Image: Chris Peplin
"Pitching" - or emailing/calling an editor to sell them a story idea, for those unfamiliar with the jargon - is something that vaguely terrified me when I first started writing professionally. This is unfortunate, because being able to pitch well, and doing it often, is possibly the number one factor that differentiates those who do and those who want to do in the writing world.
If you want to get published, you’ve got to write and you’ve got to get it out there. And while writing-the-whole-article-and-doing-the-rounds-with-it can work well on the opinion piece circuit, especially if you’re just starting out, if you want to crack the features market, you’ve got to learn to pitch.
A pitch is basically a sales/marketing letter, in which you want to convince the editor of four things
1. That you have an awesome article idea. Part of conceptualising a pitch is figuring out how to articulate really clearly, succinctly and - this is important, hence the italicising - specifically what your story is about.
How this works in practice: When I wanted to write a story inspired by statistics on the rise in labiaplasty surgeries, I didn’t just pitch “labiaplasty” as a general topic - I pitched a story about how this rise connected with our culture’s increasing acceptance of cosmetic surgery. It also helps to have a catchy, enticing title - for this story, mine was “Labiaplasty: the last cosmetic surgery taboo?”
2. That you understand the publication you’re pitching to. This means knowing the language in which they write, the way they tackle particular issues, what they tend to cast as features and what’s more likely to fall into column territory, and how many words their articles generally run for.
Some publications will publish contributors guidelines with this information, but I find the best way to do this is to read the publication.
How this works in practice: A few years ago, I wrote an article on the Make Poverty History campaign for Girlfriend, an Australian teen magazine. How to tackle such a serious issue in a teen forum? Most of the activists I know would try to tie it to a hot guy. But actually reading the magazine and looking at how they treated serious issues revealed that they preferred to actually focus on the issues. So my pitch looking at why the issue was important and the inspiring things teenage girls were doing to solve it succeeded, where a pitch about a “hot guy” probably would have failed.
3. That you are the best person to write it. This generally involves a bit of bragging. The aim is to convince the editor that you are a reliable, coherent writer who will in a few weeks email them a beautifully written, insightful and entertaining story. Or at the very least, not make their sub-editors want to start taking drugs. You don’t actually say any of that, though.
How this works in practice: If you have existing clips from other publications, write a blog, or have some other interesting tie to the issue you’re proposing writing about (personal experience, academic credentials, you work for a related organisation without a PR interest in the topic) now is the time to mention it. If you don’t have any of these, less is more - focus on the story instead. Inflating or making up credentials will only make you look like an amateur.
And a word on the academic credentials: while Masters, PhD and Honours dissertations indicate a deeper engagement with your subject matter than most journos are likely to have, they can also set off warning bells in editors’ heads that your writing may be difficult to understand. By all means mention them, but make extra sure your pitch is written in a tone close to that of the magazine (see point four). And while I can think of a couple of international universities that might (and I do mean might - I’d have to hear from US and European editors on this one) be an exception to this rule, I’d suggest not mentioning that you’re doing a degree in journalism. Published clips speak more loudly than course credits.
4. That you can write it - and that you can write it for their audience. I’ve seen would-be freelancers with great story ideas whose work hasn’t seen the light of day. Sometimes this is a matter of luck or bad timing (and many writers shop their pet ideas around for years before getting the right bite), but in other cases, this is a matter of sloppy writing. If you want to sell your work, you don’t just need great ideas, you need to be able to deliver on them.
How this works in practice: Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that one spelling mistake, missing word or typo kills a pitch (there may be editors who operate differently though, and definitely make sure you get the name of the person you’re pitching to right). By all means, proofread (yep, definitely proofread), but sloppy writing is more about things like using lots of words where fewer would suffice, using long, obscure words where simple ones would suffice, and not being clear about what you’re trying to communicate (as someone who both writes and edits, I find this most often happens when you haven’t yet figured out exactly what you want to say yourself).
Good writing, on the other hand, is clear, concise, precise and written in a similar style to the rest of the publication you’re targeting. A quick tip: before I write a pitch or article, I always flick through the publication I’m targeting to get a sense of their tone and structure.
Anyone else have any pitching tips?
Got a burning question you’d like me to answer? Send it to rachel dot hills at gmail dot com and I’ll answer it here.
Related: Ask Rachel: How can I stay motivated as a freelance writer?
Ask Rachel: What should I charge for my work?
Seven enviable lines: advice for freelance writers
Elsewhere: How do I approach pitching as a freelancer? (Andrew McMillen)