Jessica Reed: 'You have absolutely nothing to lose by pitching'

The features editor at the Guardian US shares her best pitching advice

Anna Codrea-Rado

Jessica Reed edits the sorts of stories you drop everything to read. As the features editor at the Guardian US, she’s responsible for some of the most intriguing, gut-wrenching and beautiful stories on the site, heck on the internet.

Some of the brilliant pieces she’s commissioned include Chris Arnade’s moving piece on driving cross-country with his drug-addicted friend; a deep dive into the underground world of LSD-assisted therapy, and a profile on the Texan man who helps police track people down, but can’t find his own missing daughter. She also edited one of my favourite pieces I’ve ever written: the Brooklyn bunny hoarder story.

A big chunk of the stories Jessica works on are written by freelancers. As an editor, she’s vocal about being open to pitches from writers at all stages of their careers and often publishes her own pitching guide on Medium, detailing the specific kinds of stories she’s interested in.

In this excerpted interview with The Professional Freelancer, she explains exactly what needs to go into a pitch for a long form feature, why you should always follow up with an editor and what her pitching pet peeves are.

TPF: How many pitches do you receive a week and do you (can you) reply to them all?

Jessica Reed: I would say I get between 50 and 70 pitches a week. I reply to about 80% of them. I would love to say I am one of those editors who reply to 100% of them but if I’m honest, I don’t - especially when the pitch is clearly not geared towards me (ie a sports pitch; a non-US/foreign story; travel pieces, etc - none of which I commission!). And sometimes, good pitches do fall through the cracks. 

That said, I do aim to get back to as many people as I can, even if it’s a quick “not for me, but thank you” line. 

Lots of freelancers worry about the etiquette of following up with editors – what's your take on it? 

It’s perfectly fine to follow up after a week. And then another final time (if you’re sending it more than that, you’re pushing it.) But then, what do you have to lose? What matters the most is tone - there’s a thin line between pushy and desperate. (In a way, it’s a bit like …  dating *shudder*.)

I also appreciate when people email me to say they’ve placed their pieces elsewhere - it saves me time, and I’m always happy to learn they’ve placed the work. 

What's your biggest pet peeve when it comes to pitches?

When people pitch a long form piece requiring a significant budget (travel, photography, art, etc) without putting the work in. Some people want to write 5,000 words but don’t show me they’ve done the work, and importantly, why it should stand at that length. If you want to write that long and you’re cold pitching, a lot of work has to be put in the pitch. I’m happy to send people my favorite example of a long form pitch if they email me.  

Another pet peeve: the sense I sometimes get that the writer already knows what they’re going to find - before they do any reporting (it can be that they have an axe to grind, or they think they already know where interviews will lead them, etc). It’s a shame: reporting should be treated as a jump into the unknown. Writers should dive with their eyes wide open, eager to be surprised, ready to handle twist and turns if necessary. Really, a lack of curiosity is a real killer, even at the pitch stage. 

How much pre-reporting should a freelancer do if they want to pitch you a long feature and why?

Let’s say that a long form feature, for me, is anything between 2500-5000 words. You should pitch with some of the items below, if not all of them:

  • What is the story, broadly speaking? Why should I care about it? Why now? 

  • List of characters and scenes (if applicable).

  • List of sources (people you will interview, Freedom of Information requests, court documents, etc).

  • List of questions to solve throughout your reporting.

  • What will your access be? Have you talked to people already? Do you have contacts on the ground? Why are you well placed to report this?

  • Something that few people do but I find very useful: name a few pieces that inspired you or are in the same vein as what you’ll aim for. (For example: “I want to go on a cruise with people who run a UFO cult … I would like to write this like David Foster Wallace’s Shipping Out in Harper’s magazine”). This gives me a sense of the scope of the piece.

Plus…

  • A tentative outline (this may come later, after I have expressed interest and ask you for a skeleton).

  • A budget.

  • Links to your previous work. If this is the first time you pitch a long form piece, make sure to go above and beyond. 

Do you take chances on young writers and reporters with not much experience?

Yes! A thousand times yes. I tend to start working with them on shorter pieces, and then, if we’re both satisfied and I find them pleasurable to work with, we start to explore more ambitious work. 

My advice to young writers: don’t limit or pigeonhole your work. A lot of you see first person, essays and opinion pieces as your way in - as is so often the case, rightly or wrongly. 

I would never discourage you to pursue this avenue, especially when you are trying to get your first bylines. But if you want to be a feature writer, it’s vital to also have reporting ambitions (and, eventually, reporting experience). Once you have a working relationship with an editor, you should slowly make more elaborate proposals to this end. 

I also personally think it is important for writers from all minority backgrounds (LBGTQ+, POC, folks with a disability, working class folks, etc) to not let themselves be pigeonholed. If you are good, you are good. You should be put to work on any and everything. Don’t only pitch on a topic or a format because you think that’s what editors want to see from you. Pitch on a wide range of topics you are passionate about.

There's a catch-22 when you're starting out that in order to get bylines, you need clips of published work but those are hard to get. So many self-publish or write for tiny outlets. How much weight do you give to where someone has been published when you're commissioning them?

It depends on the strength of your pitch. If it’s a long form piece, I’ll want to see you have some experience behind you. If you don’t, start by pitching smaller magazines and websites until you have a few good titles under your belt. 

But if you’re writing a short feature or a trend piece, it’s all in the pitch! If you make me laugh, if you’re intriguing, if you’ve done your homework, then you’re 70% there…. 

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