So You Want to Pitch a Food Article? What to Do (and Avoid)

What does a food editor look for when you pitch an article? And what's the etiquette for following up?

An editor's advice on how to stand out from the pack. . Photograph: Shutterstock; Graphic: Vicky Wasik

Step into my inbox.

But jump over the Korean spam mailers for foot lotion and dodge the publicist who just doesn't get that I'm not covering National Pancake Day. Turn left at the tower of Emails To Respond To and there you'll find it: the slush pile.

In the publishing world, "slush" refers to unsolicited pitches—that is, story ideas—from the general public, and for editors, they're a blessing and a curse. Every editor has a story of their diamond in the rough, the gleaming submission from an untested new writer that glows with promise and passion and properly placed commas, the new writer that they, through the noble, poorly-paid work of publishing, got to show the world and turn into a star.

Then there's everything else.

While responsible editors do indeed plow through our slush piles in search of those gems, we have to do so quickly (to save time to continue Not Responding To Emails), and most pitches rarely get more than a few seconds of attention. Here are some guidelines to help you stand out from the pack and get your story read.

(But first, a quick note. Every editor and publication is different and has their own interests and process. Always check a publication's submission guidelines for the best pitching advice.)

Do Your Research

Good food writing requires good research, and your first step is knowing about the publication and editor you're pitching. Does a publication have submission guidelines? Follow them to the letter. (If they don't have guidelines, don't waste time emailing and asking for them, as they probably don't exist in email-able form; just send a smart pitch.) We editors, like wildebeests, are creatures of habit and don't appreciate startling new formats of information.

Doing this advance work will let you anticipate an editor's questions before she thinks to ask them, and I'll be frank, there's nothing more attractive than a writer who already knows what an editor wants. So if you need to provide your own images, have photo samples ready. If you can estimate a research budget for your story, do so.

Research means knowing what topics a publication covers, how it covers them, and what they've done on the subject already. For instance, Serious Eats writes about, among other things, hot dogs, Chinese food, and ice cream. Dog food and nutrition? Not so much. Keep your topic relevant.

Also explore a publication's voice and approach. Do they run long, detail-oriented articles or shorter, snappier, action-oriented text? What are their story formats? Is your voice a good match for theirs? Find out and adjust your pitch accordingly.

"The more your idea can fit in with a publication you're pitching, the more attractive it'll be."

It's important to know how your pitch fits into a publication's previous content. That means you should make sure we haven't done your story before, and if we haven't, it's not because we never cover topics like your pitch. Think about niches you're knowledgeable in that a publication is missing but ought to be covering, then go for them. When an editor reads your pitch, they're indexing it against everything in that publication's archive and what's currently on the web. The more your idea can fit in with a publication you're pitching, the more attractive it'll be.

Good research also means knowing my name, and checking that my name is in fact mine, not my counterpart's at some rival publication (this happens more than you'd think). If you're pitching a specific editor, read up on the types of stories they produce. For instance, our senior editor Maggie notes in her bio that she helms our beer, wine, and spirits coverage. She'd be a more receptive target for your wine story than I would.

Prove Your Story's Relevance

"You need to prove why your story is relevant, and why it's urgent someone read it now."

As a writer, your job, above all else, is to tell me a story that matters. I don't care if you're writing a 4,000-word profile of a Cambodian rice farmer or a guide to Mexican markets in LA. You need to prove why your story is relevant, and why it's urgent someone read it now. (Perhaps that farmer's just started selling rice outside Cambodia, and the world needs to know!) Developing and maintaining a sense of urgency—the feeling that we have to keep reading—is a critical part of most writing, but especially food.

Many writers fall into the "because it exists" trap. They find news or a topic that they feel qualified to report on, but they don't ask why the idea deserves reporting. Is a chef opening a new restaurant? Is there a new immigrant food hitting the streets for the first time? Do you know the history of some kitchen appliance? All these ideas make fine cocktail-party fodder, and they're interesting topics, but they're not stories in and of themselves.

Great writing turns an interesting topic into a must-read story, one that makes a unique claim or argument matter to readers. If a publication reaches a national audience like Serious Eats does, then that writing also has to transcend its local interest and matter to people a thousand miles away. So put your story in context and ask yourself, "why does this matter?" Even if you know the answer, the line you tell yourself should probably make its way into your pitch.

Demonstrate Your Expertise

"I'm going to New Orleans and I hear they have nice oysters." "I just moved to Houston and want to explore the brunch scene."

These are classic examples of the "amateur interest" trap, in which a writer hopes a publication will pay them to explore an idea, even though they just admitted they don't know much about the topic and have no clear argument or story angle in mind. Now in one sense, this is how all reporting works: you use your skills as a researcher and storyteller to learn about a topic, then report on it.

"Tell me enough about yourself in your pitch so I can see why you're the best person to write this story."

