You don’t have a news hook.
This isn’t vital for every story, but it is good to have a news hook. People are often looking for material on what they’re personally interested in, or what’s going on around them. A story on mental health is a much easier pitch during mental health month, for example. A recent whale beaching is a good time to write about the environment.
Ongoing issues can be used as well as singular events. In the US, a recent spike in drug addiction has led to more publications around the subject. A continuing crisis in healthcare means there’s a fairly steady flow of features on the medical system and patients.
Think how your story ties into current events, fashions or trends. Maybe it’s something in your personal life, or maybe it was provoked by a conversation you had.
You don’t explain why it’s important.
If you aren’t attaching your story to current events, you need to explain why you think people will read it. Compelling places, statistics, images and characters can carry a story.
Exercise: a stranger approaches you at a bar and asks what you’re working on. The music is loud, so you can’t talk for too long. You need to tell them clearly what the story you’re writing is, and why it’s interesting. At the end, you want them to want to hear more. What do you say?
You’re a little long-winded.
Editors are busy. Really busy. Really, really busy. Keep in mind that their inbox is filled with pitches, and they have to get through them all before the end of the day.
As journalists, we’re often in love with our subjects and our work (we certainly don’t do it for the money.) Accordingly, we can say a lot about it.
When composing a pitch, be sure you’re only saying what’s necessary. An editor isn’t likely to look on your two-page pitch as passion (unless they ask for a two-page pitch). They’re more likely to look at it as an inability to summarize or clarify within word count.
Story pitches are best limited to a couple paragraphs. Explain your idea, why it’s compelling, and if you have already done some work on it and have some eye-grabbing research or quotes, mention them, but not more than that.
You don’t sound sure of yourself.
Women in particular fall victim to this. The more hesitant you sound to an editor, the more hesitant they’ll be to hire you.
Exercise: after you write an e-mail pitch, go back and delete the word, ‘just’ (as in ‘I just think…’, ‘just suggesting an idea…’). Also reconsider, ‘maybe’ and any apologies for ‘taking up their time’.
You don’t sell yourself as well as your story.
As a follow-up to sounding sure of yourself, make editors feel sure of you. Why are you the best person to write this story? Do you have personal experience? Have you spent time in the field?
You don’t have to send your CV (unless asked) or write your autobiography. If you’ve been included in publications you think are reputable, mention them. If you’ve written similar work you’re proud of, link to it. If you have a website, direct them to it.
You didn’t read the instructions.
Many websites will detail exactly how they want to receive their pitches. Some want you to phrase the subject line a certain way. Some will not look at finished work, just want proposals. Many want examples of previous work.
Show some familiarity with the magazine. Before you pitch, read a few similar features. Get a sense of their tone, what they’re looking for, length and voice.
Also, if there’s a name of a specific editor, use their name. “Hi,” when you’re writing to an e-mail address that includes the name isn’t insulting per se, but can make your message look slapdash.
Another way not to impress an editor is to pitch a story very similar to one the publication just ran. Before you hit ‘send’, do a quick search to see if they did indeed think your idea was a good fit for the magazine….already.
You make grammatical or spelling errors in your pitch.
The occasional typo happens. More than that? You’ve dug your own grave.