You likely already know that guest posting for your favorite blog or even major publications like The New York Times (hey, why not?) is an effective way to get your ideas, blog, business, and you in front of more eyeballs; build greater credibility and authority; and help and reach MORE people. There’s just one giant question: How do you guest post, especially in 2019??
In truth, not much in the foundational aspects of publishing guest posts has changed.
I know because I’ve been publishing articles on the internet since 2001, including in major outlets like:
Sometimes You Have to Quit to Get Ahead (The New York Times)
These are just a microscopic sample of my 500+ published articles that you can find in those publications (and more) and niche blogs. And none of them happened by accident.
In this article, I’m going to show you the core foundations of how to guest post, even if you’re just getting started. This isn’t textbook theory or drawn from what-if scenarios. I spent years and hundreds of hours making mistakes, road-testing my assumptions, and doubling down on what worked and ignoring what didn’t.
One thing I’ve confirmed in all this time is that the principles of “guest posting” are timeless.
Remember, people have been publishing their ideas and letters in newspapers and magazines way back when, so what worked in 1990 actually still work today — barring obvious differences like the advent of the Interwebz, email, social media, etc. After all:
A good idea worth sharing is worth publishing.
Good writing is still good writing.
And finding the right person to hear your article idea still applies and is more important than ever.
So if you want to SUCCESSFULLY land a guest post in today’s digital age — no matter if you’re gunning for a big-time publication or your favorite blog — you need to focus on doing two things VERY WELL:
- Coming up with a mouth-watering idea that leaves people wanting to know more
- Crafting a killer pitch that makes the editor/gatekeeper pay attention to you
Writing well also helps, but it’s not the difference maker between those who “make it” and those who don’t. While we’re at it, other hacks like optimizing subject lines or using email templates are merely distractions.
Instead, I’ll show you how to absolutely nail the above two things. Get these right, and you won’t have to be frustrated and wonder why you’re not getting a response or even — gasp — “paying to play” (which is a BIG, FAT no-no).
What you’ll read in this article are some of the same principles I’ve used to land my own articles in many major outlets and that I have taught to dozens of students to do the same with success. Use the jump links below to quickly navigate to the right spot.
There are different approaches to guest posting, and the approach I’ll be outlining here is based on the assumption that you probably already have ideas — and butt-loads of them.
I mean, when was the last time you had trouble coming up with ideas? If you have a blog that you regularly post on, I’m guessing probably never.
I want to challenge you to rethink how you approach brainstorming ideas because that’s where most writers who claim ideas aren’t a problem do get caught in a sticky cobweb of their own doing.
You see, you’re likely so used to thinking about writing for yourself or your own readers that when it comes to figuring out what to write for other publications, you’ve forgotten that…
…the article is NOT for you!
Even though you intend to stamp your name on the published article, the article ultimately isn’t supposed to serve you or the readers of your blog. It’s for THEM.
Yes, if you want the editor or blogger of your “target” website to say YASSS to posting your article on their site, you need to engineer the idea to appeal to them and their readers. And obviously, it helps that the article is interesting to you, too.
In other words, which ideas of yours are interesting for the EDITOR?
Only after you approach brainstorming ideas this way and the editor finds your idea interesting that you will likely get more YESES, get more articles accepted and published, be loved by all, save money on your car insurance…whatever!
And now we furrow our brows, looking like this emoji dude 🤨, wondering: how the heck do you know what editors will find interesting?
Is there an app that helps you read their minds? Is it some natural “spidey sense” that some writers have and others don’t? 🤔
Good news: You can learn this!
By the time an editor comes across your idea, they want to know several things:
- Is it complete?
- Is it interesting enough to bring people and traffic to their site? After all, that’s ultimately what a lot of editors care about.
- Does it benefit the readers? If the readers love it, it makes the editor look good.
You can develop this sense of what an editor is looking for by checking your idea against these three fairly reliable markers:
If your idea can really nail one or all of them (THE HOLY GRAIL!), then you’ll have their attention.
Let’s dive in a bit deeper with the three guest post success factors.
Guest Post Success Factor #1: Popularity
Something that’s popular means a ton of other publications have written about it, and people are buzzing about it on social media. Ultimately this means it’d attract more readers, and THAT is the goal of every website. Most editors will have a gut instinct for what might hit or miss. You, on the other hand, could use Google.
