You’ve thought of an interesting angle on a political or social issue you don’t see discussed anywhere else. You have access to an expert who you believe would be a good subject for a timely interview, or you know an up-and-coming entrepreneur you think people will pay attention to.
You know what you want to write, and you’re ready to do it — and you could simply post it on your own blog, but, hey, why not get paid for it and be guaranteed a sizable audience? It’s time to prepare a pitch.
A pitch, known in book publishing as a query letter, is an overture to a print or online publication about an article, essay, or review you’d like it to publish. An effective pitch gets considered; an ineffective one doesn’t. Fortunately, there are some proven strategies for making sure your pitch is of the former variety:
1. Pitch to the Publication
Consider the audience. Any topic is appropriate for a number of publications, but your approach to it, and your voice, is going to be a good match for some and a poor fit for others. You can certainly adapt your take on the topic depending on the publication’s personality, but tailor each pitch to a specific recipient.
2. Be Professional
Use an appropriate tone in your pitch. If you haven’t met the recipient, be formal. If the editor is an acquaintance, or you’ve had prior correspondence or personal contact, mention that fact as an entree but move on, and again, be professional. If you’ve already had your work published in the publication, remind the editor of the fact, but don’t loosen your language unless you’re certain — at the risk of losing an amenable editor if you’re wrong — that you can afford to be casual because of your relationship.
Professional doesn’t mean “pedestrian,” though. Display your personality and your distinctive writing style, but in moderation. Think about how you would approach your correspondent in person: You’d want to come across as clever and charming but not overbearing or obnoxious.
3. Play by the Rules
Unless submission guidelines specify otherwise, email a specific editor, rather than using postal mail or the telephone. If a junior staff member is listed as the point of contact, don’t try an end run to a senior editor unless you have a recommendation from a mutual contact or you already have a connection. If you’re sending a cold-call pitch, it has to stand on its own merits, no matter who reads it, and be worthy of being sent along to a key decision maker.
If there’s no response, follow up after a couple of days, emphasizing the timeliness of the prospective piece, if it is in fact time sensitive. If there’s no response after an initial reply, do the same thing, but if there’s no further contact, move on. Repurpose your query for another publication and send it off.
4. Be a Solution, Not a Problem
Despite the feel-good pop-psychology trope to the contrary, there are stupid questions. They’re the ones you ask the wrong person or at the wrong time. Don’t query an editor about per-word rate, word count, or other quotidian questions that may be available on a Web site FAQ page or in submissions guidelines, or by just reading a publication, and that are probably premature anyway. Asking about such details at the pitch stage is an amateur move, and a deal killer. The only question your pitch should include — other than a question your article will answer — is, “Are you interested?”
5. Pitch the Pitch, Not a Portfolio
Refrain from submitting a CV, a resume, a summary of prior publication, or any professional background information unless any of the above are relevant to the article’s subject matter (you have an advanced degree in the subject matter, or a renowned would-be interviewee was your master’s-thesis adviser) or are especially impressive in some other respect. Do include two or three clips, preferably accessible by URLs for articles published online — the more pertinent to the pitch topic, the better, but your best work will do.
6. Share Your Sources
Identify by name and credentials the people you will be interviewing or consulting to inform your work — and don’t include anyone you’re not reasonably certain will talk to you. If you have personal contacts — a White House insider who’s a friend of the family, or a freed hostage who was your college roommate — you might want to mention that.
A key part of your pitch is persuading an editor that your work will be authoritative. Your personal interest in the topic doesn’t count for anything, and knowledge alone of quotable people isn’t much better; you must demonstrate that you can connect with them.
7. Audition for the Role
You want to prove that you can deliver a tight, potent, incisive article that will keep readers engaged from start to finish. Demonstrate your ability to do so with a crisp, clear, concise presentation. Tell the editor what you’re going to do, and how you’re going to do it — what thought-provoking idea you’re going to explore, what your perspective will be, and from whence your authority will derive. A brisk one-paragraph outline of no more than a few sentences should do the work.
If you have a great idea for a headline, work that into the pitch. You might even use it for your message header — but if not, make sure that what shows up in the editor’s email queue is eye catching.