Reader question: Why won't an editor reply to my pitch?

April 17, 2013

By Monya Baker

What is your advice for getting editors to respond to emails? I have had several pitches die while waiting for editors to get back to me. In one case, when I finally wrote that I would take the pitch to another magazine if I did not hear back by a certain date, the editor ignored my ultimatum and accepted the pitch a week after I'd moved on. Of course, then I felt I had to forget the pain months of silence had caused and accept the work. How can I express urgency without annoying my potential employers? More importantly, why are editors so darn rude? I'm busy, too.

— Name withheld

Message in a bottle photo
First off, I should apologize. I've been one of those darn rude editors. It's true that every well-crafted, individualized pitch should get a reply, even just the terse standard "thanks, but not for us." It's also true that many pitches are ignored.

There is actually nothing a writer can do to make an editor respond to a pitch. That's why it's important to develop relationships with, or get introductions to, the editors you want to pitch. Having an introduction to or a face-to-face interaction with an editor can make all the difference between response and no response. That means meeting editors at conferences, or finding mutual acquaintances who can introduce you. Introduction or not, your best bets for getting a response are strikingly good pitches and gentle, judicious reminders.

Why you don't always get a response

1. An editor is overloaded. As press time nears, few editors are thinking about the next issue. During those crazy busy times, few emails get answered. And when editors do start going through the backlog, we start with familiar names and intriguing subjects. Something titled just "Story proposal" will languish or get deleted unopened.

SciLancers recommend a subject line that's short, specific and not too cute. Jill Adams got a feature in Audubon with "Story Idea: Chasing Dragonflies." Sarah Webb landed her first story in Scientific American with "Pitch from freelancer: science behind carbon fiber instruments." And if it's time-sensitive, make it obvious. Mark Schrope placed a long piece in the Washington Post with "Ridiculously time-sensitive pitch: Uncovering Egypt's hidden treasures."

Noting the kind of story, particularly with a magazine-specific name, can make you look savvy and get your pitch directed to the right editor. An essay by Emma Marris in Slate got its start with the subject line "Pitch: review or essay on Jim Sterba's forthcoming book: Nature Wars." Of course, once an editor does open your email, the subject line has done its job. You'll need a strong story and clips to get to a commission.

2. An editor is already jumping through hoops for the story. Let's say your pitch raises an editor's interest. Her next move will not be to send you an assignment letter. She'll need to make sure nothing similar is under consideration. (If a regular writer has a similar pitch, guess who gets the assignment?) Even if your pitch is unique, your editor needs to be convinced — and be able to convince her colleagues — that your story holds up and that you, an untested writer, can deliver. And she'll have to commit her limited time and freelance budget to you. Unfortunately, it's all too easy for an editor to get overloaded, and for an unspoken "maybe" to dwindle to "no" by default.

And sometimes, things take longer than you expect. After securing a spot on an expedition to Antarctica and seeing his original assignment fall through, Douglas Fox pitched over half a dozen publications (and endured months of frustrating rejections) before getting a commission. Ironically, that commission came from a magazine that had fallen silent for four weeks after initially responding with interest. In this case, the magazine's editor-in-chief was being replaced, and the features editor was unable to commit to new stories until that happened.

And other pitches came through too, eventually. Douglas ended up selling stories from his trip to five outlets in all. Both National Geographic and Discover later paid his way back for additional reporting trips. (He writes about that experience in our book in a box titled "Pitching Endurance".)

3. A pitch is annoyingly bad or mistaken for spam. While I'm assuming that this last (worst) reason doesn't apply to those of you savvy enough to find The Science Writers' Handbook, it applies often enough that it must be included here. If it doesn't look like you've put any thought into your pitch or where to send it, don't be surprised when editors make no effort to reply. If your pitch starts "Dear editor," you've lost a lot of ground. Do your best to find a name: Look at the masthead, ask your colleagues, search the web.

If a pitch looks like a mass email, I don't reply. I have also ignored pitches with bad grammar or old news pegs. I have even blocked senders: As a technology editor at Nature Methods, I cared about new techniques in microscopy and genetic engineering. If someone sent me a pitch about Angry Birds, I wanted to avoid getting one about Halo.

What you can do

First and foremost: Send a well-written, well-targeted pitch. Make sure it's a topic the magazine covers, and avoid common blunders like pitching something that just ran. (For advice on examples of what to do and what to avoid, see our chapter Making the Pitch, by Thomas Hayden.)

Let's say you've sent your pitch off. It was as good as you could make it and you've gotten no reply. You have no idea what the reason might be, and you don't want to give up yet. What should you do? A general rule is to send two friendly follow-up emails (again see Tom's chapter for guidance). The first email should be gentle, a quick note to make sure the previous email was received. The second email can say, "If I don't hear back by X date, I'll assume you're not interested. I hope to work with you on another story in the future." Stay polite and professional: Editors commission stories at least partly based on how easy the writer is to work with.

After two follow-up emails, and perhaps a phone call, it's time to move on. Perhaps your pitch wasn't right for the magazine, or your credentials were unconvincing. Or perhaps something fell through right before an editor had the go ahead to make an offer.

Take a hard look at your pitch and revise it for each submission. Maybe it will fare better at a more specialized journal where editors receive fewer pitches. Most of all, take heart and take your pitch elsewhere and elsewhere and elsewhere. If an editor enjoys reading your story in a competitor's magazine, you're more likely to get a reply to your next pitch.

Monya Baker is a senior editor on the comment desk at Nature. She has written for the Economist, New Scientist, The Scientist, Wired and other publications.

Image credit: NASA

Image credit: Elvis Payne via Flickr/Creative Commons