But when I hire writers, I look for experts: people smarter than me who can address a particular facet of a topic with more depth, experience, and intelligence than I can. One of the "why this pitch" questions I ask myself is, "why is this writer the most qualified to do this story?" Does the writer have experience with the topic? Is she a cocktail expert pitching a piece on shrubs? Is he a skilled reporter who knows how to dig into a story and sound like an expert? Tell me enough about yourself in your pitch so I can see why you're the best person to write this story.

That means including relevant clips from previous work. And it means telling me enough about your life or work experience so I can see you know your stuff. I don't need a resume (please, no resumes!), but if you're reporting on some revolutionary new variety of apple, now would be a great time to mention that time you spent learning about plant genetics from a science-minded farmer.

Don't have any published work to your name? That's okay—send me anything: a Yelp review you're proud of or a short piece you wrote but never published. Show me something to help me trust your intelligence and writing ability. Editors love taking risks on promising writers, but they need a show of good faith to do so.

Make Your Pitch as Compelling as Your Writing

Your pitch is your audition tape. It's you, and your story, in miniature. That means it should read as compelling as the rest of your writing. It should communicate your expertise. It should make me care about what you have to say from the very first paragraph. And it should be grammatically correct.

"Rambling narratives, poor spelling or grammar, and the absence of a clear central story concept all signal to me that a writer isn't ready."

All of which is to say: put time into your pitch. Make it an honest reflection of your work. Do you know how to write a concise and captivating main argument? Do you know how to frame a question within relevant context? Then show me. Because when I read a pitch, I'm not just scanning your idea—I'm evaluating how well you write about it. Rambling narratives, poor spelling or grammar, and the absence of a clear central story concept all signal to me that a writer isn't ready. But a well crafted pitch is a thing of beauty.

Specifics to Include

Every publication has its own pitching guidelines, and if you can find those guidelines, follow them to the letter. But here's the basics of what an editor—including me—wants to see.

  • A clear story idea that has a point beyond describing a topic. What's the one-sentence version of your pitch?
  • Brief background to show your familiarity with the topic and your expertise backing up whatever argument you make.
  • A plan of attack: how do you intend to write the story? Have sources agreed to work with you? Do you have preliminary research? If your answers to these questions are "no" or "I'm not sure yet," your pitch needs more work.
  • Clips of any relevant work, including links to photo samples if you're supplying your own images. But don't send me a link to your blog's homepage; I'd rather see specific links to pieces you're proud of that demonstrate the polish we look for in finished work.

Keep your pitch concise. 150 to 200 words is all you should need to nail everything above.

What Not to Include

And here are some pitfalls of the slush pile to avoid:

  • A resume. No one reads 'em. Just skip it.
  • Attachments. The contents of a word doc can be copied and pasted into an email. Photos can be links to an online folder. Large attachments clog inboxes and slow down an editor's workflow.
  • A rambling introduction broadly describing your interest in a topic—this causes editors' eyes to glaze over. The main point of your pitch should be in one of the first sentences.
  • More talk about your general topic than your specific story. Always stay close to your angle to keep it unique.

Following Up

Let's fast forward a bit. You've done your research, tailored your argument and battle plan, and made sure your pitch follows a publication's guidelines. You've sent it to the right inbox and... now you're waiting.

A week goes by. Two. Four. And you don't hear a thing.

Writers ask me all the time when it's okay to check in with an editor about an earlier pitch that doesn't get a reply. The sad truth is many editors don't have time to personally reply to every unsolicited pitch. But sometimes—rarely, but sometimes—pitches really do get lost in an editor's inbox, and your story hasn't been rejected at all; it was just never noticed.

"sending a polite follow-up two weeks after submitting a pitch isn't unreasonable"

Check-in etiquette can vary by editor and publication, but sending a polite follow-up two weeks after submitting a pitch isn't unreasonable, especially if your story is timely. Just be sure to keep it positive and not apologetic: Hi TK, I was wondering if you had a chance to consider the story idea below. I'm happy to provide any additional information you need.

What you don't want to do is badger an editor who's decided not to pursue a relationship with you. It takes a lot for an editor to blacklist a writer, but clogging one's inbox is a surefire way to get on their bad side.

How to Pitch Serious Eats

"In short: we want obsessives, writers ready to show us all the food that matters."

If you're looking to pitch Serious Eats, well, you've just read our pitching guidelines! What are we looking for? Smart, savvy writers who can tell us—with authority—about the most delicious things where they live, who can make regional food come alive and relevant to a national audience. Experts with opinions and the ability to craft inspiring prose. Curious thinkers who pose the non-obvious questions about how food works and why it's important. In short: we want obsessives, writers ready to show us all the food that matters.

Read up on the topics we cover and the way we cover them. Familiarize yourself with our house style and voice (read up on our list of banned words, too). Then check out our masthead to meet our editors.

You can send your pitch to a specific editor on that masthead or to our general editor inbox,