During my first year attempting to be a writer post-college, I would fire off what I thought were pretty good pitches in between bartending and babysitting shifts, only to be rejected or worse, flat-out ignored. To be fair to the editors, these pitches were terrible. They were often topics, not ideas. When they were ideas, they were grandiose cover story-type ideas no editor in their right mind would trust a 22-year-old with. My emails were unwieldy and formal, and included opening sentences like “The tale of the struggling waiter-artist in New York is nothing new.” Then why are you pitching me a story about it?
But to be fair to 22-year-old me, this was 2006, when legacy publications were the gold standard, bloggers were still largely unpaid and pantsless, and Twitter didn’t exist. The process of breaking into journalism was maddeningly opaque. Editors’ true desires seemed inscrutable. Nowadays, the barriers to entry for new writers are far lower and far less concentrated in elite institutions. But curiously, most pitches I get from young or inexperienced writers are no less embarrassing than the ones I sent a decade ago.
In the face of an increasingly hermetic media bubble, Splinter has been making a concerted effort to nurture greener writers and diversify our bylines. In that spirit, I’m here to tell you exactly how to pitch us. First, spend some time reading Splinter, particularly Voices, the vertical I edit. Voices is not a traditional opinions section; it’s rather a space for longer, more considered essays and narrative features from progressive writers. We like stories with a social justice bent: anything having to do with race, class, gender, LGBTQ issues, sex/sexual politics, immigration, subcultures, pop culture, and any other topic young people would care about.
Here are the forms those stories could take:
Longform: This could be a reported feature, with more traditional magazine vibes: voicey but not much first-person. Pacing is key. This could also mean a meaty reported essay with an argument at its center—perhaps illuminated through a personal narrative, or framed as a cultural deep dive.
Think piece: These are researched but not necessarily reported, topical but not necessarily news-pegged. They often pinpoint a social or cultural issue that people are thinking about a lot but can’t quite articulate. These are the things you’re gchatting your friends about.
News-pegged essay: This is a smart take on the news that goes deeper than the insta-takes by providing context that other pieces don’t. I particularly love a personal essay from someone who has an insider perspective on a news event. Or these essays may use history to deepen our knowledge of the news.
Interviews/Q&As/as-told-tos: These could be with someone well-known like an author, activist, or actor (don’t pitch these unless you have an idea of how to access these people, or better yet, already have access). These could also be key players in the background of important news stories, experts demystifying the news, or just regular people with fascinating personal narratives.
Personally, I prefer a pitch of just a few sentences—one to two paragraphs, maximum. I’m a busy woman and will probably not read a 500-word cold-pitch email. If I like the idea, rest assured we’ll chat more about the details. (I’m a big phone-talker.) Also include the time frame or peg you’re working with, and a few clips if you’ve never written for Splinter before—or, better yet, a link to your personal site.
Please don’t pitch: short takes (our staffers do these), culture reviews, fiction, personal essays divorced from the news, or hard news stories (unless you have an amazing scoop). And for the love of God, please don’t send me completed submissions. Some editors like this, but I prefer to be there for the idea’s inception.
And here are a few general words of pitch wisdom for new freelancers, things I wish I knew way earlier:
Explain why this piece is perfect for Splinter. It shows me that you’ve read us and you get us, and it convinces me that I need this piece just as much as you need me to assign it to you.
Start small. Don’t pitch a sprawling, ambitious feature on your first try. Start with a Q&A or personal essay or, if you want to try out reporting, suggest an event (i.e. a gun show the week after the Orlando shooting) to give a shorter piece a narrative center.
Be original. This seems obvious, but I constantly get pitches for stories that have already been written. Spend some time reading up on the topic, familiarize yourself with what reporting is already out there, and make sure your angle is a fresh one.
Lead with your idea, not your bio. I’m not going to be impressed that you went to Harvard—at all, actually, but especially if your idea isn’t good.
Write an intriguing subject line. This is more delicate than it appears. I would suggest a headline-esque phrase that gets to the heart of the story, but keeps it conversational—if it looks TOO headline-esque and formal (if it’s in title case, for example), I often think the email is a PR pitch and will delete it. If you’re stumped, think of how you’d tweet the piece.
Know that any editor will Google you once you pitch them. So have an easily navigable personal website at the very least, and a Twitter account so I understand your taste in internet.