In our new resource series of writing tips, Tiffany Mayer helps you polish your skills and strengthen your confidence and impact as a writer. This week Tiffany shares tips on successfully pitching a story to an editor.
Ball players aren’t the only ones who need to learn how to pitch. If you’re trying to build your writing portfolio and land a byline beyond your blog, successfully pitching a story to an editor is an essential skill. Few things are more gratifying as a writer than having an editor say yes to your pitch, save for getting paid for your work, so here are a few tips to ensure both.
Know the publication
Whether it’s a newspaper, magazine or website, make sure you’ve read it. That way you’ll know if your story idea will be a good fit and appeal to a publication’s audience. You’ll also get familiar with the general tone of the writing, preferred story formats, and whether a story has already been written on the topic you want to pitch. No editor is going to assign something about where to eat in Montreal when they’ve just run a feature on the city’s best restaurants. Show them you’ve done your homework. Maybe there’s a new angle you can suggest, like a profile of a chef at one of those restaurants, or the evolution of that one dish that put an eatery on the map.
Ask for an editorial calendar
Magazines often work on issues six months to a year in advance, if not more. That means they have editorial calendars spelling out themes, feature ideas and content goals to provide to interested writers; for example, maybe your favourite monthly has a food issue every August. Ask for the editorial calendar and pitch accordingly (you can also find editorial calendars on-line for some publications).
Newspapers typically have more flexibility when it comes to planning, particularly if they’re dailies. There are X pages to fill each day, so stories that are both timely or have a longer shelf life are welcome and often on relatively short notice.
Newspaper lifestyles and food sections sometimes plan farther ahead than the rest of the newsroom. That’s because they turn out more evergreen content, so get to know the editor and find out their planning process. Otherwise, think in terms of season when making a pitch — fall harvest, holiday cookie exchanges, the first signs of spring at the farmers' market — and send them your story idea about a month in advance. Keep these practices in mind for websites, too.
Be the expert
Before selling a story idea, you have to know the story. Do your research. Read everything you can on the topic, and experience it firsthand, if possible. After all, if you want to write a story about how the new vegan donut shop in town is showing up a national chain, stand in that two-hour lineup for a cruller. Talk to those around you while you wait and get their take on the craze. Take note of your surroundings and order lots of doughnuts when you get to the front of the line. (Because research.) A casual conversation with the doughnut monger while they fill your order can net information that could help your pitch, too.
Whatever the topic, know it like the back of your favourite wooden spoon so you can pitch with authority.
Here’s the wind-up… what a throw!
Your pitch is more than just a story idea. It’s a sample of what you can do as a writer. Treat it as an audition. Write a good hook — maybe the lede to your story — and give the editor a taste of what to expect from you and your story that will leave them wanting more. Be clear and concise. Use your active voice. Show, don’t tell. Dust off all those writing rules to bring your pitch to life.
Once you’ve whetted an editor’s appetite, tell them who you are and why you’re the perfect person to write this story. And do it all in three paragraphs, maximum. It’s a little like the elevator pitch but in writing: you have one minute to sell it before they move on, so grab them from the get-go. Feel free to send along links to other writing samples if you have them.
One at a time, please
You know your story idea is brilliant, but be patient. Don’t pitch the same story to more than one publication at once. Everyone in publishing wants to be first. An editor won’t be pleased that the story you’ve written for them is being published elsewhere at the same time; worse yet, they don’t want to get scooped. Grant one first rights but after your story is published, feel free to re-work it and pitch it elsewhere in another format or with a different angle. Just ensure that’s allowed, according to the freelancer’s agreement you signed with the original publication.
Don’t promise what you can’t deliver
I’d love to interview Chuck Hughes, although I’d probably be reduced to a tongue-tied mess in the presence of that gap-toothed grin. A one-on-one with Monsieur Hughes would probably be an easy sell, too. But the last thing I want to do is tell an editor I’ll get them Chuck Hughes only to find out he won’t be available until six months after my deadline. Ensure you can get that interview with a celebrity chef or other big name before making your pitch.
Respect the deadline
Meeting deadlines is a good way to get more work. Reach out to your editor if you run into any issues while writing your story. They’re there to help and at the very least, they’ll know ahead of time if they need to come up with Plan B to fill the space.
- Pitch Better: Finding Magazine Editorial Calendars On-Line
- 6 Tips for Pitching an Editor
- How To Pitch An Editor Like a Pro (from the perspective of a Chatelaine editor)
Be sure to check out the rest of Tiffany's Writing Workshop Series!
- Narrative Know-How: Using Creative Non-Fiction In Blog Posts
- Care To Chat? How To Ask For An Interview
- Going On A Word Diet: Tips For Tightening Your Writing
Tiffany Mayer is a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at eatingniagara.com.