Post updated: October 18, 2020
This is part four of a four-part series on pitching as a freelance writer. For an overview of the series and easy access to every other post, click here.
You did your research, crafted what you assumed to be a perfectly polished pitch, and then pressed that “send” button.
You cross your fingers and hope that you’ll hear something soon. But, after a solid week of obsessively refreshing your inbox, you still hear nothing but the taunting sound of crickets.
What the heck happened? Why isn’t that place getting back to you? You did everything right!
It’s frustrating. Believe me, I get it. But, as irritating as it can be, it’s the way things go. Many times (dare I say more often than not?) you won’t hear back from a brand or publication right away. Or at all.
Now, that’s not to say that you need to accept that radio silence at face value and do nothing about it. In fact, I encourage you to follow up when you don’t hear anything in response—with a few caveats, of course.
And, that’s exactly what we’re talking about in this post, which also happens to be the very last one in my series on pitching as a freelance writer. So, let’s get to the good stuff.
Remember way back in the beginning of the series when we talked about how important it is that you follow any pitching instructions that a brand or publication has outlined? Well, that same rule is going to apply when it comes to following up.
Many outlets—particularly large ones that work with many contributors—will have something like this that appears on their “contribute” or “submit” page (you know, the page where you found all of the details about how to send your pitch in):
“Due to the volume of submissions we receive, we’re unable to respond to each one. If we’re interested in your submission, you’ll hear back from us within two weeks.”
The language and timing may vary from place to place, but the core message is still there. They’re setting an expectation for when you should hear back—if you’re going to at all. It might seem sort of harsh, but I actually prefer this sort of guideline over uncertainty.#FreelanceWriting Golden Rule: If a place tells you not to follow up on your pitch, DON'T! Click To Tweet
However, time and time again, I see freelancers fall into the same overly optimistic trap. They haven’t heard anything about their pitch, and it’s been two and a half weeks.
“I know it says I’d hear within two weeks if they were interested,” they think to themselves as their fingers fly over their keyboards, already tapping out their follow-up message, “But, they can’t mean me—my pitch was awesome! I’m willing to bet it got lost in the shuffle, so I should probably be safe and check-in.”
This is going to be hard to hear, so brace yourself: Your pitch isn’t floating aimlessly in cyberspace. They simply weren’t interested.
Does that sting? Definitely. Like I said, I’ve been there many, many times. But, the first step in the follow-up process is actually recognizing when you shouldn’t follow up at all. And, if that publication or business has already clearly detailed when you shouldn’t bother? It’s in your best interest to take their sage advice.
The same is true if you included a self-imposed deadline in your pitch (which I generally recommend). Let’s assume you said something like the following:
If I don’t hear from you by [Date], I’ll assume you aren’t interested and move forward with pitching this story elsewhere.
You need to honor your word here. If the date you set has come and gone, following up will only make it look like you were bluffing with the deadline you included.
When you’ve set a deadline for a response and you can’t resist the urge to follow up, you need to do so before that end date.
A couple of days before the deadline you set rolls around, you can check in with a friendly nudge. But, remember, if that date has already flown by, there’s no point in following up. Do what you said you would and move forward with pitching your story elsewhere.
You looked, and there’s no note like the one above stating that you shouldn’t check in. Plus, you didn’t establish a deadline in your pitch.
You’re free to follow up when you feel like it, right? Not so fast.
I know that you’re eager to get a definite answer on whether or not your pitch was accepted. However, it’s important that you remember that you’re not this place’s first priority. Not even close, actually. They have businesses and publications to run. And, most of the time, getting another freelancer through the doors doesn’t rank high on the priority list—unless they’re really desperate for some extra hands.
What does that mean for you? As tempting as it can be to follow up after a mere 24 hours with a seemingly friendly, “Hey, did you see this?” message, it’s smarter to wait a reasonable amount of time before asking about your pitch.
What’s a reasonable amount of time? At the bare minimum, wait one business week (right around five days). But, sometimes I even wait a full two weeks before checking in.
Sometimes the pitching process is long. I mean long. Need an example? I first pitched The New York Times on August 22, 2018. By the time I actually submitted an approved story? It was May 15, 2019. There were quite a few follow-ups and interactions in there. But, I think it’s a testament to the importance of being patient.
There’s one exception here: If you’re pitching a timely story that needs to be approved and published ASAP. When you need to move quickly with your piece (for example, you’re reporting on a current event happening now), you might need to follow up sooner than 24 hours. Use your best judgement.
This is something I do even before it’s time for me to follow up to see whether or not my pitch has been accepted or rejected.
Since so many places have you send your information to general inboxes (think firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, for example), it’s easy to feel like you’re shouting into the void. If you didn’t hear anything back the first time, it’s tough to have confidence that there will be anybody on the receiving end of your next message.
For this reason, I usually try to avoid following up using a website contact form or some other generic means of communication—unless, of course, the instructions told me to only use that method (remember, following directions is so, so, so important).
But, if I have the freedom to try other avenues, I’ll search to see if I can find someone relevant to follow up with personally. I’ll search on Twitter, LinkedIn, or even do a Google search for something like “[publication name] managing editor”, “[publication name] editor in chief”, “[publication name] [section] editor,” or “[company] content marketing manager.”
If and when I find that person, I’ll connect on social platforms and start to interact. Building name recognition and planting the seeds of a relationship never hurt.
Plus, now that I have a name, I can do some more digging to see if I can find a personalized email address for that contact. That way, I have somebody I can follow up with directly, which usually always yields better results.
In addition to making sure that the pitching instructions don’t direct you to avoid personal emails and only use the provided email address for all things submissions-related (trust me, you don’t want to be the internet creep who clogs up somebody’s inbox when they explicitly asked you not to), it’s also important that you search for a relevant person to check in with—and not just anybody you can manage to find.
After all, do you really think that the salesperson or accountant you found on LinkedIn is going to be able to help you get your pitch into the right hands—simply because they work there? Probably not.
Let’s face it—even the most well-crafted of follow-up messages can still be, well, a little annoying.
Think of when someone has sent you one of those infamous “just checking in!” emails. You understand the intention, but that doesn’t necessarily switch off the irritation you feel at having yet another email to deal with, right?
Call it self-deprecating, but I typically like to make mention of my eagerness in my follow-up email. Not only does it give me another chance to showcase a bit of my personality and my humor, but it also shows that I sympathize with the person on the receiving end.
Oftentimes, I’ll also use my desire to follow up as further justification of how excited I am about the idea of writing for that outlet. Find out more about what that looks like in action by grabbing the free template with this post.
Listen, I won’t lie to you and say that this works every single time. There are still plenty of places that I just never hear back from (sigh…). Everybody is different, and there are some outlets that make you feel like you literally need to send a skywriter to get their attention.
But, you know what? That’s okay. If you put the effort into crafting an excellent pitch and then politely follow up on it when the time comes, you can at least be assured that you did absolutely everything in your power to increase your own success rate.
Remember, make sure you double-check the fine print, wait a reasonable amount of time, and do your best to find a personal contact. Do those things and you’re at least a little bit more likely to hear something back.
Good luck! I’m rootin’ for you.