How to pitch to a science editor

Editorial pitch.jpg
Copyright: Suzanne Lee / Panos

Speed read

  • Editors want to know you’ve researched the topic and their outlet
  • Keep pitch short, accurate, simple, and suitable for the article type
  • Be friendly and flexible with the editor, and respect their guidance

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Successfully pitching a story to a science editor requires a wide range of skills, from researching their outlet to communicating with them in a professional way.

In this practical guide, we have compiled advice from six different science editors with extensive experience in commissioning pieces for a number of different outlets including Science, BBC Focus Magazine, New Scientist, the Mail and Guardian and SciDev.Net.  

Following the advice in this guide will increase the chances of getting your story accepted by an editor. Some of this advice is specific to science journalism, but most is relevant to other types of journalism too.


 Do your homework

Match your pitch to the publication’s content
Find out what the publication wants and needs. You may not know the editor’ s personal preferences, but you can easily find out what types of stories the paper or magazine typically runs. If it never publishes Q&As, don’t pitch one. If it runs mostly opinions or columns, pitch one of those.
Stick to its style
Use language that is in keeping with the publication’s style. Read several of its stories to find out as much as you can about its style and approach. 
Be unique and fresh
React to them. Are they laughing and engaged, or yawning and looking bored? If they seem uninterested or unhappy, can you modify how you are speaking to get a better reaction? 
Use the pitching guidelines
Ask for the publication’s pitching guidelines, and ensure you follow them closely. For example, to be considered for publication on SciDev.Net, a news story should describe a new and significant achievement, scientific breakthrough, technological innovation, policy decision, policy recommendation, official statement or political action and so on.
Make it relevant
In your pitch, you should demonstrate that you are familiar with the publication’s sections by saying where you envisage your piece appearing. For example, the opinion section in New Scientist
Make it original
Don’t pitch stories from press releases or major journals – most media have those covered in-house. Instead pitch from smaller journals and conferences with no press releases.
Research the audience
The best pitches have a ‘so what’ sentence or paragraph that outlines why the audience would want to read this story. To include this, you need to find out the characteristics of the outlet’s audience. 
Contextualise the research
If your story is about a new piece of research, how does it sit within the existing body of knowledge? Does it represent a major advancement? Or does it conflict with another theory? 


 Get the content right

Sum it up Come up with a compelling, exciting story idea. Can you sum this up in one sentence? You are more likely to get commissioned with a strong top line, even if the idea isn’t yet fully developed.
Narrow it down Be specific: pitch a story idea, not a general topic.
Why is it news? If you are pitching news, it’s important to clarify immediately why your story is newsworthy. Always pitch new and exclusive stories, and explain what makes them such. 
Build on other news Make your pitch relevant to what is already in the news. For example, a story on nutrition in Rwandan hospitals is interesting but why should it be published now?
A story on nutrition in Rwandan hospitals based on the latest WHO report or following a change in leadership at the local health ministry is a much stronger pitch. 
Use various sources In your pitch, you should demonstrate that you are familiar with the publication’s sections by saying where you envisage your piece appearing. For example, the opinion section in New Scientist
Watch the detail Ensure clarity and accuracy. Do a spell check and don’t misspell names in a pitch or get capitalisation wrong. 
Keep it short Editors are extremely busy people, so short and snappy pitches are more likely to be successful. 
Keep it simple Avoid jargon. Using words such as ‘stakeholders’, ‘leverages’  and ‘sustainable dialogues’ in your pitch will alienate the editor. 
Who are you? If it’s your first time pitching to an editor, include a bit about yourself, your areas of interest and your expertise.
Supply up to three links to your previous work or, if a new writer, briefly explain why you are best positioned to cover the story.


 Communicate with the editor

Be friendly and flexible Be friendly, available and agreeable during the editing process. Be responsive and flexible to the feedback provided by the editor. It will ensure the piece is better and more suited to the outlet. 
Respect the agreed word length Don’t try to negotiate the word length. The editor has a word limit and a budget, and it is theirs to bestow. Once you have built a good relationship with an editor, it’s okay to ask for more space, but only with justification. 
Keep them up to date Keep the editor updated about the story’s development, especially if there are delays. Missing a deadline without notification will damage the relationship. 
Respect the contract When you write as a freelance, the editor essentially buys a service from you. If you fail to deliver the service, you’ve voided the contract and the editor has no reason to pay you.
Feel free to remind Do chase editors who haven’t responded to an email within 24 hours, but don’t overdo it. An editor will be glad to be reminded if they have genuinely forgotten something, but remember that they are dealing with many other stories. 
Email or phone call? Editors can get hundreds of emails a day so be mindful of this. Some prefer phone calls, especially if the story has already been commissioned and this can be conducive to a better working relationship. But others prefer emails so find out their preference. 
Sometimes a meeting is best Some editors like to meet face to face. If you’re getting in touch for the first time, try to set up a face-to-face meeting, as you’ll get a much better idea of exactly what they’re looking for. This might be particularly useful for big pieces such as features. 
Get the tone right Do not patronise the editor. They too are experts and being mindful of this will ensure you don’t get on their wrong side. 


