In this post, natural history writer Patrick Barkham shares his top tips for how researchers can pitch article ideas to the Guardian…
I’m a staff feature writer for The Guardian, working across the paper and website, and I’ve worked here on and off since 1998. I’ve had plenty of terrible ideas published and good ideas ignored. I’m sure you have brilliant ideas but here are a few practical ideas to help you get them published.
1. Know your section
You need to work out exactly which section of The Guardian your story idea best suits. Is it is news story (brand new, unheard of, happening today/tomorrow/next week), is it a daily feature (a longer exploration of a topic/issue in the news, for g2 or the Saturday paper), is it an opinion piece (your opinion, a line of argument about a topic in the news), is it a Weekend magazine piece or Guardian Long Read (a really fine piece of writing, usually a story with a beginning, middle and end, about something with current relevance). Is it a Family story (human interest, related to personal relationships), a Review story, a Travel story, etc etc.
2. Know your editor
Until recent times, a phone call was still a good way to pitch. Nowadays it is all email. To be honest, there isn’t much point emailing a generic address, e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org. Try to find an individual editor of a specific section. Everyone on The Guardian has an email address like this: email@example.com. Try Googling to find names of section editors, or use Linked In, or work on hunches or what you’ve read. Comment is free (Cif) is The Guardian’s daily comment section. This is a good place for new freelancers: the editors commission plenty of outside authors, freelancers, academics etc, but you must be able to churn out fast-paced, pithy controversial opinion pieces – you need to be emailing the editors there your unique, expert take on a story in the news that day at 9am, and be prepared to write 750 words in 2hrs to get published later that day.
Give your pitch email a simple subject, e.g., “story idea for today – seagulls”
You then need to be able to explain your story in a sentence. What’s the “top line” of your story? If you’re struggling with this, think about this: how would you explain your story to someone in a noisy pub in 30 seconds?
You might want to then take 250 words max to give a few more details, context, who you are interviewing for the story etc. Spend another sentence or two saying who you are – your credentials, why you are qualified to write this story. Give an editor your mobile phone number so they can phone you. You could include links to one or two of your other published pieces but this is often pointless – very few editors will have the time to read these (unless your pitching a really detailed 5,000-word essay for Guardian Long Reads, say). Your best credential is a great idea.
I’ve worked on stuff for The Guardian for years and I still find my email pitches routinely ignored by some editors. You will get ignored: editors are besieged with emails. If you’re ignored, follow up once with a quick apologetic note while your story is still relevant – “I’m sure you’re totally inundated but did you get a chance to glance at this?” – sort of thing. If you’re still ignored or rebuffed, try another section editor, on another day. Be realistic: getting a Guardian Long Read commissioned is almost as hard as getting a book commissioned – the longer the feature story, the harder it is to get it commissioned. You’ll stand a better chance of getting more modest short features (e.g., Shortcuts on g2) or short opinion pieces (like Cif) published at first. Polite persistence will get you there. Once you’ve had one piece commissioned, it gets easier – you can then start to build a relationship with an editor, and let them know about more of the sort of subjects you can write about. Good luck!
Patrick Barkham writes for the Guardian on natural history. He is the author of Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature (2020), Islander: A Journey around our Archipelago (2017), Badgerlands: The Twilight World of Britain’s Most Enigmatic Animal (2013) and The Butterfly Isles: A Summer in Search of our Emperors and Admirals (2010). You can follow Patrick on twitter via @patrick_barkham