How to pitch a story
It's not sorcery. Here are some tips.
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Pitching is is one of the more confounding and frustrating aspects of journalism — how do you get an outlet to take your story out of the zillions of pitches editors get every week?
There is no one way to do this, but my experience as a reporter and editor has taught me that there are a few things you really should do and not do when pitching. (NB: I’m talking about feature articles, but most of this applies to news stories as well):
1. Do your research. Don’t pitch a story that already exists. If you can do it differently/better, then sure, go ahead and pitch. Just don’t pitch the same thing that’s already been published elsewhere.
2. Keep it brief. Generally, 3-4 graphs. Go longer if you’re pitching a long-form section of an outlet. You may (and should) be excited about your story, but that doesn’t mean pouring everything you know into the pitch. Show discipline while offering a compelling amount of information.
Writing tip: When it comes to writing the piece, be mindful that while you may want to write 3,000 words, the section you’re pitching only runs up to, for instance, 1,200 words per story. The word count will be set before you start writing. Stick to it. As an editor, I turn back any story that’s significantly longer than the word count I agreed to with a writer. Think print: Editors are juggling specific lengths they need you to adhere to for page layouts or column inches. But also for online writing, we have limits on lengths we publish. Abide by them, or, at the very least, ask your editor before you go long. There may be wiggle room, but ask. Often shorter and tighter is better for your story anyway.
Don’t be overfamiliar. If I haven’t met you, starting with “Hey Lauren!” is just irritating.
4. Introduce yourself. Say who you’ve written for. E.g.: “Hello TK, I’m writing to pitch you TK. I’ve written for TK, TK and TK.” (Origin story: “TK” means “to come” in journo speak. The “K” is historically easier to see than a “C.”) If I am writing to a friend or colleague of a friend or colleague, I mention that up top, sometimes even in the subject line of my email. An example of such a subject line: “Pitch on a mass grave found in eastern Congo/via TK [name].” Editors are humans. If you can help us make a connection with someone we know, it helps us want to open an email. (And @ me all you want, but this is the reality in journalism, and in most fields where strangers contact you every day: It helps to drop names/show connections.)
5. Do pre-reporting. Your pitch should be compelling and include the most up-to-date pertinent information. Show that you know the lay of the land — you’ve read around and possibly (hopefully) interviewed sources beforehand.
One trick I use for myself when writing is to ask myself what the headline of the story is — it’s a surefire way to identify whether I even know what I am trying to convey. It’s also useful for pitching.
6. Explain why you are the person to write this story (if applicable). E.g. “I’ve written about the Democratic Republic of Congo for 10 years, including here, here and here [stories with links].”
7. Don’t exaggerate a timeframe. I’ve had journalists pitch me stories where they say at the end that this is “extremely time sensitive.” Usually, it’s just not when you’re pitching a feature. What you should do is peg your feature to an upcoming date. Say, the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This gives editors a way to think about your story as worthwhile, considering that upcoming event.
8. Thank the editor for reading.
9. Be mindful that editors are usually crazy busy, so don’t bug them to answer you, but do follow up in a few days if you haven’t heard back. Personally, I tend not to pitch more than one outlet at a time. After I’ve followed up once or twice in the following week (assuming the time sensitivity of the story allows for it) and I haven’t heard back, I move on to a new outlet.
Last thing: Pitch a story. Not a topic. This is something I tell my NYU students all the time and was something I struggled with at the beginning of my career. A topic or an issue can be compelling, but funnel it down until you have specific people involved and a story. I’ll write more about that another time.
Ask any pitching questions in the comments and I’ll try to help.
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It is sorcery, because you work magic with words.
I don’t think I’ll ever pitch a story, but I love learning how the “sausage” is made.
How do to start? I just feel very insecure about not having studied journalism, but I want to try publishing what I write in other places other than my Substack, from time to time. Or maybe I shouldn't. I don't know.