So you want to write about mental health. Great! I’ve been writing mental health features for magazines and websites for a few years now in addition to blogging and getting my memoir published. Humblebrag, yes, but I have plenty of experience. Don’t let that put you off, because (shhhh) I have no formal journalism qualifications!
In this article, I’ll take you through the steps to pitching your mental health story to editors. I’ll provide real examples of emails that I’ve actually sent out to editors, ones which have been successfully commissioned and published online or in a magazine.
Once you’ve finished reading, you’ll be armed with everyone you need to outline and send your perfect pitch email.
Who to pitch to if you’ve got no experience
Here’s a list of publications (put together by Anna Codrea-Rado as part of her email The Professional Freelancer) who have actively stated that they will accept pitches from, publish and PAY new writers:
- The Overtake
- Metro UK
- Pink News
- Time Out
- The Delacorte Review
- Ars Technica
- Modern Work Magazine
- Intern Magazine
- Film Stories
- Debut Careers
Side note: Whilst you’re coming up with ideas and sending out emails, I would definitely recommend publishing regular posts on your own blog (or an external site like Medium) to create a portfolio of sorts.
Read the publication
It sounds obvious but you really need to understand the publication you’re pitching to before you make contact. For instance, the Daily Mail has a completely different readership to somewhere like Vice, and this will dictate the way you pitch a mental health story.
Read the content on the website and in particular, look at the stories they choose to put on the front page. These are the ones that appeal most to their readership.
Are they celebrity-focused?
Do they link to scientific studies?
Are they opinionated or does the writer sit on the fence?
Look at the headlines they use and that will give you a laser-focused example of what kind of stories they are likely to publish.
Many publications actually offer tips and tricks on how to submit, you can generally find these under ‘submission guidelines’. If you find submission guidelines, the information provided may confict with what I’ve written here. Obviously, always go with the house style when pitching! Here are some examples of submission guidelines which are freely available online.
Side note: Typing ‘submission guidelines’ or ‘contributor guidelines’ into Google is also a great way to find lesser known websites who are open to contributors. I also regularly search for the phrase ‘writers wanted’ on Twitter and it sometimes turns up a few gems.
Find the editor to contact
Once you’ve decided on a publication to pitch to, you need to find the right person to contact. A word of warning though, generic emails such as email@example.com generally go unanswered. Every good journalist knows that if you want to place a story, you’ve got to talk to the editor directly via their own email address.
Remember that there are multiple editors for different sections (e.g women, lifestyle, business, health) so do your research and make sure you’re contacting the right person. Do NOT copy and paste the same email to multiple editors.
Figure out the correct person to speak to first. Some publications have a page with names of all their current section editors – like this contact us page on iNews – but this isn’t the norm. You’ll have to do a bit of digging to find the exact editor and their correct email address.
How to find an editor’s email address
You can normally use LinkedIn to find editors, as people tend to keep their job titles up to date on there. You can then request to connect with them and include a personalised message, introducing yourself as a writer and ask if they are accepting pitches. BE FRIENDLY.
My next port of call is normally Twitter. Type in the name of the publication you’re interested in and filter the search results by people and you’ll find users who have mentioned the mag in their bio. This will help you find the editors, many of whom make their email address clearly visible in their bio. Jackpot! If not, you can always send a polite DM asking if they’re accepting pitches and who is best to contact.
This book also a great resource for contacts (affiliate link) although goes out of date yearly.
I would strongly advise against asking other journalists to hand over contact details for editors unless you know them really well. I value my relationships with editors and don’t always feel comfortable handing out their contact details to people I’ve never met. It just feels icky.
You should also consider signing up to these weekly newsletters as the send a round-up of editors who are actively seeking pitches, along with their email addresses. Even if you don’t pitch them straight away it is worth adding the email address to a spreadsheet for future reference.
How to pitch a good story
This is going to sound harsh, but most mental health stories are not newsworthy. Not at first glance, anyway.
Look at my ‘story’ for instance. I had a mental breakdown due to work-related stress. From my perspective it was life-altering. It destroyed me, I lost my career, my self-confidence and it took years to repair the damage done to my psyche and my circumstances. But to the general public flicking through a magazine or scrolling through their newsfeed? It’s not news.
