The Rules For The Perfect Pitch
Every six weeks or so, I’ve got into the habit of sharing this essay on pitching. I find it extremely practical, and it always performs well (you read it a lot).
The merit is not mine but of those professional writers and editors who shared their expertise online: I stole from them (quoting all sources) and squeezed their knowledge into the newsletter you are reading.
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The Fundamentals Of Pitching
We’re going to focus on submissions for magazines. However, you’ll find the principles are pretty much the same if you want to hook a literary agent or an editor of a publishing house.
Pitching is a topic for a simple reason: one thing is to write a good story, and another is to persuade editors to say “yes!”. Writers tend to struggle here because persuading is fundamentally different from the rest of their job.
So, let’s start from what we know by identifying what we 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 very diverse world, but, as a rule of thumb, we can say all articles that teach a skill, convey information, profile a person, a place, or a thing, often are sold with a simple email. The pitching effort will be minimal.
With creative and literary nonfiction - personal essays included - the game is way different: you usually need to provide the editor with a complete manuscript and a cover letter. Almost identical is the case of fiction: magazines tend to expect full manuscripts with at least brief cover letters.
With poetry, editors’ expectations are the same as with fiction but with one big difference: most prefer to receive a grouping of poems in single submissions; this way, they’re more flexible and can choose what and how much of your work to publish.
Failing to recognise upfront these differences is a bad start—the same applies to the difference between writing on spec or for an assignment.
Writing On Spec
Writing-a-story-and-then-sell-it is, most of the time, the only viable route.
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 in advance and seeing if someone is willing to pay for it.
Harsh as it seems, such a dynamic shouldn’t discourage you: if you’re serious about getting published, it will be a barrier to entry that helps you stand 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’re able to deliver the whole story or not.
Writing For An Assignment
A whole other game.
It’s common for nonfiction markets to prefer ‘queries first’ when it comes to long articles or essays, and — useless to say — it’s way more efficient for writers to send a few strong idea-based pitches than composing whole articles (and praying for publication).
It seems logical that delivering the finished piece makes the editor’s job easier, but this is not always true. In many cases, they like the idea but want it performed differently, with specific cuts or changed tones. Keep it in mind: editors tend to 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 summarises the priceless series ‘The Pitch’ (by Nieman). I highly recommend reading every single comma of it. Also, I can’t fail to mention Jacqui Banaszynski, who wrote most of it with incomparable mastery.
Now, let’s take from here the quality of our stories for granted (recognising 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.
Here are five tips to fill your pocket full of the above mentioned ‘necessary coin’.
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 is because it is.
When pitching a story or an idea, you’re basically trying to find the best possible home for it: proposing something outside the spectrum of a publication (what they usually cover) will grant you a ‘no, thanks’ - and your story will be left homeless.
Not only editors would take a non-informed pitch as irritating, but also you may be flagged as lazy and unprofessional. Consider the industry is not that big and formed by people with a 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 nonfiction 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. In fact, when editors do you the favour of writing publicly what they want and how it’s like Christmas: take the gift and say thank you.
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.
In other words, don’t see editors only as inspectors who check the compliance with the guidelines but let them be judges instead: provide them with tailor-made pieces, and they’ll have no other thought but to act as judges - saying yes or no.
[Innocent thought: Even if you had to fill in an online form, also consider sending an email to the editor directly, just a brief one to let them know you’ve pitched. This makes even more sense when you can ‘spend’ someone’s name with the editor (an already featured writer who recommends you?)]
3. Make It Shine
I’m terrible at this one because it’s boring. Yet, in story pitches - especially cold ones - the first impression counts.
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.
It could be mental fatigue, limited time available, or simply a bloody typo. Well, you can bet the editor will notice it: it’s their job to notice it.
Even the most experienced writers fall here. To make sure this does not happen, try using this checklist:
names are well written;
grammar is perfect;
style is consistent;
hyperlinks open to the correct references;
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 to receive your content. Yet, they won’t ‘serve the same meal twice’. For this reason, searching what has already been done by the publication you want to pitch is a must.
Naturally, the simple fact they already published a story similar to yours doesn’t necessarily mean it’s over: your story can pose a different angle or question on that topic. If you think there’s space for both of them, then go with your pitch, explain your motivations to the editor, and see what’s the reaction. At least, this 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.
Editors usually can’t wait for great stories, especially those with as few issues as possible. Put yourself in their shoes, and try to understand how to be an ideal contributor: present opportunities, not problems or doubts.
Good story ideas are crucial, but so is having the right contacts. Build your network of writers and editors subscribing to Study Hall (this is NOT an ad; I’m subscribed).
Read, study, and copy The Pitch Database, a website with 200+ successful pitches with links to the resulting published stories.
Explore the old (but still valid) ‘60+ pitching guides for Vox, NatGeo, Wired, BBC, WaPo, Wirecutter, Slate, and more’ and be mindful that many of these guides are out there.
See you next Wednesday,