Pitch perfectKira Cochrane, The Guardian women’s editor weighs in on how to use research, professionalism, common sense, a bit of chutzpah and gentle persistence to craft that perfect feature pitch.
On my first day as a professional writer, the Monday morning after completing a journalism course, I sat down, flexed my fingers, and crafted my first feature pitch. I had heard that it was quite easy to get articles accepted by a certain cutting edge style magazine, and so, for no other reason than this, I decided to target them.
I didn’t read said magazine regularly, because I didn’t actually like it, and I had no sense of the kind of features they ran. What I did know was that the people who worked at style magazines were, by definition, cool, and so I tried to secondguess the way they might speak. I then wrote a pitch full of ‘yeahs,’ ‘whatevers’ – and a liberal sprinkling of swear words.
Just thinking about it now makes me red. And the blush deepens when I recall the idea in question: I wanted to write about people who drink their own urine. (I was living in Brighton, hanging out with hippies, and had met a lot of people who did this for ‘health reasons.’ It’s not much of a defence though, is it?) For some reason, the editor didn’t reply.
Despite that terrible and embarrassing start, my professional career as a writer was born. A combination of luck and hard work led to a job as first a researcher, and then contract writer for The Sunday Times; the publication of a few novels; a period as a freelance; and a job as women’s editor at The Guardian. And in the nine years since that first cringe-worthy email, I’ve learned more than a few things about the qualities of a good pitch. Most important is this: while it’s not hard to write a good pitch, it’s very, very easy to write a bad one. With advertising revenues dropping, and budgets tightening, this isn’t the most buoyant time for the magazine and newspaper industry, but freelancing can still be a credible – and often incredibly exciting – way to forge ahead as a writer. Most editors do sometimes use new, unknown voices, and what’s likely to get you through the door is a powerful,
You’ve got email
Rule number one: email is almost always the best way to approach editors. Keep in mind that many editors are extremely stressed, and can be up against hideous deadlines, so the chance of calling and catching them at the perfect moment to discuss your idea is bad to nil. As Kitty Corrigan, deputy editor of Country Living magazine points out: ‘One classic mistake is to ring on a crackly mobile at 9am on a Monday to pitch ideas. Emailing is much less intrusive.’
And, yes, the content of your email is all-important. In trying to catch an editor’s eye, many journalists opt either for boasting, or bribery (I’ve been offered lunches at some of Britain’s most expensive restaurants. I haven’t taken them up). It’s amazing, says Corrigan, the number of pitches that start, ‘I have the perfect idea for you – I know you’re going to love it.’ When a pitch starts like that, you know, in fact, that you’re going to hate it.
Equally, when someone writes about their brilliance as a writer, their wit, style and peerless articulation of complicated ideas, it’s extremely off-putting. You don’t need to tell an editor that you’re brilliant; if you come up with the perfect pitch, they’ll realise it anyway.
Research – and research some more
The way to wow an editor, amazingly enough, is with your unrivalled professionalism, and the first step is to do your research. You need to decide which publications you most want to write for, and then spend as much time as possible reading them, paying attention to their tone, style, and working practices.
It’s also necessary to find out which editors deal with specific sections – news, fashion, health, etc. – either by looking at the magazine masthead, or by making a quick call to the publication. As a section editor, it’s annoying to receive an idea
that’s completely wrong for your pages – and even more annoying if it’s unsuited to your publication as a whole. Acting features director of Elle Alice Wignall says that she’s received a pitch for a recipe column, when Elle doesn’t even have a food section: ‘I get pitches which say “This will be great for your health news page.” We don’t have a health news page. I get pitched articles about fashion, even though I’m not the fashion editor. When that happens, you do just think, “Well, this person can’t really be interested in writing for the magazine if they haven’t even looked at it.”’
Even once you’ve homed in on the specific section you want to write for, you need to work out the tastes of that particular editor. What have they published recently? What style are those articles written in – humorous or serious, personal or objective, political or fluffy? You also need to bear in mind the practicalities of how the publication works. With a daily newspaper, it will sometimes be possible to pitch a time-sensitive, news-related idea in the morning, be commissioned to write it that day, and see it published the next morning. In that case, you need to be confident that you can deliver what you’re offering within the necessary time frame – as, indeed, you always should be when you pitch. A glossy magazine like Elle, on the other hand, works around a three-to-four month lead time: if you contact them in January, they’ll be working on their April or May issue. (There’s therefore no point suggesting an idea that would only work in February.) And if you’re not sure how a particular magazine’s schedule works, a quick phone call to the editor’s PA should provide an answer.
