How To Pitch Your Next (or first) Article
It’s not easy to get authoritative advice on this topic.
But not impossible!
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The Fundamentals Of Pitching
First of all, I’m gonna focus on submissions for magazines. However, this is not a major limitation as the principles are the same as those of hooking a literary agent or an editor at a publishing house.
Writers tend to struggle with pitching because it is fundamentally different from the rest of the job. One thing is to craft a compelling story, and another is to persuade editors to say yes. The game becomes selling your story or idea — and yourself.
But let’s start by identifying what you write.
Are you writing poetry, fiction, or nonfiction? If you're writing nonfiction, are you writing creative or literary nonfiction, or are you writing how-to articles, informative articles, and/or profiles? Believe it or not, what you intend to write plays a huge role in how you submit.
Nonfiction is a highly diverse world. We can say articles that teach a skill, deliver information, profile a person, or place, or thing, all they often are sold with a simple email. The pitching effort would be minimal.
Creative and literary nonfiction — personal essays included — can differ as they usually need you to provide the editor with a complete manuscript and a cover letter.
Very similarly to these last ones, when it comes to fiction, magazines usually expect you to submit the complete manuscript with, at least, a small cover letter.
With poetry, editors’ expectations are the same as with fiction but with one big difference: the most prefer to receive a grouping of poems in every submission.
Failing to recognise upfront these differences is not a good start!
Writing on spec
Consider that writing-a-story-and-then-selling-it is, most of the times, the only way.
If you write fiction, poetry, and/or creative nonfiction, you'll find that writing on spec is not only common; it's basically the rule. And the reason for this is that in these forms of writing the execution of ideas is as important as the writing itself.
Writing on spec — which stands for "on speculation" — happens when you complete your story (manuscript) and submit it to a magazine (or book publisher) spontaneously — without any agreement in place. It means working upfront and then seeing if someone pays you for that.
Tough as it can be, this dynamic shouldn’t discourage you: if serious about getting published, it will be a barrier to entry which helps you standing out from other, less resolute writers.
Also, consider that if you’re trying to break into the market, submitting on spec pieces would let editors focus majorly on the quality of your story — and a bit less on your experience level. An exceptional story would always have a good chance of getting accepted! On the contrary, 'just an idea' might make editors doubt whether you will be able, in the end, to deliver the whole story or not.
Writing for an assignment
Waiting for an assignment is a whole other game.
It’s common for nonfiction markets to prefer “queries first” when it comes to long articles or essays. Useless to say, for the writers, it's surely less intense to send some strong idea-based pitches than it is to compose whole articles (and then pray for publication).
Also, it appears logical that delivering the finished piece makes the editor's job easier, but this is not always true. Many are the cases in which editors like an idea but want it performed differently — with a specific cut or tone.
Editors know what they want and like!
Choose wisely about when to write on spec or to wait for assignment. Doing so could lead to more acceptances and more time spent writing on already contracted work.
The 5 Elements Of A Great Pitch
This section is basically a summary of the priceless Storyboard’s feature “The Pitch” (by Nieman). I highly recommend reading every single comma of that series. Also, an honourable mention goes to Jacqui Banaszynski — who wrote most of it — all with incomparable mastery.
Let’s take here the quality of our stories for granted and recognise that sometimes editors simply may not like them.
The imperative to pitch is especially keen among freelancers, who rise or stall based on what they sell, and often have to sell cold. But even staffers in newsrooms, whose skills are known to the editors, have to convince the editors to support their most ambitious ideas. Knowing how to sell a story idea — quick, sharp and compelling — is necessary coin.
We can’t fail to sell our ideas, or nobody will publish them. Here’s how to have your pocket full of the above mentioned necessary coin.
In 5 points.
1 - Don’t fail to know the publication
Researching the basics of the site you're pitching to — story length, purpose and tone — reveals respect for the work of reporting.
— Jacqui Banaszynski
If it sounds like common sense, it's because it is.
When pitching a story or idea, you’re trying to find the best home possible for it: proposing something outside a publication’s spectrum (what they usually cover) will grant you a “no, thanks” — and your story will remain homeless.
