Years ago, when I was starting out in journalism, I attended a "getting started in freelancing" course given by the travel editor of a prominent British newspaper. Being a keen young hack, I took copious notes, scribbling down everything I thought would be useful one day, but as it happened there was only one page I kept referring to as I fired off pitch after pitch.
As I review articles for the clippings.me blog on a near-daily basis nowadays, it strikes me that the advice I relied on for years was spot on, so I’m republishing her key ideas here, along with some of my own thoughts. Happy pitching.
The ingredients of a winning pitch:
It doesn’t matter how passionately you feel about the subject, or how creative your idea is. Fundamentally, I need to believe that you’re qualified to tell this story. For travel writing, I have to believe you know enough about the region/subject in question to write an informative piece (have you lived there? Do you speak the language? Have you had a piece published about this already?). For articles on this blog, I need to believe you’ve interviewed some pretty big celebrities before I’ll risk my reputation on commissioning "How to land an interview with a superstar" from you.
My tip: Briefly establish your credibility in the first paragraph of your pitch. Come up with a reusable one-liner if you’re a subject specialist – it’ll save you a ton of time.
This sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed at how nuanced a good pitch needs to be and how many people get this wrong. First, we’ll start with the obvious: if I run a travel magazine, don’t pitch a story about politics, even if you think it could be an interesting new direction for my publication. Editors have their pick of stories and nine times out of ten, they’re going to go with what they know. When you have repeat commissions and have built a strong relationship with an editor, you might be given the time of day. But as a stranger, you need to channel that creativity and minimise the risk for yourself and the editor in question.
Secondly, pay attention to the detail. A classic example of this can be found in travel writing – many publications prefer to focus on a particular travel interest, for instance, and will never deviate far from their niche of "family or couples holidays for middle-income households with readers aged 20-50". Others may stipulate that featured destinations need to be a direct flight of under eight hours from their readership base. You need to know these details to nail the pitch relevance, and in many cases, a casual scan of the articles isn’t going to give you that detail.
My tip: Stay safe on your first pitch – pick a format you know that the publication runs regularly, and adapt it within the boundaries which are obvious. For a blog, the format could be a review post, for a glossy magazine it could be a "What’s On" list. Pitch something within that format with minimal adaptation.
Get the above two right, and you have a very reasonable story that an editor will trust you to write. Now, all you have to do is not mess it up by ruining the editor’s belief in your ability to deliver. And all editors will judge a new writer’s ability to deliver by their ability to pitch.
Make it short – no more than two paragraphs, and ideally one. If you can’t capture the idea in that, it’s too complex (or you can’t be succinct, which is arguably worse).
Start with a hook. It can surprise me, it can scare me, it can make me laugh, it can even anger me (although it’s a high risk strategy), but it needs to capture my interest immediately. If you’ve followed the points above, I’m bought into your ability to deliver and the format you’re proposing. So don’t let me down with a boring first sentence – bring it to life straight away.
Write with colour. Not with actual colours, obviously. But if you’re a talented journalist, you should be able to write anything with the flair and fluidity you’ll bring to the piece you’re hoping to have published. So pay attention to your cadence, your voice and your choice of words. The atmosphere you create in these sentences should leave an editor wanting more.
Don’t be prescriptive. Often, good articles start off with a totally different pitch which is then shaped into something else by the editor and the journalist – and that’s fine. So try not to give the impression that this is the story you absolutely must tell, because the editor may want to take a different path.
Keep it tight and rational. Editors don’t need to hear the whole story, but they do need to understand the structure of what you’re proposing. Allude to the themes you’re considering to make it clear that this isn’t a half-baked idea, but don’t let your thoughts run away with you. To get an example of how this looks in practice, read the blurb on the back of a few book jackets. Think of the story pitch as a beautifully-crafted wireframe you’ll hang the whole piece off, complete with a beginning, middle and end.