A while ago I promised a post on pitching prompted by a discussion on the topic with my friend Debora Dekok.
Finally – finally – I’m getting around to writing it. As Debora now knows, I could go on and on (and on) about this topic but I’m going to make a concerted effort to keep it concise so if you’re left with any questions, please ask and I’ll be happy to answer them.
Do your homework. Go to a place with lots of magazines or newspapers (newsagent / library) and look, look, look. Start with what you know and branch out from there. So, for example, if you love reading Style at Home magazine, find it then see what other magazines are on the racks around it. The masthead is a great source of information; telling you where the magazine is published, who the editor is and contact information including, hopefully, a website.
Do your homework II. Say you’ve found four design / decorating magazines you want to target. Assuming they have websites, visit them. See if they have writer’s guidelines posted (search “guidelines” if you can’t find them). If not, find an e-mail address and request a copy of their guidelines. Not all publications have guidelines but, if they do, it’s essential to follow them. Which leads us to…
Follow the guidelines. If the guidelines say all pitches must be on pink paper, buy pink paper. If they say pitches must be less than 300 words, edit. If they tell you to e-mail, do it and if they want queries by mail only, do that. Thinking “Oh, they don’t mean me,” is a surefire way to get your pitch – well – pitched.
Now please don’t make the worst mistake of all, which is sending in a pitch for a story featured in the magazine the month before you wrote your pitch. To avoid doing this you should look over a few back issues of the magazine before writing to them and if they have a website do a search in their archives for the topic you’re suggesting. If you plan to pitch to one particular publication fairly often it’s a good idea to get a subscription. The thing is, your pitch letter isn’t just about the idea you’re querying at the moment; it’s about gaining the respect of the editor. If they feel you haven’t bothered to read their magazine you’ll lose their respect.
The moment of truth. Or writing the letter. I’m not going to give you a template because writing your own letter is one of the main points of this whole exercise. It shows editors how you think and write and it’s an important part of their decision-making process. However, here are some things to keep in mind:
- The letter should not exceed one page – normal fonts, normal margins, single-spaced – one page.
- Address it correctly – to a specific person if possible – or generally to “managing editor” if not.
- Include a “re:” line (e.g. “Re: Bathroom Makeover story”) so editors can quickly see what the pitch is about.
- Be engaging. Draw the reader into your letter as you would into the finished story.
- Include specifics if you know them and if they add strength to your pitch. For example, if you want to write a story on women in government and Michaëlle Jean has agreed to let you interview her, that would be relevant information.
- Sell yourself. Don’t take up too much of your ONE PAGE but say why you’re qualified and the right person to write the story.
Dot the is, cross the ts. Obvious but important; make sure your letter and envelope are neat and legible. Make sure you enclose / attach anything you’ve said is enclosed / attached. Make sure you have adequate postage. Don’t forget the self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Here’s a tip on the SASE; if your idea is rejected, you’ll often get a form letter back. This letter will not always tell you which pitch has been rejected. If sending multiple pitches to the same publication it helps to write somewhere (inconspicuously) on the envelope the pitch topic. That way when you get back the envelope with “bathroom makeover” in the back bottom corner you’ll know your “closet re-org” story is still under consideration.
Out of sight out of mind. While you might think you’ll never forget the pitches you’ve worked so hard to send, eight weeks on it’s amazing how fuzzy the details get. You need to keep track of what you’ve sent, when and to whom. I’m not going to tell you how to do this but I will tell you it’s important. Whether you use an Excel spreadsheet or a paper file make sure you don’t skip this step.
Set limits. In general there’s an industry rule against multiple submissions. If you send a story idea to one magazine it’s not considered ok to send the same idea to another one until you’ve heard back yea or nay from the first. Many publications will give you a time frame to allow them to consider your idea. In theory since you’ve actually sent them a SASE and it costs nothing for them to reply, you should get an answer on all your pitches but in reality that doesn’t happen. So I recommend noting the magazine’s stated time limit and considering yourself free to send the pitch elsewhere once it’s passed. If not specifically stated then decide for yourself what you consider reasonable and make a note to send your pitch elsewhere after a certain date has passed.
Keep your chin up. Be prepared for rejections and be delighted with any small progress. At one point after a dozen straight rejections from a national magazine the editor took the time to call me and say she liked my ideas and they kept being almost chosen at story meetings. Although she wasn’t offering me any work at the time, her call kept me going and I’ve since written for her at both that magazine and the one she’s since moved to.