20 August 2015
Pitch Perfect: Your Guide to Writing the Perfect Pitch
So, let’s set the scene: you’re a young writer, looking to get some more experience and exposure. You’re thinking of submitting your work to a publication. What do you do?
You pitch of course!
A pitch is an idea. It’s the description of a story you’re hoping to write, an outline to show an editor an idea you’d like to put on paper. It’s the first step in getting published, and it’s super important in your writing career.
Here’s a few tips and tricks to get you started on your pitching:
Before you pitch:
Get to know the publication. Read new issues, read old issues. Not only will you learn about the style of the publication, you’ll get an idea of what’s already been covered, and what is missing between their pages.
Make sure your piece is something original and fresh that the publication hasn’t covered already. Most publications have a house style guide you can follow, which will help you in both the writing and editing process. Style guides specify things as small as how they want numbers written (2 or two? 304 or Three hundred and four?) to more specific requirements like how pieces are structured or submitted. Sticking to the style guide will help you out immensely in the long run: your editor won’t have to correct little style errors and can instead focus on evaluating (and enjoying!) your piece.
What is your idea? Can you articulate it in one sentence? Can you articulate it in one sentence that’s not long winded and laden with semicolons? Keep it short, sharp and straight to the point.
“This piece would explore what…”
Not only will this help you better understand what you’re going to write, it will also help your editor understand exactly what they’re commissioning.
For news items or time sensitive pieces, this one liner is essentially all you need in your pitch. For features, op-eds and other forms of writing, we can add more detail (but more on that later).
Next, flesh out your sentence a little bit. What is the background to your idea? Why is it noteworthy or newsworthy right now? This can be done by simply linking your editor a prior piece on the issue, or by a few words of explanation (think of this as rewording ‘in light of recent events’. What is the recent event?) Is your piece a reply to something published earlier? Link it. Does your piece stem from a quote or statement from a politician? Provide the statement. Provide your editor with the reason why your story is current, noteworthy and worth reading right now, rather than in a week, or months’ time.
Then, explore the idea a little further. What does your piece mean? What are the real world implications for the issue? What conclusion can you reach? Why is it so important?
Depending on its relevance to the piece, provide names of who you’ll be interviewing, or who you hope to approach. Make sure these are people you can realistically interview, and you’re not planning on contacting Kanye West. You’ll end up disappointing yourself, your editor and Yeezy. If you don’t know exactly who your interviewee is yet, you can always say ‘I’ll contact a medical professional’ or a representative to speak on the issue. Try to follow through on these, as features and op-eds are often strongest when you bring more voices to the table to support your contention.
The importance of spelling and grammar:
Please please please use spell check. And then spell check again. And god forbid, do not spell the editors name wrong. You’re being employed to write and to write well. That starts in your pitch.
On developing a relationship with your editor:
The way you pitch will largely depend on the relationship you have with your editor. Have you written for them before or are they a complete stranger?
If you know your editor, and have a good relationship with them, your pitches can be more casual and relaxed. One of my editors and I used to send iPhone snaps of our cats to each other after sending pitches and edits.
You can also go for the super casual method of texting or Facebook messaging if you’ve got a great relationship with your editor. Amy Gray, a journalist and friend, shared this example on yeahpitchbitch.com and it never fails to make me laugh:
Amy also said “The easier you make an editors’ life, the more likely you are to be published.” Which is totally 200% true. Like I mentioned earlier, editors are often pressed for time. They‘ve got a lot of things to do and very little time to do them.
If you don’t know your editor, or you’re pitching to an established large corporation, you want to maintain a totally professional relationship with your editor. Use formal language, address them in a formal manner. Make your pitch easy to read and easy to navigate.
Aside from getting to know your editor, getting to know their schedule is equally as important. Are they bringing pitches to a weekly editorial meeting at 9am on a Wednesday? What does their publishing schedule look like? If these aren’t specified on their website, ask them: ‘When is the best time to send you my ideas and pitches?’ Most editors will appreciate your enthusiasm and give you the appropriate details.
