How to successfully pitch for work

With expert tips from the pros that know

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I think I tempted fate in last week's newsletter when I described children being sent home from nursery with a temperature as the ‘new normal’. On Tuesday morning my son woke up with a 39 degree temperature, so lo and behold, he couldn’t go to nursery as planned. My husband had also just had an operation on his arm which has left him unable to pick our son up, bath him or even change a nappy. I also had a full schedule full of deadlines.

AAAGGGHHHH.

So I booked my son an appointment for the drive through Covid testing centre (I really think they should do loyalty cards) before rushing home to get on with my list of deadlines and find ways of entertaining a toddler at the same time. I spent the next two days intermittently playing, typing and visiting the park (thank God they're still open in this lockdown).

Let's not mess about. It was not a fun week. It was shit.

But on the positive side, I've just had a lovely work experience student, Jess, start working with me as part of Freelancing for Journalists’ Work Experience Scheme. It felt like an angel had descended via Zoom on Wednesday morning - ready and eager to help me with this week's newsletter and whatever other tasks I threw at her. You'll be hearing more from Jess - a Master's student and mum of one - very soon.

So without further ado, let's move on to this week's topic which is pitching - a request from one of my most loyal readers.

No matter your expertise, there’s one thing that all freelancers have in common and that’s the need to pitch. Whether in the journalistic sense of pitching an actual story, or pitching your services to a new or potential client, we all have to do it to some degree. 

Cold pitching - the art of finding new work with someone you don't know

As a freelance writer, I have to pitch regularly. Cold pitching is my least favourite but I know from experience that amongst the countless ignored emails, you only need one reply to spark something really great. One very cold pitch once landed me a commission in one of my favourite magazines, which turned into a great relationship with the editor and many more commissions after that. Another cold email got me a meeting with a commercial editor at a publication I’d been wanting to write for for months. I explained what I did and how I could help her team, and we arranged a meeting at her offices the next week. She then commissioned me a week later. I’m not saying this happens all the time. But some of the work I’m most proud of, or have been most excited about, has happened this way.

What to write in that first email

So what should you put in that initial email to someone you don't know? I try not to over complicate it (most busy people just scan read anyway), but give the person what they need to know: who I am, what I can offer, what my expertise is and how I can help them. Plus, relevant links to my previous work so they know immediately what my experience level is.

If it's a feature idea, I always put PITCH in the subject line, followed by the headline. I then introduce myself in a couple of sentences before going on to the actual pitch, including case studies and key research. (No more than two paragraphs) while mentioning when I think I could write the piece and links to my work.

If I'm emailing just to make a general intro, I often also suggest meeting face to face if it's geographically possible (or Zoom for the time being). I find most people will say yes if they’re looking to hire freelancers on the regular, as it's beneficial all round. Once you become a real life person rather than a name in a very busy inbox, you’ve won half the battle. And, if you know you can sell yourself better in person, asking for some face time or a phone call is vital. 

Keep a track of your pitches

It’s also advisable to keep track of all the pitch emails you send. This is a handy way of collating important contact details, as well as reminding you when to follow up (I usually wait a week unless it’s a very timely pitch). I use a simple Google doc that includes details of who I pitched, their contact details, what the pitch said and when I sent it. I then have another column for follow-ups and feedback.

Admittedly, there can be so much fear in pitching and the hardest part is often just pressing send. I find the more I do it, the better I get at it. I'm still learning but am constantly trying to fine-tune my skills and work out what works best.

I also thought you might find it useful to hear from a few other voices on the topic of pitching. Here's some great advice from those that either regularly commission freelancers or are pro freelancers that have extensive experience in landing work via a great pitch.


Advice from pros that know

Angelica Malin, Consultant and Editor-in-Chief of About Time Magazine

"One of the most important things to remember when pitching publications is: relevancy. Why now? Why this story? Why this publication? Everyone will tell you that you need to make your pitches personal, but that's simply not enough. You need to make them relevant. That means taking a keen interest in the publication - reading it regularly, engaging with its writers and knowing its content inside out - so that when you DO pitch, you've got a sense of whether it's right for their demographic, audience and content agenda"

“For other creatives, make sure you have a really great up-to-date personal website and focus on building your personal brand on social media. Editors are looking for ways to grow their audience so if you have a decent following that's great.”

