I put a lot of thought into my story proposals. Not just what they say but when to send them. For example, I never send queries on a Monday morning. I’m not sure it actually matters – after all, does an editor really read my query the same day I send it? – but I know I’m busy on a Monday, and I assume most editors are, too.
Which day of the week to send the query is just one element I take into account when pitching a story idea. There are other, more tangible considerations as well. These often determine whether I make a sale, get a rejection, or have to wait another year until the window of opportunity cycles back again.
Whatever the nature of the publications you’re targeting – consumer, trade, online – you’ll want to consider the following elements before you hit send. Doing so not only improves the timeliness of your pitches but also increases the likelihood of your story ideas being accepted.
An important determinant in when to pitch is a publication’s lead time. Monthly consumer print magazines typically work on a three- to six-month lead time, an eternity in today’s internet-driven world. This means that even if the story you pitch today is scheduled for the next available issue, it might not see the light of day for half a year or perhaps longer.
Lead times can be shorter for print trade publications and business journals, which may be weekly and more news oriented. So if your story is perishable, you can pitch nearer to its expiration date for these types of publications. On the other hand, lead times for these journals can actually be longer if the title only publishes three or four times a year. Lead times are shortest for websites, which are generally the best outlets for the timeliest of stories. Unfortunately, these outlets may not pay as well – if they pay at all.
Understanding a publication’s lead time is crucial in learning how far in advance you should send your pitch and – better yet – allows you to time your query so it arrives exactly when an editor is likely to be most interested.
Seasonality is something to always keep in mind: Is your story evergreen (can be used year-round), or must it be used during a specific time of year? A story about movies filmed on location in a particular place can run at any time, but a guide to winter travel in that same destination must go to press before the season begins. For the first idea, you can query an editor whenever you like, but for the second idea, you likely need to send your query at least six months in advance.
Anniversary stories have to be planned even further ahead, sometimes as much as a year. My beat has long been Alaska tourism, and 2019 was both the 60th anniversary of Alaska statehood and the 50th anniversary of Princess Cruises sailing to Alaska. I had to consider both these milestones far in advance when preparing my coverage for the 2019 tourism season, and I had to do this long before these events were on the radar for most people – including my editors.
Some stories can even be evergreen and time-sensitive all at once. Take an article about a historic event like the Klondike Gold Rush. This happened over a hundred years ago, so no editor is in a hurry to get such a story into print. Yet certain dates within the gold-rush period remain significant – August 16, 1896, for example, when gold was first discovered in the Yukon. A story about a milestone anniversary, such as the 125th coming up in 2021, would ideally be featured in the August issue.
Many consumer magazines have a particular theme for each month’s issue. In that case, you’ll want to know the schedule in advance. One way to find out is to simply ask the editor for the editorial calendar. But editors aren’t always willing to give that out, especially to writers who aren’t regular contributors.
Luckily, there are other ways for resourceful writers to go about finding the editorial calendar. The easiest way is to go to a local library that subscribes to the publication and look at a year’s worth of back issues. Most themes are repeated from year to year, such as an annual holiday-themed issue in December, though not always. Periodically, the editors may shake things up so as not to get too boring or predictable. In that case, the best way to have the most current information on the editorial themes for any given year is to snag a copy of the magazine’s media kit.
Media kits are intended for advertisers, but they contain a lot of information that is useful to contributors – such as who the publication’s readers are (age, gender, average household income, etc.), what they’re interested in, where they live, and other details that may be useful for tailoring a pitch to a particular title – including the editorial schedule for the upcoming year. Digital media kits may be found on the magazine or publisher’s website, or they may be posted elsewhere online, but they’re almost always available if you look hard enough – sometimes you just need to do a little digging.
Query or on spec?
Finally, you have to decide whether you should query (send a pitch that roughly outlines your ideas) or submit the completed article “on spec,” or on speculation. This, too, depends on a number of factors, such as what method the editor prefers and which approach is more efficient for you as a freelance writer.
Oftentimes, editors request that new writers make initial contact by submitting their completed stories for review. This is especially true for first-person type articles such as a personal essay. The reason is very simple: Your idea may be intriguing, and your query may sound great, but any seasoned editor knows it’s all in the execution. If they haven’t worked with you before, they have no way of knowing you can fully deliver on what you promised in a pitch.
On the other hand, time is money, and freelancers trying to make a living may not want to invest precious hours in writing stories that haven’t been sold. If the story in question is more reportorial in nature, you may have to do quite a bit of research or interviewing, which means you’ll want to land an assignment first. All freelancers have limited resources to devote to our writing, and that energy may be better spent pitching ideas and timing them just right – using all the querying strategies outlined above.
M.T. Schwartzman covers Alaska tourism and the cruise industry for consumer and industry publications. He also teaches adult-education classes on writing and publishing.