Next you need to come up with the perfect idea, making sure it’s not a subject your chosen publication – or one of its closest rivals – has covered recently. (A thorough Google search will usually reveal any clashes). Editors want exclusive stories,
16 | Mslexia.co.uk | Oct / Nov / Dec 09 Feature
so if a subject has already been extensively covered in the British press, that may hurt your chances. If you’re a fairly untested journalist, it’s also worth trying to think of ideas that you can bring some unique knowledge or perspective to. You need to show that there’s a good reason why you, rather than an established journalist, should write about a subject. Maybe there’s an especially interesting, unusual personal experience that you’d like to write about. That can be a good way of getting a first assignment, and if you write it well there’s a strong chance an editor will commission you again – and even recommend you to their colleagues. Or perhaps there’s a subject that you know much more about than the vast majority of people. Again, it’s worth coming up with ideas that would benefit from your specialist knowledge.
The write stuff When it comes to writing your pitch, it’s always good to be very specific in the subject line – that way, an editor will be able to find your pitch in their avalanche of email days later. Simply putting ‘Feature Idea’ won’t help.
In outlining your idea, be friendly, straightforward and enthusiastic – without being boastful or pushy. No one likes a pushy pitch. You don’t have to be very formal – just a ‘Dear [first name]’ is fine. (I always get mildly alarmed by those that start ‘Dear Kira Cochrane,’ or ‘Dear Ms Cochrane,’ and hugely put off by a ‘Dear Sir or Madam’). Then I would write a first line that includes some acknowledgment of the time demands that editors face – something like: ‘I’m so sorry to bother you, as I know you must be extremely busy, but I just wanted to get in touch
because I had an idea that I thought might work well for your section.’ A note of humility is good. You’re not saying that the idea will work for them, but that it might, and it would be worth them reading on.
Always, always keep it brief. One paragraph is great, two paragraphs is fine, but any longer and your pitch could go unread. Explain the idea simply, detailing how you would approach the article – are you proposing a first-person piece, a series of case studies, an interview? Think about visuals: it’s always good to have a clear idea
about how the article could be illustrated, if, for example, all your case studies have chosen to stay anonymous. End the email with a line or two detailing relevant professional experience – magazines, newspapers or websites that you’ve written for, or a link to your blog. And make sure that you include all your contact details. That’s essential.
Don’t send more than two ideas in an email; ideally stick to one. I sometimes receive lists of 20 ideas, which make me feel exhausted, and faintly insulted. It’s obvious that these 20 ideas aren’t specifically tailored to my pages – a freelance has just sent a round robin.
After hitting send, sit back and wait for a reply. Occasionally you will be met with an eerie silence. Don’t get upset (easier said than done, I know). It’s easy
to imagine that a ‘No,’ or no reply, means that an editor detests your idea, thinks you’re stupid, and is laughing about you with their colleagues. This is a ridiculous notion. They will have looked at your email, ruled it in or out, and moved straight on. I sometimes used to feel so embarrassed about a rejection that I wouldn’t pitch to that editor again for months. But this is no way to conduct a professional career: since becoming an editor, I’ve developed a huge respect for freelance writers who are quietly
persistent. Sometimes it’s taken five or six pitches before they’ve come up with the perfect idea for me, but I have, finally, commissioned them. And then I’ve commissioned them again.
Viv Groskop, one of the most successful freelances in the business, says that if you’re pitching a precious idea, it’s worth including a caveat in the email, along the lines of: ‘I know that time constraints might make it difficult to get back to me, but I would love to write this article, so if I haven’t heard from you in a week, I’m happy to take that as a polite no and offer it somewhere else.’ This saves you badgering an editor for a response, which, it has to be said, would be a sure-fire way to annoy them. Editors are looking for people who make their lives easier. If you come up with a great idea, you’ll be doing just that.
So there you have it. Do your research. Be friendly, straightforward, and brief. Never send more than two ideas at a time. If an editor says no to an idea, don’t be downhearted – and definitely don’t email them straight back explaining that they’re wrong, and should reconsider (you’d be amazed how often this happens). Be quietly persistent.
And be happy. As Groskop says, freelancing can be ‘incredibly enjoyable – it’s interesting, fun – and you’re in control of your own life.’ What could be better than that?
KIRA COCHRANE was born in Loughton, Essex, in 1977. She has published two novels, The Naked Season and Escape Routes for Beginners, the second of which was longlisted for the Orange Prize.
The way to wow an editor, amazingly enough, is with your unrivalled professionalism, and the first step is to do your research.
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