If you Google your topic and look into the other articles that are ranking on the first page or two of results, click around and notice things like:
- The number of comments and the comments themselves (who knows what other interesting ideas could come out of reading the comments)
- The number of outlets that covered this (remember news outlets have a fine-tuned radar for finding out what’s popular)
- The number of shares to social media (If a lot of people are sharing, it means the idea is resonating with a lot of people and they feel compelled to tell their friends)
Note that your topic could be topical or be something perennial like “how to train for a marathon” or “how to chop onions and not cry.” Since we spend time on the internet, most of us have a pretty good sense for what’s popular already, but check the indicators above and ask a few of these questions:
- How many people are talking about it?
- Have other publications written about it?
- How many times has it been shared?
- Is it simply something that people will ALWAYS want to know or learn more about (e.g. articles on how to lose weight will ALWAYS be popular)
Guest Post Success Factor #2: Relevance
Sometimes something that’s relevant is also popular, but this isn’t always the case. Relevance here means that the idea is currently the hot topic. It’s newsworthy. It’s hip and cool. It’s timely. These are all qualities that editors of big news publications in particular would want to see (it all goes back to potentially more eyeballs, after all).
Let me give you a recent example of me taking advantage of timeliness and relevance.
First, a little context: for my day job I work at a personal finance website called I Will Teach You To Be Rich. It was founded by Ramit Sethi, a best-selling author and entrepreneur in the personal finance arena. In late 2018, the stock market took everyone on a tumultuous ride, and Ramit sent me this image on Slack:
And yet…he barely bat an eyelid. Because he was so nonchalant about it, I sniffed a story here.
Here’s a CEO who just “lost” $75,000 and change and was in good spirits, while the rest of Twitter was having an apocalyptic-level meltdown. That’s relevant and interesting!
So we took this story and pitched it to an editor at Business Insider, who LOVED it and very quickly published the story that we wrote:
It got shared a bunch and other websites picked it up, like The Washington Post:
All from one little picture that I turned into something newsworthy because it followed the current news cycle.
Guest Post Success Factor #3: Uniqueness
The third marker of an idea that editors would find interesting is its uniqueness. Obviously, everyone wants ideas that haven’t been done before.
As a side note, one of the most common reasons an editor would reject your idea, if they do, is that they already covered it and you didn’t do a simple Google search to make sure.
But notice that I said a unique idea, not an original idea. They’re different whales to hunt.
It’s actually not difficult to come up with an idea that hasn’t been done before. One near fail-proof trick to make an idea unique is to use your personal experience as a story vehicle, if it makes sense to. Here’s an example:
The above is an actual published article by a student of mine, who drew this article’s inspiration from her real-life experiences. People love to read about other people’s stories and learning about other people’s experiences, especially when they can take away a lesson from the story.
The idea of being a digital nomad and overcoming its difficulties isn’t exactly original, but I put my own unique spin on it because it was based on my unique experiences. In fact, I ended up writing or talking about these exact experiences multiple times on different platforms, including in The New York Times.
Any time you can personalize your idea almost guarantees you have a unique take on it.
I use these three markers all of the time to come up with fresh and unique ideas for various publications. I’ve developed this instinct over many years, but when you’re starting out, I recommend actually putting a little rubber to the road.
In other words, actually TEST your idea by sharing it with your friends!
That means writing out a shorter version of your idea on social media — maybe your Facebook feed, Instagram, or wherever — and see the reactions: how many comments? How many likes? What are people saying?
Here’s a student who used her Instagram as a way to test different types of topics. She found that this particular message about not using a baby as exercise equipment evoked particularly strong feelings. Seems like common sense, but she probably wouldn’t have known if she didn’t post this and see the reactions.
If people are having a strong reaction to it, they’re finding it interesting, and it’s very likely the editor will find it interesting, too.
Not to mention, you increase the chances for more yeses.
Now we come to writing the pitch, the professional-yet-cordial email that clearly tells the target site’s overarching figurehead why your guest post should be published on their site.
Now here’s where I COULD give you an email template for you to go forth and fill in the blank and fire off to an editor. But I won’t.
Not because I don’t want to give away my secrets. They’re bad practice.
That’s the funny thing about pitches: we seem to instinctively know a BAD pitch or email when
we see one. But reverse the roles and you find yourself at a complete loss of how to write (a good) one or are likely miffed about never getting a response. So you might end up depending too much on successful pitch email templates that look similar to this:
(Credit to Brian Dean for the script.)
