How I Decide Where To Pitch

What comes first, the chicken or the idea?

But first, some micro-level industry buzz…

In the past few weeks, I’ve learned that *three* of my beloved editors are transitioning from their current positions. That makes a total of five of my editors since November who have moved into new, non-pitches-from-Ruth-accepting roles. (Btw, Amanda Shapiro is now the person to pitch at Healthyish. Her email is amanda_shapiro@condenast.com.)

A Medium publication that I rely on as sort of an anchor client is axing their $1-ish per word rates in order to pick up stories shared through the Medium Partner Program, at a significantly lower base rate — and they may not be the only ones. This already happened to me last year (Human Parts) and I’m waiting, breath bated, to hear back from another Medium editor I just pitched.

In the background, the rates attached to the calls for pitches on Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week and Study Hall have also been seeming low lately. There just seems to be a lot of shifting happening right now.

All of this is obviously anecdotal. Here’s hoping that it’s just my corner of the interwebs at this particular moment in time where things are looking grim. Regardless, now seems like a good time to talk pitching strategy.

Idea vs. Market

When people ask me what my pitching strategy is, I usually say “haphazard.” But there is a method to my madness.

Some writing coaches say it’s best to make a list of publications to pitch, research them, and then generate targeted ideas for them. This is a great way to get your foot in the door at dream publications, cash in on a niche you already have, and sell evergreen content. But if you’re only pitching things in line with what a magazine has already published, are you really pitching them something new?

Other folks swear that you should have a “tickler file” of ideas — yes, this is the grossest name of a file ever — which you can always refer back to and pitch to various editors until they find homes. Starting with the idea, IMHO, makes it more likely that you’ll pitch editors something that they just haven’t seen before and that showcases your unique identity, voice, and value-added. It also really lends itself to pitching simultaneously. (Stay tuned for an Ask Brad on that particular topic.)

Still, in your puppy-like pitching enthusiasm you may be sending ideas to publications you haven’t fully researched or pitching so much that you aren’t effectively tracking and following up on those pitches. I’m also not sure this method is great for pitching print or content writing clients.

My brain is wired for variety and idea generation — not methodically plodding through market research hoping something I read will generate a story idea. On the other hand, my creativity thrives in constraints so limiting myself in terms of markets is actually a good thing for me. And that’s why I use a mixed-up hybrid non-strategy strategy.

Ruth’s Mixed-up Hybrid Pitching “Strategy”

I’m learning that automation is key to managing ADHD, reducing decision fatigue, and just managing life in a way that doesn’t make me want to cry all the time. While sadly I still don’t have a solid gold morning routine, I have managed to automate aspects of the pitching process in a way that I think brings the best of all possible pitching worlds. Here’s how to do it.

Read a lot

I rarely do targeted market research for digital publications. That’s because it happens organically because I read all the time.

I used to use Feedly more to aggregate content from various publications. These days, I’m favoring Pocket to save interesting articles that come through my sosh or that I encounter when grazing the internet.

I pay for subscriptions to Medium, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and New York Magazine. I think it’s worth it. I use my partner’s New York Times subscription. Also, Pocket gets around some paywalls, FYI. I also pay for subscriptions to writerly newsletters (mentioned above) that publish calls for pitches with rates.

Over time, I’ve found myself relying on a few trusted sources of information for my news, while still maintaining a regular influx of new publications and fresh content from social media where I follow media, writers, librarians, and thought leaders. Ultimately, I don’t have to set time aside for market research per se; I just need to make time to read.

Keep track of your ideas

Reading widely has the added bonus of alerting me to news pegs, global trends, and what isn’t being covered through mental health, POC, expat, women’s, or equity lenses — three things I use to sell my stories. When I’m keeping up with my reading, I usually have more story ideas than I can action. Sometimes I give them away.

Last month, I purged my file of story ideas and organized the ones that actually have legs in Airtable. There are a few sort of broad topics like “maritime archaeology in Turkey.” However, I mainly try to include legit, sellable story ideas that already have potential sources and/or links to new research, news, or trends — e.g. “The Case for Observing Lent” or “Corona Marriages One Year In.” If I can’t think of a headline, it’s still a topic. If I can’t think of three potential markets for it, then it’s not a pitching priority.

Only pitch publications that pay your minimum rate

This is the absolute most important step of my process. A year or two ago, I decided to stop pitching places that pay less than 50 cents per word. I make occasional exceptions for passion projects, publications I want to support, door-opening bylines, or paid opportunities to build skills writing in a new format or about a topic I don’t normally cover. This year, I am moving my minimum closer to $1 per word.

Pick a minimum rate that makes sense for you based on your financial reality, geography, and goals.

The real genius here is that setting your minimum rate *drastically reduces* the number of publications that you need to research, particularly in the online space, regardless of your market research method.

It magically organizes the publications you read into those you can pitch and those you read for pleasure or to help spark ideas. You make one big decision about where to pitch, instead of lots of little decisions every time you hear about fun potential markets. If you only do one these steps, do this one. Happy pitching!