Let’s assume two things: One, you want to write for me. Two, you’re a stranger to me. That puts the burden on you. See, I have a crew of regular contributors—writers I know and trust—who’ll send me a dozen ideas at a moment’s notice. Or, if I’m really desperate for a story, I can just write the piece myself. After all, I know what I want better than anybody.
Now, you might read this and, discouraged, think: It doesn’t sound like I have much of a shot, so why should I even bother pitching him? Because here’s the thing about editors: We’re always hungry for ideas. We’re always looking for interesting people and trends and angles. We’re always after that one story no one’s done. So, when a pitch does arrive, we desperately want to open that email or envelope and discover this brilliant idea from a total stranger. We want to assign the story now because we want to share it with readers as soon as possible.
So, let’s assume one more thing: You have an idea.
Here’s are some tips to help you craft that idea into a pitch so good that I’d be a fool to reject it.
Start small. Be realistic: You’re not going to write features right out of the gate. Focus your efforts on story ideas tailored to shorter pieces for the front-of-book sections of magazines. Or, instead of pitching the magazine, pitch the website. Section editors and online editors often have the most stories to assign—because they’re responsible for so many bitsy stuff—so they can be the best people to target.
Get a nice portfolio of these shorter pieces—and develop a working relationship with an editor—then you can start thinking about bigger stories.
Know the magazine—and it’s audience. You could have a fantastic idea, but if it’s not right for the magazine (and the editor will know whether it is or not right away), it’ll never get approved. Pitch ideas to magazines you know well and read regularly. For example: Say a writer came to me with a pitch about fishing for marlin. In his query, he’s outlined the best waters in the world to chase the fish; he’s included quotes from the leading experts in the sport; he’s even attached some beautiful photographs. And to top it off, the guy can seriously write. I mean, this is one terrific pitch. There’s just one small problem: Field & Stream hasn’t published a marlin story in probably 50 years. And it’s not because the right story hasn’t come along. It’s because our readers couldn’t give a shit about marlin fishing. If the writer had read the magazine, he would’ve known that and pitched a salt water fishing magazine instead.
When you’re pitching a story, you’re essentially a salesman. Your job is to convince me, beyond a doubt, that this story belongs in my magazine and that my readers will benefit from having read it.
Report. The one element that separates the best pitches from those that go straight to the trash is reporting. So many query letters have zero reporting—just the idea, which isn’t enough for me to take a chance on a total stranger. Prove to me from the start that you’re willing and capable of doing the work. If you’re pitching a profile, you’d better give me quotes and details and facts about that person’s life. Give me a glimpse of who that person is. When I finish your pitch I should feel compelled to want to know more about that person. If you’re pitching a trend piece, give me numbers and statistics and studies. Show how and why the trend matters.
How much reporting you should do depends on the story and the magazine, but, as with anything you write, the more you report, the more material you’ll have to work with. And the more material you have, the stronger your story will be.
Demonstrate voice. So, you want to be a writer? Here’s your chance to prove it. Show me what you can do with words. Let me hear your writing.
Think visually. Any details you can give me regarding the potential for photographs, portraits, graphics, illustrations, etc. that will help me see the story, the better.
Nail the details. My first name is Colin. Not Collin. It’s Field & Stream. Not Field and Stream. Proofread your pitch. Then ask a friend to do the same. Do not send me your pitch until it’s perfect—down to the smallest detail. Remember, you’re a stranger to me. If you can’t even get the name of the magazine right, you never had a chance.
Sell yourself—but don’t overdo it. I’m more interested in the story idea than I am in you. At the end of the pitch, tell me a bit about yourself—who you’ve written for, where you’ve worked, etc. As for clips, this is just my personal preference, but I suggest you add a line that says you’ll provide published clips on request. If you do decide to include clips with the pitch, send no more than your two best. Editors are constantly battling with inboxes that are too full.
Be pleasant. This sounds obvious—or at least I hope it does. But I once received a letter from some fledgling writer who told me how shitty the content on the blog I edit is. She went on to say that she’d be willing to offer her services and expertise as a contributor to the blog. Take a wild guess as to what I did with that pitch…
Well, those are my pitch tips. I wish I could say that as long as you follow all of them, you’ll sell every pitch you ever craft. But we both know that’s not the case. The hard truth is that freelance writing is hard. Damn hard. You’ll hear other writers or editors warn that for every query you wind up selling, you’ll have ten rejects. That’s about right. Unless you’re just starting out. In which case your average will be more like one out of every twenty. But do not let that discourage you. As long as you bust your ass and are a good person, you’ll get your shot in this business. Because that’s the kind of person with whom I want to collaborate.
So just keep at it. Keep reading and searching and interviewing and reporting and discovering. Keep dreaming ideas. Keep pitching stories.
We need more stories.