Writers: Welcome to our ongoing professional development series with practical advice on breaking into journalism and building up a portfolio. This, from s.e. smith, discusses how to craft an effective pitch.
Every great story starts with a pitch: A quick overview of what you want to write that opens a conversation with an editor. Those entering journalism often find the pitching process confusing, intimidating, and stressful, but it doesn't have to be. There are numerous pitching guides online written by people with considerable experience on both sides of the pitching guide — drawing upon my own experience from working in editorial and over a decade of freelancing, I've assembled some recommendations to help you on your way.
Decide on the story you want to tell first
If an idea is percolating in your mind, take the time to develop it before you start thinking about where you want to submit it. Doing so will help you get the story clear in your mind, give you a better sense of whether you have the resources you need to tell it, and refine where you want to take it.
It's awkward and embarrassing to pitch an editor, get a delighted yes, and then realize you don't actually have the materials to back yourself up. The feel of an idea sparking in your brain is amazing, but don't rush to pitch it until you're sure you can turn it into something.
Before sending out any pitch, I take the time to ask myself some questions:
- What's the story you want to tell?
- What makes your story unique?
- Why are you particularly qualified to tell it?
- Do you see this as a personal essay? An opinion editorial? A reported feature? An investigative feature? Why? Could it be told a different way?
- Who do you plan to use as sources for the story? Can you confirm they're available/will respond to requests?
- What do you plan to use as research and reference material? Can you pull that material together for proof of concept?
- With all of this in mind, can you sum up the story in a sentence and write a quick pitch?
Decide where you want to place it
Journalism sometimes involves contacts, and using the network of editors you work with, or the introductions available through other writers. Sometimes it involves pitching cold. Either way, take some time to think about where you want to pitch — and if you want to do a simultaneous submission, as may be the case for a timely story you want to place quickly.
Read the publications you're interested in. Get a sense of the style, tone, and stories you see there. With your pitch in mind, ask yourself how it fits in. Whether this is your first story with them or your forty-first, make sure your pitch demonstrates your knowledge of the publication — and if you work regularly with an editor, ask them about the kinds of stories they're looking for, to help you refine your pitches and streamline your relationship together.
Take the time to search the publication: Do they already have a similar or related story up? If so, is yours distinctive and different, or should you search elsewhere? If you don't regularly work with an editor there, identify a good choice to pitch, and consider checking out their Twitter or other social media presences to get a sense of the kinds of stories they like and are looking for. A growing number of editors pin their pitching guidelines or wishlists to the top of their profiles.
Anatomy of a pitch
What makes a pitch? Pitches should contain three pieces of information: An introduction to you, an overview of the story you want to tell, and a discussion of why it's a good fit with a specific publication. You'll get conflicting advice about the order these things should be presented in, but unless an editor has specified a preferred format, don't stress out about it too much.
Always open with a polite salutation and double check the spelling of an editor's name, and consider following with a friendly comment before delving into the pitch — "I hope this finds you well," for example. You may wish to note how you found that editor, if you haven't worked with them before — "So-and-so gave me your name" or "I saw you calling for pitches on Twitter."
Who are you? Your bio doesn't have to be long, but it should establish where you're coming from and what your credentials are. If you have a website (and you should), you can absolutely copy and paste from there. At a minimum, give your name, general background, and publication credits (if you have any). Don't self-reject with comments like "I'm new to this, but..." or "You probably don't take pitches from writers who aren't established..."
What do you want to say? Open with that one-sentence summary you developed while working on your pitch, and expand outwards. Demonstrate that you have a grasp on the subject at hand, talk about where you'll source your information, and give a brief overview so the editor gets a sense of the piece. The editor will likely have feedback and will play a role in shaping it, but you should present a concrete idea. Take care to show how your story is unique and distinctive and why you are the right person to tell it.
Why is it a good fit with this publication? Reference the publication's mission statement, editorial vision, and overall tone to demonstrate that you've read it, understand what they're looking for, and have a sense of how your piece will fit there.
This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship
Hopefully a pitch will lead to a rewarding professional friendship — I've been working with some of my editors for over a decade! Try to match your editor's tone in interactions, staying professional but friendly.
If an editor rejects your pitch, say: "Thank you for your consideration, I hope we get a chance to work together in the future!"
If an editor accepts your pitch, ask about your payment up front and get the contract rolling so all your information is on file and you can be paid promptly. Ask the editor how you should submit your work (via a custom platform, Google Docs, Word, in the body of an email, etc). Clarify your deadline and be honest if you think you need more time.
Stay open to feedback — editors are here to make your work better, to help you tell stronger stories. Your flexibility and patience are appreciated, and mean a lot when you do need to push back on something. If an editor irritates you, don't give a kneejerk response: Set that email aside for a while, think about the feedback, and then return to reengage.
Stay in communication. If you're going to miss a deadline, warn your editor as soon as you can. If you're struggling to get through to sources or you need help, ask your editor for assistance.
Sometimes editors push in directions you don't want to go. In some cases, that's a good thing, because it adds complexity to your story, but sometimes it's flat-out something you don't do — for example, you might not want your detailed reported piece on disability activism in Australia to be turned into inspiration porn. It's okay to pull a piece if you need to, saying that you think the editor's vision and yours may be conflicting, but it should be a last resort.
I've mocked up an example pitch below — please note that the contents (including organizational names, statistics, etc.) are entirely fictional.
I hope this finds you well! I got your name from Maria Ortez when I mentioned I was working on a story about broken wheelchairs on U.S. airlines. I'm a disability journalist with a focus on civil rights issues; my work has appeared in New Mobility, The Guardian, The Nation, and The New Republic. You can check out my portfolio and clips at my website (mewrites.com/portfolio) to get a sense of my work.
As I'm sure you know, Skyward Airlines is in hot water after breaking a disability attorney's $65,000 wheelchair, and unfortunately, cases like these aren't uncommon. I'd like to take a look at the rapidly increasing rate of broken and damaged wheelchairs on U.S. airlines in the last ten years in a reported feature with interviews from airline personnel, wheelchair users, and members of the Blazing Mad Wheels Alliance, which has been working on this issue for over a decade.
I'm particularly interested in why these situations happen — from my background research, I'm finding that many ground personnel feel pressured to load cargo holds quickly, and don't have proper training in handling and securing wheelchairs. That's why I thought this might be a good fit for Class War Magazine, as your focus on labor rights suggests this may be relevant to the interests of your readers. Ground crews work long, demanding shifts in a dangerous environment, and a few simple workplace changes could radically reduce the amount of damage not just to wheelchairs, but to luggage as well.
Looking forward to an opportunity to work on this story with you — if it's not a great fit right now, hopefully we can collaborate on something soon. There's a great deal of overlap between disability rights and labor issues, and it would be great to bring a new dimension of coverage to Class War Magazine.
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Stay tuned for an upcoming post from editor and journalist Emily Ladau — once you've developed your pitch, how do you get it out into the world? What do you need to know about the pitching process and working with editors?
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist with appearances in Vice, Teen Vogue, Esquire, Cosmo Australia, Rewire, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, The Guardian, Pacific Standard, Rolling Stone, Rooted in Rights, and many other locales. Additionally, smith has appeared in several anthologies including Get Out of My Crotch and the forthcoming (Don't) Call Me Crazy. smith focuses on social justice with an explicitly intersectional focus, exploring issues like disability, the rural US, the transgender community, the tech industry, and US politics. Follow smith on Twitter @sesmith, Instagram @realsesmith, and Facebook.