 Polish your pitch

Respect deadlines Your editor is working towards deadlines within their own outlet. The deadlines they provide you with exist for good reasons – keep to them. 
Be realistic Rather than pitching to a well-known publication if you’re inexperienced or unknown, try writing for some lesser-known publications first to build up your portfolio.
Stick to the commission  Don’t change a story’s angle or scope once the pitch has been agreed without notifying the editor. If you think you have suddenly discovered a much better story, don’t hesitate to call the editor and propose the change – they might be happy to consider a new angle. 
One pitch for one publication Don’t pitch the same idea to multiple publications at the same time. Editors will be annoyed if they see the same idea in a rival publication.
Language Don’t pitch a story in a particular language if you’re not at least pretty good at writing in that language. It’s okay if you’re not a native speaker as editors can clean up your grammar and style. But they have to be able to understand you. 


 Tailor it for multimedia

Address the format Make sure you pick a story that works well as a multimedia piece. Audio, video and photos add perspective and a human dimension to your piece, so you need to be able to convey this aspect through capturing the right visuals, ambient sounds or just letting the voice of your interviewees express their personality and views.
So when you pitch a multimedia story, mention why this story needs to be told in that particular format. If you’re not sure, don’t pitch it.
Cover the details Describe the detail of your material: what visuals, what sounds, and also equipment you intend to use. Editors will have different quality requirements, but most of all they want to see that you think in images and sound.
Keep it straightforward Keep the story as simple as possible: a strong, straightforward structure is paramount in multimedia production, or the audience will get distracted. Images and sound need to work to make the story stronger, but they will fail to achieve this if your narrative is confusing.
Have the right kit Don’t pitch a multimedia piece if you don’t have the basic equipment to complete it. For example, photos taken with your phone are not usually high quality enough, and dictaphones aren’t good enough to record broadcast-quality sound.


 Pitch checklist

Tick-purple.jpg Contact details – make sure your contact details are at the top for quick reference.
Tick-purple-beige.jpg Timing and location – when and where did, or will, the story break? Is there an embargo? 
Tick-purple.jpg Cover line – make the editor’s job easy by providing a catchy summary that could go on the cover or in the subject of an email.
Tick-purple-beige.jpg Suggested headline – sum up the idea behind the article or provide a suggested headline. 
Tick-purple.jpg 100-word summary – sum up the concept in no more than 100 words. You could even suggest an intro. Use lively language to make your pitch stand out from the crowd.
Tick-purple-beige.jpg Angle – if you have a unique angle to the story, make sure you explain it clearly. For example, what questions will your piece answer?
Tick-purple.jpg Research – provide links to research for easy reference.
Tick-purple-beige.jpg Press release/journal article – if the story is based on one of these, provide links or attachments. 
Tick-purple.jpg Page furniture – if appropriate suggest boxes, diagrams or graphics.
Tick-purple-beige.jpg Interviewees – list scientists and experts you plan to interview.
Tick-purple.jpg Portfolio – include examples of your work.
Tick-purple-beige.jpg Sell yourself – include your own website url or one line on your qualifications to convince them why they should hire you.
Tick-purple.jpg If commissioned, obtain written agreement – do they pay a flat rate for an article or a word rate? What are the payment terms? When is the deadline? What are the other terms and conditions?

This practical guide is a compilation of advice from the following contributors:

Inga Vesper: News editor at SciDev.Net. @keeping_cool
Jheni Osman: Former editor of BBC Focus Magazine, and now a freelance science writer, author and presenter. @jheniosman
Lou Del Bello: Multimedia journalist and producer at SciDev.Net. @LouDelBello
Martin Enserink: Contributing editor for Science magazine, specialising in infectious disease, global health and policy. He edits most of Science’s European coverage. @martinenserink
Mićo Tatalović: Former news editor at SciDev.Net, now environment and life sciences news editor at New Scientist magazine. @MTatalovic
Sarah Wild: Science editor at the Mail & Guardian in South Africa. @sarahemilywild

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net's Global edition.