Landing a Byline in a Reputable Newspaper
It may feel like the pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post are meant exclusively for the likes of senators and seasoned writers, but the op-ed pages are ripe for opportunity when it comes to less experienced individuals.
While it helps to have previous clips at established outlets, the right angle and set of experiences can tell the story it takes to land a piece at your most sought after publication. Not only that, but with a little guidance on the particulars of connecting with editors in the right way, you can be on your way to a bragworthy byline in no time.
Even the world’s best op-ed idea won’t see the light of day if it’s not presented to the right editor in the right way. Landing an op-ed is a learned skill, and I want to save you the hardship of pitching in the dark with a few helpful skills to use moving forward.
1. Read the op-ed pages. Don’t choose any old newspaper or magazine at random. Get specific — and then spend a few days reading the op-ed pages to get a feel for subject matter, style, and ideology.
2. Find the editor. Never submit an idea to the generic [email protected] publication if you can help it. Do your due diligence on Google, seeking out mastheads, searching on LinkedIn and Twitter to locate the best section editor you can find with name and email. Publication email configurations are usually fairly simple to find or guess at.
3. Personalize your pitch. Address your email to the first name of the editor and do your homework on the kind of subjects they’ve commissioned before. Be sure the subject matter hasn’t been covered recently — or in the same way you plan to address it.
4. Get specific. Make sure your idea is a piece and not just a general idea. What is your specific viewpoint and how will you back it up with data, examples, and persuasive talking points? You don’t need to explain every detail, but if the editor asks for more information, be ready to provide how you will substantiate your argument. How is what you have to say different from every other Joe Schmo on the street?
5. Craft the pitch. Editors receive potentially hundreds of emails per day, so you have about two seconds to grab their attention. For that reason, get to the interesting point of your pitch right away. Waste no time with pleasantries. Clearly state what you want to write about, why it’s uniquely interesting to their particular publication, and why you are a good person to write it.
6. Hone the subject line. An editor’s inbox is full — all of the time. You have a small opportunity to entice them to click on your email by using an honest, intriguing subject line. Always add “Freelance pitch:” before your main line so they are aware and will not skip over it.
7. Include your relevant work. You should always include at least a few clips/links to your past writing to show you can write. It’s okay if you don’t have any reputable outlets to your name, send what you have — even blog posts at smaller websites — and any relevant work experience. This part will always go at the tail end of the email.
8. Follow up. If the subject matter is timely and you want to get it published quickly, follow up within a few days. If it’s less timely, give it at least a week. A follow up should be as simple as forwarding the first email to the editor and adding a new line: “Just wanted to follow up on this pitch to see if you are interested for XYZ publication.” Many times, editors just miss it the first time and follow ups can be key. Never be afraid to follow up — they are not irritated by it! Good editors really try to respond to all legitimate pitches, but it doesn’t always happen.
9. Try another option. If you get a rejection or radio silence, don’t give up. Simply re-tool your pitch for a second or third option and find the new, right editor. Don’t let them know they are your second choice — pitch as if it’s your first.
You may be wondering if you can write the op-ed before pitching it. Yes, that’s totally acceptable, but many people like to wait for a “yes” from editors in case they offer guidance or thoughts on what they are looking for. If you do choose to write the piece first, I recommend pitching the idea first and then offering the fully written piece at the end “if you’d like to see a draft,” or simply getting the “yes” and then sending along the draft hours later as if you’d written it after the pitch was accepted.
It’s key to remember that every editor is different and there are a million reasons why an op-ed may or may not be accepted. Rejection is a part of freelancing, but those that persevere will ultimately see the bylines they dream of.
Editor’s note: For an in-depth look at how to plan, draft, and pitch an op-ed, apply now for the Spring 2021 Writing Fellows Program!