Chris Douch, graphic designer and founder of Art Star Creative

“My main tip would be to form personal relationships with people. It’s much easier to pitch to someone if you’ve worked with them previously or have been recommended to them. Also, try and get as good an understanding as you can of what the client is after. You can then cater your pitch to fulfilling their exact needs, rather than going in offering them something that may not be exactly what they want”.

Anna Codrea-Rado, journalist, podcaster and campaigner

“My best advice for pitching is to learn the difference between a story and a topic. A topic is a universal theme, whereas a story is how we come to understand that theme. “Animal rights” is a topic. “A woman on trial for hoarding 176 rabbits behind a tyre shop in Brooklyn” is a story. (A true one, I wrote it!) Put plainly: topics are abstract, stories are specific. While topics can be great places to look for stories, they aren't interesting enough to land you a commission. More often than not, when an editor turns down your idea it's because it wasn't for a story, but actually a topic. A shortcut for finding a story within a topic is to look for the tension. When someone is up against it, when there’s any kind of power struggle, that’s where the interesting stuff happens”.  From the Ultimate Guide to Pitching, which is available for Anna’s premium newsletter members.

Natalie Hughes, founder of The Fashion Digital

“Make a niche for yourself and reach out to companies within that niche. It's best to be as specialised as you can, as clients like to see similar work - or at least work within their industry - when you're pitching!”

Steve Folland, freelance video/ audio producer, presenter and writer

“I think the key to pitching is asking questions and listening. Asking questions of the client. Asking questions of yourself.  If you’re able to have a call with the client, really listen to what they have to say. Take note of what they say. Try and reflect their language back to them in your pitch later.

But you’re the expert. So it’s good to question. Why are they doing things a certain way? What outcome are they looking for? What budget do they have to work with? And my favourite question… is the deadline they’re telling me a ‘real’ deadline (like a launch) or a self-created deadline? What timeline are we really looking at? Sometimes in the pitch itself I will offer different possibilities/solutions. And occasionally that might even be a DIY approach that cuts me out of it. Which may sound odd. But then they know you’re really trying to help them :)”

Simon Lewis, Telegraph Weekend Lifestyle, Senior commissioning editor (acting)

Simon advises thinking about a few key details when pitching a journalistic story:

1. “The type of feature it is (make sure you've studied the publication and know who its audience is and what its regular features and favourite subjects are) 

2) The word 'Pitch'

3) The reason you'd read it (try to make it as 'clickbaity' as possible: create a curiosity gap)

Examples:

Family pitch: Coming out to a gay parent isn't always easy

Parenting pitch: ten interiors ruined by babies

Pets pitch: How I spent over £5000 on a sick kitten

Relationships pitch: How tantric sex saved our lockdown relationship

Family pitch: identity, resilience and peanut butter

Parenting pitch: What effect is lockdown having on babies' immune systems?

Relationships pitch: Can we recognise our soulmate by the scent of their breath?

It’s also important to include your credits (who else you've written for) right at the start of the pitch. It's not that I don't want to give junior writers a break, it's that I'm scared I'll have to spend hours rewriting it, re-briefing it, or not be able to use it at all. That is a serious worry that can be reduced by including your credits up front”.


Thank you to everyone who keeps opening and sharing my newsletter each week. Please feel free to comment below or reply to this email with comments, suggestions and feedback. I love to hear from you.

Today is the last day that donations to my Kofi page will be given to the charity Little Village, the London charity helping babies and children living in poverty. So, if you’ve meaning to, your donation will be gratefully received. As you can imagine, help is very much needed right now. Thank you to everyone that has donated so far.

Until next time…stay safe, warm and away from the Covid drive through if you can help it.

Cat x

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