Five Minutes With The Editor: Nancy Dunham

Lightroom 2 Catalog.lrcat - Adobe Photoshop Lightroom - Develop.jpgNancy Dunham is a former health care magazine editor who is currently a freelance writer in Alexandria, Virginia. Her clients include The Washington Post, Relix magazine, and Automobile. As a writer and editor, Nancy has experienced the pitching process from both sides of the table.

Last week, Nancy graciously gave me a little more than 5 minutes to discuss pitching from her point of view. She gave some great advice on what editors look for, along with some useful lessons she’s learned as a freelance writer pitching her own stories.

How do you decide whether a pitch is worth pursuing?

The thing I look for more than anything else is that the pitch fits the mission of my magazine. It sounds trite but it’s true: if I get a general pitch, it shows that the writer hasn’t paid any attention to the specific niche of the publication. That’s a real turn-off.

Staff writers are lucky because they have a lot more latitude. They’ll known an editor who can help them mold pitches and discuss where stories might hit or miss the mark. Freelancers don’t usually have that luxury. Once you’ve developed a relationship with an editor and they get to know your work, you might have more freedom to develop the story with the editor.

What makes a pitch easy to deal with?

Some writers make too much of pitches. They try to fit everything about the story, their subject and their history into the pitch. But in most cases, pitches shouldn’t be more than a paragraph or two.

When I first started freelance writing, I used to write much longer pitches until someone convinced me that a shorter pitch was the way to go. Since then, I’ve found more success this way. I now write short and targeted pitches without getting too involved in a lot of background information about myself or the people I want to cover. It’s important to cover the basics, but all you need is a line or two.

As an editor, if I’m interested in your pitch, I’ll follow up with you. But if the pitch goes on and on, well, I won’t have time to distill it. Tell me what’s important to me now.

Is there anything writers can do after they’ve pitched an idea to get the editor’s attention?

Follow up. So many people don’t do this. But I’ve probably increased the number of pitches I’ve had accepted by 50% just by sending a follow-up e-mail.

Tell me more – what goes into a follow-up email?

I forward my original pitch along with a message that says “Hi, I’m just following up and wanted to make sure my pitch didn’t hit your spam folder. I would love to hear any feedback.”

It’s as simple as that. You don’t need to re-pitch the idea.

I send two follow ups – one after the first week that I’ve pitched, and one after the second week. Then I stop.

This can can be frustrating. If you don’t get a response, you might think “maybe they didn’t get it” or “maybe they didn’t understand my idea” or “maybe I should resend it.” As a writer, this is a bitter pill to swallow. But believe me – they’re getting your messages. As an editor, if I wanted it, I’d let you know.

What about following up by phone?

I don’t do it too often but some successful freelancers swear by it. All you have to do is call and say “Hi, I’m so-and-so and I sent you a pitch. Just calling to make sure you got it and get any feedback.”

Some of this comes down to personality. If you’re really fumbly and uncomfortable on the phone, you’re going to make them uncomfortable.

What else should I send in my pitch?

If you have credentials, put them in there. It doesn’t have to be our whole resume, just a list of some publications you’ve written for. Keep it to a line or two, just to tell them who you are.

Also, clips – take a lot of care in picking out your writing clips. Some people send clips with big typos and so forth. It’s frustrating if you’ve had something published with an error in it. You can always send the original story and simply say where it was published.

Do you prefer getting writing clips as a link or an attachment?

I used to prefer attachments, but now so many email systems put them in spam. As cumbersome as it is, I cut and paste my clips in the bottom of an email. This way, I’m certain my clips get through.

I’ve sent links before, only to have editors say they won’t open. So even if I include a link, I still paste the writing sample below.

What about websites? Should writers have them and include them in their pitches?

I have three websites: one is a general website, another is a music website, and another is a travel website. I have the specific ones because, if someone wants me as a travel writer, they won’t necessarily want to look at my interview with Beck. It could be a turn-off.

Some people say you don’t have to be that specific, but I think it helps to be able to say “I’m an expert in what you need.” There’s a billion generalists out there. But not everyone is an expert.

As an editor, would you look at a writer’s website if they sent a link to it with their pitch?

I’ve done this before. It’s not a make or break thing, but it is another tool.

I find websites more useful when I’m hiring a staff writer than a freelance writer. Generally, if you’re hiring a freelancer, you’re just trying them out. The work is going to tell you if they’re good or not. But a staff writer is more permanent.

Still, a website can be very helpful for freelancers. If I’m editing an auto magazine and I can see that you’ve interviewed people from Ford and Toyota, I might be more interested.

So is there a key to writing the ultimate pitch?

It’s really pretty simple: keep it short, keep it targeted and keep it timely.

Many thanks to Nancy for taking the time to talk to with us. This interview was hugely informative!

Nancy recommends Freelance Writing Gigs for freelancers. You can get in touch with Nancy by email at NancyDunham@gmail.com or on the web at nancydunham.com.

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