Not only editors would take a non-informed pitch as irritating, but you may be flagged as lazy and unprofessional. Consider the industry is not that big, and it’s composed of people with solid memory.
This may seem harsh. But editors need to trust the reporters they are working with, and trust begins with knowing a reporter doesn’t take shortcuts on the basics. The basics begin with a bit of easy homework:
Study a few issues of the magazine, publication or outlet you want to pitch.
Take note of the length of pieces in magazines.
Pay attention to tone and focus of stories.
Find and follow submission guidelines.
[Hint: If you write non-fiction and feel the need for a quick guide, I’d suggest reading The ‘Complete-Nobody’ Guide to Guest Posting Fame and Fortune (By the Guy Who Built a Career Out of It) by Aaron Orendorff].
2 - Respect the submission guidelines
If there are any! When editors do you the favour of writing what they want and how - it's like Christmas: take all the presents and run!
If there are specific pitching guidelines, follow them. If there is a form, use it. Here’s why:
It shows you have done your homework and respect the publication, editor or agent you want to work with.
A formula pitch form, with limited space, shows whether you can boil your idea down to its essence, and whether that essence fits the mission of the publication you’re pitching.
It’s a way to test out whether your idea is right for the magazine.
Being creative and engaging in a tightly structured form shows you might be able to do the same in a tightly structured story.
Don't make editors be like inspectors; let them be judges instead!
[Innocent thought: Even if you had to fill in an online form, also consider sending an email to the editor directly. Just a brief communication to let them know you’ve pitched. This makes a lot of sense when you can "spend" someone's name with the editor (like an existing writer?). Needless to say: be professional and take care of your network.]
3- Make it shine
I’m so bad at this!
It’s annoying, but in story pitches, especially cold ones, first impressions count.
Clean copy — no typos, proper grammar, consistency of style, correct spelling — probably should be the first rule of effective pitching. Lapses in the so-called little things can undermine confidence in the big things, like thoroughness of reporting and respect for precision.
Even the most seasoned writers fall here! It could be mental fatigue, limited time available, or simply a bloody typo — you can bet the editor will notice it (it’s their job).
Make sure it doesn’t happen by checking that:
Names are well written;
Grammar is perfect;
Style is consistent;
Hyperlinks open to the right reference;
The subject of the email makes sense.
4) Know what came before
The lack of a simple clips search can tank your idea.
Editors need to feed the machine and can’t wait for your content, but they won’t serve the same meal twice. Searching what’s already been done by the publication you’re pitching is a must.
Naturally, the fact alone they already published a story similar to yours doesn’t mean it’s over: understand if your story poses a different angle or question. If you think there’s space for both of’em, then throw your pitch! Explain your motivations to the editor and see what’s the reaction. At least, it will show you did your homework!
Even if you think you have the most original idea in the world, and you’re 100 percent sure the outlet you’re pitching has never done it, check to see if the outlet has already done it. Then check again. Skipping this step shows you’re either blindly shooting off pitches en masse, or you just don’t care enough to look. Meet your new best friend: Google site search. Just type “site:[newsoutlet.com] [your keywords]” and you’re set. (Do not rely on a news outlet’s built-in search engine.)
5) Understand the editor’s job
Since you have to dialogue with them, it’s beneficial to understand what they do.
Consider this: Those editors — the ones you’re trying to dazzle and who never seem to respond quickly enough to your query — are busy. Most are juggling multiple roles, trying to keep their publications sue-proof and lively — even alive — while they manage an array of writerly egos. Book agents have to plow through piles of proposals to find the marketable gems that fit their expertise.
Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand how to be an ideal contributor. They generally can’t wait for great stories, particularly those with the least amount of issues possible. You just need to deliver quality and being professional.
Present opportunities, not problems or doubts.
Read, study, and copy successful pitches from The Pitch Database. 200+ pitches with links to the resulting published stories.
Amazing story ideas are crucial, but so are the contacts. Build your network of writers and editors subscribing to Study Hall (this is not an ad; I’m subscribed).
See you next Wednesday,