It’s no secret that pitching a freelance story to an editor can be a disheartening experience. My first pitches were rambling, smoke-and-mirrors affairs. They resembled most of the school papers I’d ever written. There was the little voice that said, “If you write long enough and use enough big words the teacher will certainly give you a good grade if for no other reason but because you’re among the brightest kids in the class.”
What I soon learned: When you write for a living, everyone was the brightest kid in his or her class. Editors don’t give out grades if the pitch is subpar. They hit delete.
Often, editors’ inboxes suck in pitches and imprison them while the news peg for your story goes stale and the chances of you making any money from your hard work rapidly recede. Worse still, there is always the sneaking suspicion that the lead you’ve given away in your email is now being worked up into a news story by the paper’s own staff.
What I didn’t know then was that the key first step to becoming a successful freelance writer (actually making money) is crafting a watertight, clear and brief story proposal—in journalism parlance, a pitch. Everything else stems from this foundation. From a pitch, an assigning editor will know: how long you have been working as a freelancer, how much information you have about the subject presently, whether you have the wherewithal to learn more, and how reliable you will be to bring the story home.
Like many hopeful writers, I envisioned a life in media spaces documenting the ever-changing landscape of the industry. In my mind, editors would beg for the chance to read about my opinions and recommendations. They’d tell their wives and husbands to keep dinners warm because they couldn’t leave their desks until they finally discovered how exactly buyer behaviour trends are the driving force behind the digital shift towards mobile. They’d stop the presses to make room for my ground-breaking discoveries.
Maybe the stories would have an angle, but that hardly seemed pertinent to me at the time. Largely my yarns would be real slice-of-media stuff, you know? Editors would just eat it up. I mean really, how could they resist the nuanced and intricately textured musings of a sheltered, middle-class black kid?
Such egocentric idealism is healthy in the beginning and for about a minute. Such idealism will carry a young writer for the briefest of whiles. But, in order to actually become a regularly published writer, this idealism, I learned, has to quickly jump in the backseat and let professionalism drive.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The query process changes tremendously from when you’re a beginner or new to a publication to when you’re familiar to an editor. Most of my pitches to editors I know are no longer than two or three lines (Hi, Glenda!), and I rarely write a full-fledged pitch unless it’s a new-to-me market or type of publication. Which is to say that when I decide to pitch a publication I’ve never worked with before, I make an exceptional effort to have my query letter shine.
However, that is not to say I don’t grapple with this. While I still spend a fair amount of time agonising over pitches, I often find peace in being aware of all the little things that tie into the initial package presented to an editor. That package is more than just a spark of inspiration, it’s what I call the ‘Four-Paragraph Pitch’.
A lead to capture the editor’s attention
This has to kick an editor square in the teeth. The clear lead sentence, and then supporting paragraph, should hook the editor and make him/her know that 1) this piece is timely; 2) his/her readers will need to read about this place; 3) you are an expert (whether you are or not).
Oh, and very important: Always begin with ‘Dear’ and then the editor’s name, position and magazine. Never again would I act like a punk and say “Hi John, do I ever have a great pitch for you!” All business. Nothing cutesy.
Development of the story idea – i.e., why write it?
What will actually be in the story? Here, you want to give the editor a skeleton, at least, of developments around the subject. Perhaps provide historical context (for brownie points, of course). Back up the idea’s timeliness and why you believe it has specific relevance to his/her publication.
Again, no more of this: “Hey, I know your mag specialises in media, but I really think your readers would get oodles out of learning about Kim Kardashian’s sex tape.”
‘Nuts and bolts’ details
I would suggest you begin this paragraph with the exact phrase: “I propose a story about —” Besides the lead sentence, this is the single most important line of the letter (excluding the subject line, obviously). The editor may not want the story. S/he may have already assigned a similar story to another writer. S/he may just not like the name Sefiso, but s/he would know exactly what I was pitching.
The ‘I-am-so-great’ paragraph where you describe your qualifications and writing background.
This paragraph explains why you are the right person to write the story. It shows why you know more than the average person about that particular subject; what sources you are planning to contact for the piece; who you have already contacted; what publications you have written for before; and that you have attached clips (previously published pieces) to the email.
And please, mind your manners when closing the email. Keep it simple: “I look forward to your response, John Doe.”
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