Creating a winning magazine article idea and then articulating it into a knockout query letter is challenging enough for most writers, but all that hard work can be pointless if the pitch never reaches the right editor.
Publications make it hard to contact them on purpose in order to weed out inexperienced wordsmiths, says Jodi Helmer, a freelance writer based in North Carolina.
And since exploratory skills are an essential part of writing, editors like to know that a journalist is a good enough reporter to find their elusive email addresses.
So, want your pitch to land in the right hands? Follow these tried and true strategies to harness your inner Sherlock Holmes.
1. Know the hierarchy
“I think often times one of the mistakes writers sometimes make is they pitch to the wrong editor,” says Scott Hays, a freelance writer and adjunct college instructor in California.
An editor-in-chief or executive editor of a national publication isn’t likely to read freelance pitches, he says, so instead work your way down the masthead.
If specific sections or topics aren’t listed for each editor, your best bet is to try the managing editor or articles editor, either of whom can generally point your query in the right direction.
And, as you amass information, keep track of it! One idea is to create a color-coded database based on responses received. Even if it’s an out-of-the-office vacation message, it’s still good to know who you’ve made contact with.
2. Hit the Press (and Sales) Room
A magazine’s online press room can be a treasure trove of information. It’s often listed on the parent company’s website under “press” or “media contacts,” and editors who are working on special issues or events associated with the brand will sometimes be quoted in press releases there.
Those releases will end with media contacts for the magazine, which have—you guessed it—an email address.
So, if you see the publicist’s address is email@example.com, odds are others at the company follow a similar “firstnamelastname” format.
Another tactic is to look at the magazine’s media kit. Again, these typically list sales reps for the magazine, and you can use their contact info as a guide.
Only a general email address listed? Just email a request for a media kit, and when an actual person responds, follow his email address.
Pay attention, though. It’s possible that the publicists or sales reps handle more than one magazine in the company, so their addresses could be @parentcompany.com rather than having the same @magazine.com domain of the editors.
If you’re unsure, just try both until you get a lead.
3. Ask other writers
The writing community can be a valuable source of information, especially if you’re not familiar with a specific publication.
Check out FreelanceSuccess, AbsoluteWrite, Upod and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. You may have to pony up some money to join some organizations, but a good assignment will likely more than cover that expense.
Furthermore, if you read a good story in your favorite publication, hit the Internet to find the writer behind it. Most published writers remember what it was like to be a rookie and will be more than happy to give you the email convention for publications they work with.
Just don’t expect anyone to copy his entire roster for you. Take time to get to know members of any writing community you join or peers you meet and be willing to offer help for their projects, as well.
4. Use social media
Chicago writer Aubre Andrus says she uses Twitter to follow editors at the magazines she has her eye on. If she finds an editor’s message interesting, she’ll retweet it or respond.
“I build up a little relationship, or at least get them to recognize my name, then I send them a tweet asking if I can email them a pitch.
“That’s how I got into National Geographic Traveler,” Andrus says. “The editor sent me a direct message with her email address and we went from there!”
Andrus says virtual tweet-ups also can be a good place to connect live with an editor. “This is also a great way to get your name in front of an editor or at least show that you’re actively involved in the industry,” she adds.
If you spot an editor’s personal website with a non-work email address, resist the temptation to pitch through it.
Editors are people too and typically like keeping their personal and professional inboxes separate; you can come across as a pest by pitching through a side door. Instead, keep using the Web to sniff out a work address.
It may take longer, but it will keep you on an editor’s good side and make him or her more receptive to your ideas.
5. Read industry news
Media reporters keep up on changes in the industry and will often cover who’s coming and going way before an IT department can kill an email address or an art director can remove a name from a masthead.
If you read about new editorial hires or promotions, chances are those folks will be on the hunt for new ideas as they look to make a good impression in those crucial first 90 days on the job.
6. Pick up the phone
“I think too many writers are afraid to do this and rely too heavily on email,” says Kelly James-Enger, author of Six-Figure Freelancing.
Yes, we know dialing up an editor seems kind of analog, but James-Enger says it can still work when all else fails. However, the key isn’t to pitch over the phone—it’s to get accurate contact information.
So, it really doesn’t matter whether you speak to an editorial assistant or a receptionist. Just say something along these lines: “Hi, I’d like to send a pitch for your ‘Easy Recipes’ page. Can you tell me who handles that section?”
Even better: “Hi, I have a great idea for your ‘Easy Recipes’ section, and I have the assigning editor’s email address as JaneRobbins@magazine.com. Can you confirm?”
Nine times out of 10, the person will give you a yay or nay or—if you’re totally off-target—will tell you who to pitch instead.
Either way, demonstrating that you’ve already done most of the legwork frees the person on the other end of the line to simply fill in the blanks and move on to the main objective: getting off the phone.
All this searching and investigating can be draining, but it comes with the job. And you are a reporter, remember?
If you don’t hear back from an editor, says Hays, follow up with a quick reminder or approach another editor for one last push.
He explains, “If I’m really going out of my way to think thoroughly through who I’m pitching, why I’m pitching, what I’m pitching and I’ve spent time working the pitch, then it’s only respectful that they respond somehow someway.”