Working with editors: do pitches really just disappear into the abyss of an inbox?

by Nicola Temple | August 5, 2013

I have just today finished the final edits for an article that will be coming out in Selamta magazine. If this were a conversation, this is the point where you’d say ‘Sorry, which magazine?’ Selamta is the Ethiopian Airlines in-flight magazine and its title is derived from the Amharic greeting for hello, which directly translates to ‘be at peace’. I admit, as a science writer, it is not the National Geographic or Nature or New Scientist article I had dreamed of. However, let me tell you now that working for Selamta was the best editor-freelance experience I have ever had and I would write for them any time.

Now, I must state up front that I have never been an editor for a large publication, so I am definitely passing judgement without having walked in those shoes. However, as a freelance writer it is truly astonishing to me the range of – how should I put it – engagement one receives with an editor.

Preparing the pitch

For those of you who are not writers, let me first set the scene. You have an idea for a story. You start to do some research to look at what else is out there on the topic, whether the story has been covered or whether its new or at least a new angle. As you start to realise that this is indeed looking like a strong and novel idea, you start to research where the article might be suited for publication and your level of excitement increases. You sift through magazines and papers that you know, you explore those that you don’t, and you invest time and emotion in selecting the best fit. Then, it’s a matter of reading previous articles to familiarise yourself with the tone of the publication and reading the submission guidelines to make sure you check all the boxes.

Then, you dwell over a single paragraph – a few sentences really – that will hopefully draw the editor into your story idea. Something that grabs their attention and sets your pitch apart from the inbox full of others they have received that day. It is critical to the survival of your story.

With that complete, you then talk practically about the article you intend to write and whether you see it as a feature or something smaller. This is where you answer questions such as why it’s suited to the publication, why its relevant now to their readers, how this is a new idea or a new angle and whether you have smashing photos to accompany the piece.

Finally, you write a small bit about yourself and why you are the right person to write the article.

It’s a page maximum and it can take an exorbitantly long time to write. When I’m done a pitch, I am completely invested in it – I have to be in order to convince others that it’s a great idea. So, with my heart and soul laid out in a Word file, I hit the send button. Then, it’s like buying a lottery ticket…the possibilities are endless until you actually check your numbers.

Lost in space

More often than should be the case, your email is sent off and that’s where it ends for that particular publication. There’s no reply, no rejection…just nothing. Did the email get trapped in a SPAM filter, is it lost within the abyss of an overloaded Inbox or did it simply not grab the editor’s attention? Who knows? A phone call follow-up might get you an answer, but often you just get bounced around or voice mail. This is an incredibly dissatisfying outcome and, quite frankly far worse than a flat-out rejection where at least there is closure.

So, not being an editor myself, I have to question the rationale behind ignoring pitches completely. Now, I can understand that there might be a few pitches that are shall we say…outliers…for all the wrong reasons. They lie well beyond normal and border on SPAM and are not, perhaps, worth the effort of replying. But even then, surely there is a standard reply that could be formulated…

“Dear nutter,

We appreciate you sharing your thoughts on a story about the 101 uses of belly button lint, however, we don’t think our readers here at Haute Cuisine would be particularly interested.

Best,  editor”

However, I’m pretty sure that my pitches are not outliers. They are well-researched and well-considered and, in my own biased view, great ideas! So, why do I still get no response?

Is the lack of reply a reflection of poor organisation and time management, disinterest or just disrespect? I’m not sure. I also wouldn’t really have thought about it as it has become fairly standard for some publications that I’ve dealt with (or not dealt with to be more accurate), except that I’ve now had the 1st class editor treatment and it’s going to be hard to go back!

What the editor-freelancer experience should be like

Let me fill you in on what my recent experience has been and how it has raised my standards. When I pitched the editor at Selamta, I received an email within 24 hours that said she liked the idea and they would be having an editorial meeting within 2 weeks to discuss the next issue and she would present the idea then.

Perfect – I knew she had received the email, I had some immediate feedback from her and I have a time frame for when I should expect to hear from her again.

Right on schedule, I hear from the editor again and they want to go with the story. She apologizes…that’s right apologizes, that she didn’t get back to be sooner, but she is out of town. I should expect to hear from her assistant as far as receiving an assignment sheet and contract. I giggled!

As stated, I get the assignment sheet and the contract and we seal the deal so to speak. It’s all very straightforward and they want a couple of my photographs as well…I’m thrilled.

I get my story in a week ahead of the deadline and the editors turn it around to me within the week and apologize for the delay…again! What delay?! I think to myself. The comments are thoughtful and constructive and where there is a risk of editing something and altering the meaning around the science, they have put questions and asked for clarification. The edits make the piece much better (as they should) and there is incredible respect for me, my writing and the content of the piece.

As a result, I push aside other work with pressing deadlines, to turn the piece around to them within 24 hours. I can’t help it – I want to please them! They came back with some minor revisions and questions and I signed off on the piece today. Done.

It was an incredible experience and my writing has improved as a result. The way the editors engaged me and were respectful of me and my time made me want to make my work with them a priority.

So, why can’t other relationships with editors be as good? I suppose I won’t know the answer to this until I walk in their shoes (which I don’t plan on doing any time soon). Even the non-responsive editor will no doubt eventually reply to the most persistent writer, but part of me thinks that if I have to try that hard to get a response, would I really enjoy working with you anyway? Probably not.

Anyway, thanks Selamta, for the great experience.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. David Millar says:

    I worked at Nature as an Asst Editor for a couple of years some time ago and every Wednesday as we got close to our copy deadline I swear anyone with a half-relevant pitch that would have filled our remaining blank space would have been published! We used to sit around every week racking our brains for topics that were newsworthy and which we hadn’t covered recently. Quite honestly I think the sort of indifference you have experienced (and I can assure you you’re not alone!) is mainly down to lack of organisation on the editors part plus a sort of rabbit-in-the-headlights indecisiveness brought on by too much choice (i.e. the field of science is just too big). I sometimes wonder if there could be a business in a sort of pitching website where journalists could put in ideas and which then randomly fed suggestions to editors !

    1. Nicola Temple says:

      David, thanks so much for this insight! It’s always nice to know you’re not alone. I like the idea of the pitching site – I wonder how you would do it so that there wasn’t constant thievery of ideas?!