This is a solid script if you need to pitch to a huge list of people, but you will get better results if you approach writing your email as if you were writing a piece of content. (Emails, after all, are a demonstration of your writing ability.)
Editors of popular websites get ALL kinds of pitches. They can sniff out generic communication and get skeptical about your ability to write original content. With over 170,000 words in the English language, it gets extremely fishy when you read the same canned phrases and style of writing over and over again. Writing a pitch is still writing — and you have to flex some skills to properly get your message across.
Because bad pitches…
- Assume the editor knows exactly what they’re getting into as soon as they open the email (not true)
- Fail to give adequate context to properly communicate your idea
- Write the pitch in a boring way
So I want to share with you the anatomy of pitches that gets your idea CLEARLY across and actually gets responses. Every good pitch contains:
A Sample Headline
This quickly tells the person what your article might be about, and you’ll typically want to lead with this. Sometimes I put this at the end of the pitch — it’s up to you and the context.
There are times when a really good headline that matches the publication’s headline style can be enough to sell the pitch. Writing headlines will take practice. Try this exercise:
Write 20 BAD headlines based around your idea.
Yes, 20. TWENTY.
No matter how terrible or cringe-worthy you think they are, just write it down. This gets you in the habit of writing headline AND also doubles up as practice for coming up with different ways to write about your idea.
Spend 20 minutes just rapid-firing your headlines. Once you have 20, you can pick your best one and tweak it as necessary.
The “What” of Your Pitch
What’s your pitch about?
Your “What” is the main point of the article (i.e. what will the reader takeaway?). Think of it like a movie trailer: mouth-watering and enticing as possible.
The “Why” of Your Pitch
Oftentimes, you’ll need to show the editor why this is relevant and needs to be written now. For example, you could mention that this article is relevant to current events and that it offers a point of view not yet discussed by others.
The Why answers these harsh questions:
- Why should people care?
- Why does this need to be written now?
- Why does this article need to exist at all?
The “Who” of Your Pitch
You need to be able to show why YOU are qualified to write this article and why you’re the only one who can write this article (especially important to note if this is a personal story or perhaps something that requires expertise).
You can mention credentials, number of years of experience, what other positive things have been said about you or your work, or simply showing your other published articles, or clips as they’re called. Include two to three hyperlinked clips in bullet point form, like so:
- Title of article (Publication)
- Example: How to Conquer the Challenges of Long-Term Travel (The New York Times)
The “How” of Your Pitch
The goal of the How is to overcommunicate with a few extraneous details. For example, if you’re going to interview some experts, you should include that detail and briefly explain how you plan to get in contact with them (if you haven’t already). If you have a good idea of word count, you’ll want to include that too.
A call to action is you prompting the editor to do something with your pitch, whether that’s to answer you or give their thoughts or whatever. Examples:
- “Do you think you’d want to work with me on this?”
- “Let me know your thoughts on this pitch.”
Make the call to action clear and specific so that you make it as easy as possible for the editor to respond.
Bind all of this together and you’ll have a full pitch, but remember: keep it short and simple, because you want to get right into how your email is going to benefit the editor as soon as possible (usually by saying that you have a story idea).
Overall, ask yourself the following questions about your pitch:
- Does the pitch give the editor enough background and information to make an informed decision?
- Does the pitch invite enough intrigue and curiosity or a need to know more?
- Does the pitch have a clear call-to-action so that the editor can respond and act?
Canned pitches don’t work. They’ve seen it all before.
There are no “scripts” to follow, but there are certain key elements that always go into a good pitch.
But before you lift a finger to write a single word, make sure that you first look up the website’s submission guidelines to check that they even take guest posts to begin with! You’ll often find this sort of information on their Contact Us page, or by Googling “<name of website> submission guidelines” or “<name of website> contribute”.
Here’s an example of Fast Company’s own article on how to contribute to their site:
Fast Company prefers that you send on-spec pieces (a.k.a. completed drafts). They even tell you exactly what they want.
It’s important to check because not all websites do, and many will explicitly state whether they do or don’t. If they do, they will have specific guidelines and instructions for what they want to see in a pitch, which I highly recommend you follow. Because if you don’t follow their guidelines, you’ll very quickly wind up in their trash.
Here are examples of pitches that all got responses (though not necessarily turned into a published article).