The key to writing a good story is pegging it on one aspect of your personal experience, that’s how I’ve managed to write so many stories about mental illness from my own personal experience. I’ve never written an article that just retells my experience from start to finish, it always told through a different lens.
For example, in this piece for Grok Nation I wrote about self-care and why I used to find it difficult to justify spending money on myself when my depression was at its worst. I explain why and talk about my recovery and how my self-worth as improved over time. I’m still talking about my experience but I have honed in on one specific aspect (the cost of self-care) of it to comment on a wider subject (self-worth) which others can relate to.
Another example this article by Molly Longman on Refinery29 titled “If you think city people are rude, you’re right. But it’s not their fault”
Molly uses rudeness as a way in to talk about the mental pressure that city dwellers are under. She uses her own experience of moving from a small town to New York City to describe the behaviours that many people, especially women, display as a means of self-preservation.
A different example is an article I wrote for Happiful Magazine called “How to set realistic career goals after time off work” Although I don’t refer to my own personal experience of being off work with a mental illness, I knew that this was a pain point for many people returning to work after sickness.
Come up with a good headline
When you write your pitch, imagine that your editor is viewing your email like a reader. Most editors have an excellent idea of how their core reader thinks and so they will automatically read your pitch from that angle.
Adding a snappy, thought-provoking headline will give an idea of how your story will fit into their publication. Your headline doesn’t need to explain what your entire article is about, it just needs to intriguing enough to make them want to read more.
One of my most popular blogs on Metro was titled: “What I’ve learned from taking anti-depressants for six years” whilst another on Underpinned was “A year ago I turned to freelancing to save my mental health: Here’s what happened”.
Write the perfect pitch email
Creating the perfect pitch email is something that I’m still working on, several years after my first byline. Some editors will commission on a title and a few brief lines whereas others like a few paragraphs which outline in detail how the piece will flow. I say the safest approach is to keep your email as short as possible whilst answering these three questions:
1. What’s the angle?
This goes back to what I was saying before about telling the story from a particular point of view such as a small town girl moving to the big city
2. Why should you write it?
This might be because you have access to an amazing source, a seasoned expert or because you have the first-hand experience. Basically, why can’t the editor just pay a staff writer to tell the same story? Also, mention your previous work here and any other publications you have written for.
3. Why now?
Editors want timely content that readers are eager to read. If your story could be published at any time then its more likely to be bumped for something that ties with a recent celebrity death or a royal baby announcement
I’m writing to pitch a story to tie in with Mental Health Awareness Week which starts on May 13th, called:
How to prepare for a mental health day as a freelancer
Many freelancers will laugh at this headline. “Sick days? We can’t afford sick days!” But therein lies the problem. I moved into self-employment because I wanted flexible working hours to accommodate my depression and anxiety, but it can be easy to feel the pressure to work even when I’m unwell.
In this piece, I’ll explain how I’ve learned to prepare for sick days. I do this by being strict with how I arrange my deadlines, always leaving breathing room for my health to dip, maximising time when I AM well, saving money to afford time off, varying my workload so that some tasks can be done without too much creative thinking, automate my processes as much as possible, and keep in contact with clients about my mental health to extend deadlines if possible.
I’ll also talk a bit about preventative tools which help me maintain good mental health such as leaving my house every day, running and prioritising social time with other freelancers to help me feel less isolated.
I know that mental health days are a no-no for most freelancers, but I want to explain that with a little forethought, they’re not only achievable but beneficial.
Let me know your thoughts,
Why it works
I highlight from the get-go that this is pegged to an awareness week and state the date. This lets the editor know that this pitch is timely: it needs to be written now. I’ve made it clear that although the piece is from my point of view, it will be aimed at providing actionable tips that will help the reader.
I’m writing to pitch a personal finance story about how I manage my income whilst coping with a mental illness. I went freelance last year because my career in catering/retail was putting a strain on my mental health causing me to relapse every few months. The world of freelance comes with a degree of flexibility but also with a whole new set of money worries. Here is a bit of background:
- Freelance writer, age 31, living in Birmingham UK
- Earn roughly £12k a year although this changes month to month
- I had a mental breakdown a few years ago and still manage the symptoms, meaning self-employment seemed to be the best choice for flexible hours and time off (ha!)
