How to: Finding out what editors want

In a recent post on pitching editors, a reader asked, “How do you ask editors what they want?”  Anyone who’s been pitching for more than ten minutes knows this question is more complicated than it looks because you can’t just send a random editor a letter saying, “Tell me what you want and I’ll pitch that” and expect a useful answer.  While there are ways to ask — I’ve noted some below — there are also ways to figure out what an editor wants without asking directly.  Here are some of the approaches that have worked for me:

  • When you have an ongoing relationship with an editor, asking directly can, in fact, work.   Last week, a colleague of mine sent a pitch to an editor she writes for occasionally and received a “thanks, but no thanks.”  Not exactly sure what had gone wrong — had the magazine’s freelance budget been cut, had the editor assigned through the foreseable future, did the idea suck? — she sent a quick email back to the editor and said, “Where’d I go wrong?”  The editor took a few minutes to tell her that there were certain kinds of ideas on certain kinds of topics that the magazine tended not to run (for example, the magazine might publish a feature on the star quarterback of the high school football team, but not on the second-string linebacker on the junior varsity string).  That’s not quite the same as “here’s what we want,” but “here’s what we don’t want” is helpful, too.
  • Establish a relationship with an editor.  Even if your pitch didn’t sell to a particular editor and you don’t have an established relationship, you can build one.  If an editor has answered one of your pitches (especially if she gave a real response and not a canned/form rejection), don’t just assume that no means she never wants to hear from you again.  (Unless she says so.)  Pitch again, and this time invite her to let you know if there’s anything in particular she’s looking for.  I did this successfully for a magazine that liked a feature idea but had a huge inventory of them backed up.  When I asked what else the editor needed, she said they were looking for short front-of-book material for children of a certain age.  Aha.   
  • Check out a year’s worth of issues of the magazine.   Y0u’ll see that most magazines run certain kinds of articles over and over.  You can imagine that the staff gets mighty tired of doing the same old, same old.  If you can find a fresh approach or a new twist to these topics, you will often receive an assignment out of sheer gratitude.
  • Look for guidelines and an editorial calendar.  Check out the magazine’s website for this information. 
  • Write letters of introduction instead of or in addition to regular pitches.  When I edited a quarterly magazine, the people I was most likely to hire were those who sent me emails outlinining their previous writing experience and their martial arts background and who sent a couple of brief ideas that showed they’d actually seen the magazine.  Since we developed the lineup in-house, I rarely ran a story that a freelancer pitched but I assigned a bunch of stories to freelancers each issue.  The only way I could find out about these freelancers was if they sent me a letter saying they were available and ready to write about whatever I needed them to write about.
  • Join writers’ groups and online forums.  You can get a lot of inside information about magazine by becoming a participant on sites like and
  • Network, give and get referrals.  In addition to participating in writers’ groups, get to know people who are successfully freelancing.  Most of them are nice people and are willing to share information.  Share your leads and ask them for theirs. 

Does anyone else have other tips for finding out what an editor needs?

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