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How to Pitch an Article
Pitching a story idea is an inherently different skill from actually researching and writing that story, but today’s freelancers must be able to do both. You could be the most thorough reporter in America, but if you cannot craft a successful pitch to win an editor’s interest, you simply won’t get many publishing opportunities, no matter how good your research or writing is. If you’re crafting an article pitch for the first time, here are the key things to keep in mind throughout the process:
- Get right to the point. Let your potential editor know what they’re getting right at the top. If you’re sending out email pitches (which is the most common way to do it), include your story topic in the subject line. Your pitch email should include your proposed writing format (personal essay, interview, investigative report, opinion piece, etc.), a possible title, your planned sources, and a written elevator pitch—a summary of your pitch that is so succinct it can be told in the course of a brief elevator ride with a stranger.
- Provide a hook. Explain (briefly) why someone would want to read the article you are pitching. If you have a target readership, identify them. Many magazines know their brand via subscriber data, and if your story aligns with their audience, you could have a match.
- Make it easy to contact you. Make sure your pitch letter includes contact information such as your email, phone number, and any relevant social media accounts. If you know a specific editor’s name, try sending your pitch directly to them. For small publications, this may mean you’re reaching out to the actual editor-in-chief. If you don’t know the name of the editor, send it to the magazine’s general purpose inquiry address, and indicate that your message should receive an editor’s attention.
- Link to writing samples. Your potential employer is unlikely to hire you on a good pitch alone; they will want to see a past completed piece with your byline—ideally from a freelance writing job that was similar to the one you’re now pitching on. If you include any unpublished samples, do a copywriting pass on them to make sure they are free of typos or grammatical errors.
- Offer a proposed deadline alongside your article idea. Although your freelance pitch will certainly not be accepted unless it’s a great story, landing writing gigs is also about being reliable. Naming your own ambitious deadline as part of the writing pitch will show an editor that you’re serious and results-driven—valuable traits in the publishing industry.
- Wait a few weeks, then follow up if you don’t hear back. An editor is a human being just like you are, and they may fall behind on work. If you haven’t received a reply to your pitch letter within two weeks, write a short, polite follow up email asking if they’ve had a chance to review your work. If you still don’t get a response, try placing a phone call (although most editors prefer email). Sometimes you won’t get a reply, but if you’re confident that you have a good story to tell, move on to other outlets.
7 Tips for Freelance Writing for Magazines
If you aspire to write for magazines, you’ll have to adapt to a medium that’s been rapidly transformed by digital technology. Many of today’s magazines are primarily consumed online. Some famous weekly magazines now come out monthly or even quarterly. On the other hand, new online publications sprout up constantly and many are seeking new writers who have a great story idea to pitch. Few offer full-time employment, but nearly all will hear pitches for a news story or feature. Here are some writing tips to help you break into the world of magazine writing:
- Target your pitches carefully. Freelance writers typically have to pitch stories via a query letter before being given an assignment. Make sure you follow a publication’s submission guidelines when you approach an editor with article ideas. Be judicious when you pitch to editors, and choose a topic relevant to the publication. Even if your pitch isn’t accepted, by pitching an idea to a magazine you’ve begun a relationship with the magazine staff—be polite in any follow-ups and accept rejection with grace.
- Become a specialist. Today’s media world values specialization. If you have specialized know-how in a particular discipline (such as medicine, music, or mobile computing), lean into it. The best stories you pitch will likely tap into your personal experience and specific knowledge base. Specialization can help you break through as a new writer.
- Do more research than you think you need. It’s always better to have more sources, quotes, and statistics than you can use in your story. Often a magazine writer’s document of notes will be longer than the first draft of their story. If you have a great article planned, the urge to start writing immediately can be intense. But before you begin, make sure you are truly overloaded with the substantive facts that will populate your story.
- Consider the magazine’s target audience. A magazine’s most important relationship is with its readers. If you meet those readers on their terms, you could have a long career in magazine journalism. For instance, if you’re writing pop astronomy articles for national magazines like Wired or Discover, you cannot weigh down your prose with technical jargon that interferes with your storytelling. On the other hand, if you’re writing for trade magazines in the telescope industry, you should absolutely pepper your article with tech specs. It’s what your readers want.
- Keep track of personnel changes among magazines. Editors frequently leave one magazine and join a new one. Your connection to such people is ultimately more important than the company they work for. If you think you have the perfect story for Rolling Stone but you don’t know anyone there, and you do know the managing editor at Pitchfork, you’ll have a much better shot with the latter. Study a magazine’s masthead and article bylines to learn who’s working there.
- Be able to write articles of various lengths. A freelance writer may only be allotted 150 words for a sidebar in an in-flight magazine like American Way. At the other extreme, Nathaniel Rich’s 2018 feature article “Losing Earth” in the New York Times Magazine covered failures to address climate change with a word count of over 30,000. Different magazines have different standards and style guidelines, and it’s up to magazine editors, staff writers, and freelancers to maintain those standards and styles.
- Be flexible. Flexibility is one of the greatest writing skills a freelance journalist can be endowed with. Even with the greatest degree of planning, the writing process can lead journalists in strange directions. You may find that your planned 1,000 word article needs 10,000 words to do its subject justice. Conversely, you may find that what you thought would be a voluminous feature should be far more succinct. Writing is hard work even when everything goes as planned. If your story demands a different approach from what you’d originally expected, embrace flexibility. It will make the revision process all the more pleasant.
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