The Politics of the Pitch
This article belongs to The Writing Life—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly column.
By now, I assume you are rested and rejuvenated and sitting at your tidy desk, ready to embark on the next phase of the freelancing life. You know the goal is to get assignments and you have various ideas jotted in your notepad or on your computer screen. The next few steps will tell you just what to do to transform your ideas into pitches that catch editors' attention.
PIMP YOUR IDEA
There's a reason some tunes are called "oldies but goodies." No one tires of them. The same is true for article ideas that can run at any time of the year—evergreens. What's different between them and Casey Kasem's hits is that known songs can play again and again without any sprucing. Pitches cannot. Even though you may see the same idea (e.g. How to Get Over a Break-up) yearly in magazines, it needs a new spin. Why publish it now? What can you tell us about break-ups that's different and newsy? Is there a recent statistic you can tie into the pitch (like "recent studies say that 20% of all dumpers end up depressed and remorseful")? Give your ideas a browse and find a way to freshen them up.
CRAFT THE PITCH
Now that you have settled on the idea and angle, it's time to get it editor-ready. What will get his/her attention? Surprisingly, the subject line is a great place to start. Editors' mailboxes get filled daily, and you want your pitch to stand out. If you have written for similar magazines, say so in the subject line. How much better does "Pitch from X Magazine Writer" sound than just "Health Pitch"? Not written for known places? No worries. You can still spice things up a bit with writing something like "Health Writer Interested or Proposes…." Once the e-mail is opened, they find out exactly what you are interested in or are proposing.
Which brings us to the body. Keep it short and sweet. Start with a catchy title (e.g. "The Best Litter boxes"). Then, grab editors in your first 1-3 three sentences with a worthy statistic, newsy event, or thought-provoking question. For example, "You may think all kitty litters are the same, but according to a new survey by Cat Lovers Plus, the kind of litter you buy may be affecting your cat's mood and health."
You have set up your point, gotten the editor's attention, now launch into your topic. Make your excitement about the pitch come through by focusing on the stand-out details (this is another 2-3 lines). For example, "Everything from the scents to the clumping potential can have an impact on your cat's behavior, says the study's author. And while you may be quick to mask the smells from the litter room, a little research can be the difference between a cuddly and a stand-offish cat."
Your last 2-3 line paragraph should explain what the article will be about. For example, "I propose an article that compares various kinds of cat litter—from the self-cleaning to the sweet-smelling. Written in a chart format, it will supply the pros and cons of each."
End the pitch with a few details about yourself that show why you are qualified to write this piece (e.g. other publications you have written for, your experience with the subject—cats in this case).
SET IT FREE
You have written your masterpiece, proofread it, and feel this is as good as the pitch will get. Fantastic! Now, you have to decide who to send it to. Many magazines' websites say to e-mail your letter to a generic webmail address. Only do this if you want your pitch to meet the same fate as those socks that are forever lost in the laundry vortex. Instead, do a little research. Call the magazine's editorial department and ask who would be the best editor to receive your pitch.
DON'T PLAY THE WAITING GAME
Once the pitch leaves your e-mail address, what happens next is out of your hands, right? Wrong. For things to happen, you have to make them happen. When I started freelancing, I would sit by my phone and computer waiting for a response. Not surprisingly, few came and those that did took much longer than I would have liked. These days, I wait two days (sometimes a week but not more than that) and then call the editors myself. They may not have had a chance to read my piece de resistance, but I build a rapport. They tell me a good time to call again and often tell me other ideas they are looking for. Making this call can be scary, but it's worth it. Much better than wondering and creating your own scenarios as you wait for their responses.
If your pitch wasn't picked up, wallow an hour or two. Then, get yourself back out there. Pretend it's the dating game. If one romantic possibility is not interested, there are many others waiting in the wings. Take that same pitch, tweak it for another publication, and send it on its way. Hey, you're a pro at this now.
If your pitch was accepted, celebrate. Prop your feet up. Pat yourself on the back. Make yourself a mixed drink or do a shot. Anything to distract yourself from the upcoming article-writing anxiety. But, I don't want to ruin your good day. There will be time for that in another column.