Your subject line is so important. Like, so so so important. Did I mention how important the subject line is? It’s important. Really important.
The subject line is the first thing your editor is going to see. It’s got to let them know it’s a pitch (and not an angry letter to the editor/request for free back issues) plus it has to give them enough information to want to actually click on your email. Editors are time poor, and have a gazillion emails to get through in the morning. Your email is getting a minimal amount of attention unless you hook them in.
My subject lines go a little like this: “PITCH: [NAME] + [TOPIC] + [THEME]”
For example, “PITCH: Bronwyn Bishop, Helicopters and The Age of Entitlement”
Or, if you’re pitching multiple things in the one email, something like this:
“PITCH: ISSUE FIVE: Freezing Eggs, DV Prevention and Alternative Contraception”
Your subject line can also be a question,
“PITCH: Are millennials narcissistic?”
Your subject line contains your buzzwords. If you’re writing about a celebrity, their name should be in the subject line. Anything that might catch an editors eye (as long as it’s relevant to your story) should be in your subject line,
I like to add ‘Time sensitive’ to my subject lines if the piece is current and/or will date quickly. This is primarily relevant to online publications and daily papers. This adds a little bit of urgency to the pitch, and when an editor is combing through dozens, if not hundreds, of emails every morning, this can help you out. However, if you write ‘time sensitive’ in your subject line, be prepared to have a super quick turnaround for your piece.
In my first year of freelance writing, there was nothing more anxiety-inducing than pressing ‘send’ on my pitches and pieces. I’d read over the email a hundred times, freak out and think that my editor would hate my ideas and pace up and down my room. In speaking to other writers, I wasn’t alone in these feelings. Pitching can be terrifying, but it doesn’t have to be.
I like to ask myself a bunch of questions before I send my pitch:
- Does my pitch accurately say what my piece will be about?
- Have I proven to my editor that this is a piece worth publishing?
- Does my pitch make sense (in terms of flow and grammar?)
- Have I used the appropriate language and tone for that particular editor/publication?
- If this pitch gets picked up, can I write it well?
- Can I file in time for the deadline? (You can always give your editor an estimated filing date. They might ask you to deliver then, or earlier, so be prepared)
I like to take a few deep breaths before I press send. I also like to compulsively check my inbox for hours afterwards to see if I’ve gotten a reply– but that’s not something I’d suggest you waste your energy on.
Don’t be afraid to ask for the going rate for stories. A simple ‘Please let me know if you are interested in these stories, and if so, what rate you are offering’ will suffice. (We have an upcoming guide to money and writing, which will be published on the blog next month, so check back here for that!)
Also don’t be afraid to give the publication a time limit: ‘If I don’t hear back in the next two weeks, I’ll pitch these ideas elsewhere.’ Send a follow up email to be sure, before you start contacting other organisations.
Not every pitch you write will be picked up or published, and that’s okay! If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
There are a number of reasons that your pitch might not have been picked up, and none of them are personal. Your editor may have already given that story to another writer or it’s been covered a million times before. Sometimes you just don’t slot into their publishing schedule. Maybe your connection to the story isn’t quite personal enough, or it’s not right for that particular publication. Maybe, they’re just not interested.
You can always pitch your story elsewhere, find a fresh angle or put it on the back-burner for a little while.
Sending seven identical pitch emails, because you’re yet to receive a reply, probably isn’t a good idea. Sometimes, silence is an answer—and that answer is no thanks. But have no fear! Just because one editor isn’t interested in that one story, doesn’t mean you don’t have endless opportunities and dozens more stories to tell.
Everyone pitches differently, and this is merely a guide on getting started. Find out what works for you, and what works for your editors, and pitch to your strengths.
If you want to learn more about pitching, there are some great online resources you can check out.