- Health-related challenges: affording prescriptions, therapy and things which keep me mentally stable like healthy food and budget gym membership
- Freelance challenges: affording basics like an accountant, printer ink, web hosting and embarrassing things like paying for a client’s coffee at a meeting
I also got a book deal this year so I’ve been writing that on the side so my first year as self-employed has been pretty challenging. Do you think this is something that would resonate with your readers? I wrote a similar piece for the Money Diaries section of Refinery29 which you can read here
Let me know your thoughts
Why it works
I approached the business section of a newspaper to share how freelancing has affected my mental health. It was for a specific money series they run regularly so I added bullet points based on previously published articles (proof that I’d done my research) and added a unique angle of having a recent book deal (that’s why it needs to be written now). I also back up my credentials by linking to a similar article I have published a few months prior.
Your email subject line. It’s best to make it clear that your pitching a story, but make sure that the editor doesn’t mistake you for a PR person trying to plug a product or service. I do this by using the phrase WRITER PITCHING at the top of the subject line. Yes, I use all caps. I follow this with the proposed headline, so it would look like this: WRITER PITCHING – How a mental breakdown shaped my career in journalism
I know some journalist just use the word PITCH, but I’ve had specific feedback from editors who say they prefer my wording. Take your pick.
I run all my pitches through Grammarly which is a free piece of software that spots more errors that standard spell check. You can also install it on your computer so that it automatically highlights spelling and grammatical errors when you’re writing emails or filling out forms. It’s a real game-changer.
When to pitch
I never pitch on a Monday because chances are, editors are too swamped with emails and meetings to consider pitches. I find early morning pitches do well on Tuesdays-Thursdays. I also never pitch on a Friday because no one wants to start work on new projects on a Friday. By the time Monday comes, your pitch will be lost in their inbox yet again.
I use an email service called Boomerang which allows me to schedule emails ahead of time. So I can spend all Monday researching and constructing perfect pitches and arrange for them to be sent out early bells Tuesday morning, like 6am, whilst I’m fast asleep.
If all runs to plan, I’ll roll out of bed at 10am with a commission offer in my inbox!
How long to wait to chase up a pitch email
One of the other reasons I use Boomerang is to prompt me when to chase up unanswered emails. Bear in mind that some editors can receive hundreds of emails per day, and it’s totally acceptable for them to ignore your pitch in favour of other things. They do not owe you a reply. You contacted them, not the other way around.
With that said, it is reasonable to send a follow-up email to your initial pitch to find out if they’ve had a chance to consider it. I use Boomerang to send me a reminder one week after I’ve sent the initial pitch if they haven’t responded. I forward on the pitch again, with a new email along these lines:
I just wanted to follow up on my previous email and see if you had considered my pitch?
If I still get no response within a week I assume that it’s a resounding no and stop chasing up this particular pitch, and maybe try to place it elsewhere. However, this doesn’t mean that I’ll never email this editor again. It just means that they didn’t want this exact story.
In the past, I’ve emailed the same editor with ten separate ideas over the space of several months before getting one of them accepted. I honestly think the secret to the perfect pitch is a combination of practice, honing your ideas, contacting the right people, accepting rejection and not giving up.
When you get the green light
Hooray! You’ve got the go ahead! Remember to ask what the fee and deadline are before you submit any copy. You may find it difficult to talk money at this point but honestly, it’s normal and editors should be expecting it. Some dodgy publications will try to avoid talking money at all, then once you’ve sent over the copy they’ll say they assumed you know that it was unpaid. Gross but more common than you might think.
Do not make this mistake! If they send over contract look out for kill fees (a percentage of the fee which will be paid to you if they decided not to run the story) and other clauses such as your responsibility for sharing the piece on your own social media platforms. They may also have the right to syndicate your work and sell it on to other publications.
To learn more about freelancing, buy my book Out of Office: Ditch the 9-5 and Be Your Own Boss