’t give editors too many options because this can be overwhelming, leading to the related issue of choice conflict and the tendency not to make any choice at all.

Presenting multiple story options also triggers the principle of reciprocity.

In this way, freelance writers are not that much different to supermarket tasters who offer you a spoonful of silky marinated goats feta – and before you know it, you’re buying five tubs of it.

People tend to feel obliged to return favours or gestures.

When you invest the effort to provide them with multiple options, editors may feel compelled to reciprocate by giving your pitches more attention or at least considering them more seriously.

Editors might even file non time-sensitive pitches in the bottom drawer for a rainy day.

A handful of times, an editor has requested a travel story literally months after I first pitched them.

2. Craft compelling subject lines

Compelling subject lines grab editors’ attention, helping you stand out from the competition, and increasing the likelihood of them opening rather than ignoring or deleting your email.

This in turn helps ensure they read your pitch.

A compelling subject line also sets the tone for the entire communication and can influence the editor’s perception of your professionalism and the value you can bring.

It should be concise, relevant, and intriguing, offering a glimpse of the story’s unique angle or the benefit it offers to the publication’s audience, without straying into the realm of clickbait.

An effective subject line also demonstrates your understanding of the publication’s interests and audience, showcasing your research and tailored approach.

I usually preface mine with ‘WRITER PITCH’ to distinguish it from PR pitches (which, I have on good authority, also increases the odds that the editor will open and read your email).

Keep it short and snappy. The Propel Media Barometer – Q1 2024 claimed that subject lengthsof 1-5 words were responded to the most.

Some of my recent commissioned pitches were titled:

WRITER PITCH: Bath houses are back

WRITER PITCH: Horsing around

WRITER PITCH: Queensland’s adults-only hotels

I’m not saying that these couldn’t be improved upon. I’m just saying that they worked.

But don’t agonise too much over this. Neither a pitch, nor its subject line, has to be perfect. (Here’s why.)

3. Follow up for best results

Some writers baulk at following-up a pitch that’s been met with radio silence because they fear rejection, don’t want to be thought of as a pest, or don’t have systems in place to track when they sent the pitch in the first place.

But I’ve found that sending a polite follow-up email after a week often reaps rewards.

Most editors I know receive hundreds of emails a day, so it’s not uncommon for even stellar story ideas to get lost in the shuffle.

When I have a pre-existing relationship with an editor, and I know the story I’ve pitched is one that’s perfect for them, a single follow-up is all it takes to get the green light 50 per cent of the time.

(The other 50 per cent? I dunno what happens.)

Editors I haven’t previously worked with typically play harder to get, but even they, too, are more likely to commission the right story after a follow-up.

Even if their answer is ‘no’, or you still receive steely silence, your follow-up has reminded them of your interest in working with them, and of your persistence.

It’s affirmed your commitment to tell stories on your own terms.

Following up also sets you apart from others who neglect this crucial step.

OVER TO YOU: What strategies do you use to increase the success rate of your pitches?

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