This one’s an oldie but goodie that I originally published online at Freelance Writing Source. Since the site appears to be down now, I thought I’d share it again with you here.
Sooner or later, nearly every freelance writer will need to produce a written pitch. Perhaps you have a compelling story idea that won’t work for the publications you usually submit to, or maybe you just want to break into a different market or genre. In any case, there are a few simple guidelines you’ll need to follow to maximize your chances of landing a gig.
Cover the basics
Do a little research before trying to sell your article. Not all publications are created equal, nor will everyone be interested in your idea. Take the time to narrow your targets down to one or more blogs, newspapers, magazines, journals or other publications that you can reasonably expect to be interested in the theme or topic you plan to pursue.
Never address your pitch to a generic, unknown audience. Every pitch needs to be sent to a specific editor at a specific publication. Check each publication’s submission guidelines to find out whether e-mail or postal mail queries are preferred. Include your contact information, and be sure you know both the editor’s gender and the proper way to spell that individual’s name. Anything less is unprofessional.
Unless submission guidelines specify otherwise, do not send copies of past work, drafts of the story you’re pitching, research notes or a full manuscript. Editors are busy and don’t like to deal with stacks of unsolicited paper. Selling them on the article is the whole point of your pitch. Your letter has to give them all the information they need to decide whether they want to consider publishing your story. It’s all right, however, to include a stamped envelope addressed to yourself for replies; many magazines actually require this.
Pre-report your story
You have to pitch a viable story, not a general topic. “I would like to write about prison inmates” is a topic. It conveys little to no useful information to the editor who is attempting to evaluate your submission. Worse, it signals that you actually have nothing and are fishing for ideas. From the editor’s perspective, you’ve just eliminated the reason to hire you — you don’t really have a story to sell. Nobody likes a poser.
However, “I have completed a series of exclusive interviews with a condemned inmate who claims to be innocent” might be a story. Then again, it might not. That’s where your advance reporting work comes in. You should know whether you are likely to be able to get the interviews, documents and other data you’ll need to complete a solid draft by deadline. You also have to check whether competing writers or publications have beaten you to your story within the past few months (in some cases, even years). If they have, can you select an approach that will be different enough to be worth publishing anyway? Your editor will definitely check for similar stories, and will be irritated if your pitch proves to be a waste of time.
Give ’em a taste
For journalistic writing, you should work your proposed lede and a nut graf into the beginning of your pitch. Editors want to get a feel for your style. This is where all that pre-reporting comes in handy, since you’ll actually begin writing the introductory portion of your article.
Your lede (pronounced “leed,” but traditionally spelled this way to avoid confusion with printers’ lead type) is the most interesting thing in your story, the “hook” you plan to use to grab your readers’ interest. Put another way, it’s the opening sentence of your proposed piece. The “nut graf,” typically the third or fourth paragraph you’ll write in organizing your article, explains the point of your story — why it’s newsworthy, and why readers should care.
Sell them on it
Your pitch should be one page, between 250 and 450 words. That’s not a lot of time to sell a complex, detailed article. Get to the point, fast: Tell the editor exactly why your story is going to be relevant to that publication’s readers, and why now is the time to write it.
Include a ‘brag graf’
Never forget, when you’re pitching to a new editor, that in all likelihood the publication doesn’t know who you are and doesn’t care. It’s your job to sell yourself and establish your credentials. Why should you be hired to write this story? If you can’t answer that question quickly and succinctly, you’d better rethink your pitch.
This is the place to add what my journalism professors termed a “brag graf,” a few quick sentences describing your qualifications and past accomplishments. Keep it short and sweet. The information you include here should be relevant to the story you’re pitching. If you want to write about public school teachers, editors like to hear that you come from a family of teachers, have been granted special access to observe a class or recently won an award for education reporting. Telling them all about your old garden column instead will probably prove to be less than impressive.
Wrap it up
Type your letter neatly using a standard font such as Times New Roman in size 10- or 12-point. Check carefully for spelling and typographical errors. If sending e-mail pitches, concentrate on mailing one at a time and personalize it as much as possible — batch submissions can be embarrassing if you get caught!
Not every situation calls for a full-fledged professional pitch. Bloggers who are actively seeking guest posts, for example, will frequently accept a brief note of introduction that mentions one or two ideas targeted to their readers and provides links to past work. Although the blogosphere is culturally less restrictive as a rule, you must still maintain a professional demeanor and deliver original, well researched content in a timely fashion.
It’s quite likely, of course, that you’ll eventually get an opportunity to meet with a potential editor. If you want to do a less formal oral pitch, go for it! The basics of having a pre-reported story and a ready argument in favor of your hire still apply.
If you do thorough research, pitch compelling pieces to targeted markets, and demonstrate an ability to deliver quality work on deadline, you’ll be that much closer to a successful freelance career. Happy pitching!
*This post was originally guest-blogged for Freelance Writing Source and later republished by the author in August 2012.*