1. Guest Post Pitch to GQ Magazine
This was a pitch that I’d written and sent to an editor I’ve worked with once before at GQ:
When it comes to health goals, we’ve all experienced a love-hate relationship with the bathroom scale. One moment we’re stoked at the number we see, and the next we wonder if those beer and chicken wings from the other night have ruined our chance of a svelte bod.
Screw the scale.
The scale messes with our heads at our most vulnerable. In truth, the scale tells only ONE part of the story of what’s happening in our bodies, and a misleading one at that. After all, weight includes many things that are beyond our control, such as bone structure, water, and muscle. There are better ways to assess progress without weighing yourself.
Instead of weighing yourself and getting your mind twisted with anxiety, you can look to these quantitative and qualitative markers to define progress:
- How you’re performing in the gym (strength going up? keeping hitting PRs? stamina better? finally ran a mile without stopping?)
- How your clothes fit (are they looser around the waist? tighter around the chest?)
- How you feel day to day (mood, sex drive, energy levels, sleep quality, etc.)
- Waist or any other body measurements
These details will include expert advice from the following experts:
- Dr. Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD, Director of Nutrition Curriculum at Precision Nutrition
- Dr. Tanya Halliday, RD
- And one more coach, probably John Romaniello
The goal is for readers to stop letting the scale screw with their decisions that might lead them to spend $150 bucks on BS supplements or cleanses.
This something you can see on GQ? Might run about 900 words.
Published article: https://www.gq.com/story/5-ways-to-track-fitness-scale
2. Guest Post Pitch to a Fitness Magazine
This was a pitch by a student who wanted my feedback before he sent it.
Appreciate the reply.
What are your guidelines for republishing, or reworking content? If I submit something now, when will it be live? I want to make sure that I can adhere/write for any particular themes you have. Do you have an editorial calendar?
Here’s a topic idea: The Bodybuilders Guide To Drinking Alcohol Without Getting Fat
— strategies for including alcohol in your diet based on maintaining an aesthetic physique.
— I’d write about which alcoholic drinks are more physique friendly, as well as give some scenarios with food plans to help with evening drinking.
Overall, not bad. “The Bodybuilder’s Guide to Drinking Alcohol Without Getting Fat” is a great one-line pitch. It’s clear, concrete, and well-understood by the editor of a niche fitness magazine.
One thing to note here is that the writer asked too many questions that could distract the editor and delay a response.
If you need to ask questions, it’s best to send them in a different email — preferably as a follow-up and if the editor actually responds in the first place. Remember to check if your questions can actually be Googled. Print editorial calendars, for example, could typically be Googled.
3. Guest Post Pitch to a Craft Beer Magazine Column
Another student’s pitch:
He got a response from the editor, and while he got work out of it, it wasn’t a regular column. My notes to him was that he could’ve made this stronger with more concrete ideas and examples of what the column would entail.
Bring up past examples that the pub has done before (or even other pubs) and share suggestions on how you can do it more uniquely or better, or pick up what’s missing in their coverage.
I will also add that being a regular columnist typically doesn’t happen until you’ve proven yourself to provide value and are reliable over the long term. It’s very rare for editors to give columns to writers whom they’ve never worked with before.
4. Guest Post Pitch to Los Angeles Times
I’d pitched this idea of eating protein to an editor at Los Angeles Times.
She responded with her concerns and perspective about this, at which point I clarified and she gave me the greenlight. Unfortunately, due to reasons that are totally outside the scope of this article it never got published.
5. Guest Post Pitch to a Fitness Blog With Over 200,000 Monthly Visits
I don’t know if you’re interested, but I’m writing an article entitled “Are you wasting money on these 3 expenses at your gym during the first 3 years?”
It’s basically looking at continuing education, payroll, and equipment from the gym owner’s perspective, and how those 3 expenses can literally take you from the black to the red if not carefully planned.
You only have so many words in the beginning to grab someone’s attention…so don’t use redundant words like “I don’t know if you’re interested…”
The main issue with this pitch is that he didn’t help me understand WHY this is important. There needs to be more context and clarity. On the other hand, this was from someone who had written for me as an editor before, so I was more inclined to open the email and hear him out.
BUT the pitch was so unclear that I had to go back and forth with him a couple of times. If a busier editor had seen this, this likely would’ve been ignored.
Don’t make editors have to chase down your idea.
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