An award-winning journalist for The New York Times and TIME on the reason why your pitches may repeatedly be bringing in rejections.
Rejections hurt and they’re impossible to avoid. But there are plenty of things you can do to give your query letters a better hit rate.
You know you’re not supposed to start your letters with “Dear Editor,” should follow proper formatting protocol, and always send your queries to the correct person, right?
You’ve no doubt also mastered the art of kicking out embarrassing grammar goof-ups, know more about your word processing software than you do about your fiancé, and have learned the dangers of the begging routine (also known as the my-mom-thinks-it’s-fantabulous syndrome).
Why then, do most of your neatly-crafted, queries come boomeranging back from cyberspace bringing home unwanted rejections?
Some things to consider.
1. You’re blinded by the guidelines
Is following the guidelines a mistake? It can be.
If you’re relying on them too much, that is.
Writers, especially new writers, often assume that guidelines are the be-all and end-all, the ultimate resource on what a publication wants and what they should do to get an in. But frankly, it’s not always black-and-white. Editors sometimes don’t look at their own guidelines for years, and I know I haven’t looked at the guidelines of most magazines I regularly write for in ages.
The thing is, guidelines don’t really cover everything, and there’s a lot of important information they miss out on. Editors change, magazine formats change. But guidelines? They don’t always change. Instead of wasting time hunting around for guidelines, read the magazine instead. I also recommend signing up for MediaBistro’s AvantGuild. Their “How to Pitch” series gives wonderful and updated information on the needs of publications that guidelines almost never cover.
In my free e-mail series in which I share five case studies of breaking into publications like The New York Times and TIME, becoming a contributing editor for ELLE, and making $10,000 from a single story, I talk about how I figured out what publications wanted, how I found the right editors, and ways that helped me slash my rejection rate quicker than most other writers I know. If you’re interested in writing for top publications and learning by example, you can read them here.
2. You forget to dump the “formula”
Look, you don’t have to stick to the same formula pitches every time. Once you’ve learned the drill—hook, explanation, bio, closing—and achieved a considerable amount of success with it, move on. You’ll find that many deviate from the traditional query letter format. Yours should, too.
Starting a query with a hook is fine. But what if you have thirty years of experience working in the industry the magazine focuses on, wouldn’t it increase your chances if the editor knew that upfront? Or let’s say you’ve already got Jamie Oliver on board for a tell-all interview because he’s a friend of your cousin’s wife’s sister’s boyfriend’s ex-roommate from college. Wouldn’t you improve your chances of avoiding rejection if the editor knew, right there, in the first paragraph that this was a sure-shot deal?
Dump the formula.
3. You worry too much about the length of your pitch
Like fashion trends, where one color is “in” or “out” by seasons, the advice on how many pages a query letter should be also goes “in” and “out” by seasons. Me, I missed all the action.
I continued sending in email pitches without worrying about whether I was exceeding some imaginary word-limit and bagged regular assignments. Now that I look back on those successful pitches, I’m still not able to come up with a standard for you.
Some were long, because I just had too much information crammed into my brain and I thought the editor might appreciate how much research I could do. In others, a couple of sentences did the trick. Maybe those editors were thought I’d be able to cram more information into fewer words. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m a good writer, and it didn’t matter how long my query letter was, as long as I was able to get and keep my editor’s attention.
Don’t focus so much on the minute details. It’s not why you get rejections.
4. You’re a fact-checker’s worse nightmare
Some mistakes are excusable. You know, forgetting the “n” in insomnia, or writing “there” instead of “their.” Everyone does it from time to time, and as long as the rest of your work is coherent and devoid of grammatical inaccuracies and spelling mistakes, they’re almost never a cause for rejections.
No, it’s those other mistakes that cause a problem and bring the rejections pouring in. Like getting your facts muddled up and calling Harlan Coben a romance writer, or talking about Pakistan in the 1920s. That’s where the editor sees that this writer has no clue what she’s blabbering on about and is likely to have an article falling apart at the hands of a fact-checker. It’s an excellent way to get a rejection, if you’re looking for one.
Make sure you’ve done your research well before you actually send the pitch. If an editor calls you with an assignment, she’s expecting you to be the expert and answer her questions on the subject. If you’ve left a major portion of your research for later, she’s not going to be much satisfied with your answers.
This doesn’t mean you have to get a Ph.D. on the subject, just that you need to have enough information to be able to intelligently talk about the scope of your piece. The more thorough your research, the better your chances of first landing the assignment, and then doing it fabulously.
5. You cram in too much
Being enthusiastic and having a notebook full of wonderful ideas is one thing. Irritating the crap out of an editor by sending her a laundry list of thirty is quite another.
While you may think you’re giving her a good choice of articles that she can file away for later use, she’s probably thinking you have no clue which ideas will fit into her publication. While you may happily assume she’s going to think you’re capable of coming up with several good ideas at a time, she’s probably wondering, “Why is this writer wasting my time?”
In fact, even if an editor does like most of your ideas, chances are, she can’t assign all of them right away. Most of them will lead to rejections even if they’re otherwise sound. The editor will probably pick her favorite, reject the rest and send them back to you. The next time you’re pitching, you’ll need to come up with more ideas because you don’t know whether she rejected them because she didn’t like them or because she couldn’t afford to buy them.
So those, in a nutshell, are some of the reasons pitches from new writers lead to rejections and why, even though you’ve got solid saleable ideas, you’re not clinching the deal.
Want to know how to clinch that deal next time? I show you by example in my free e-mail series in which I lay out– in quite considerable detail– how I broke into top publications and the mistakes I made along the way. Trust me, if you read these, not only will you be entertained, but you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache along the way. Check them out here.
How to Pitch: Pitching guidelines for 200+ publications
We know that finding markets to pitch your story ideas, understanding what they’re looking for, and making sure they pay an amount you’re comfortable with can be the most time-consuming and frustrating part of the job. So we’ve tried to make it easier for you.
Here’s a list of publications, organized by subject and with a note of their pay rates, each with a link to their guidelines.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Publisher, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the publisher of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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