When I was a freelance journalist, pitching story ideas was my business’s lifeblood. As an academic now, I also find that sometimes pitching an idea ahead of all the research and writing to gauge an editor’s interest can be a valuable option to save time and be more efficient.
First, have an idea. Coming up with ideas for articles and stories is essential, so if you don’t consider yourself “an idea person,” strive to become one. If you are unsure where ideas come from, here’s a starting point.
Now that you have an idea for an article, an essay, a story, you want to compose a clear, well-organized, and specific pitch letter (also known as a query letter) to the editor of the publication you wish to write for.
Strive to address a specific person by name. Sometimes this isn’t possible, but do search around the publication’s web site to discover a real person that you can email. If you get a name, start your pitch with a polite and professional greeting such as Dear Ms. Kent, or Dear Chris, or Good day, Doug.
The first paragraph of your pitch should identify why you are writing. Include a sentence about your idea. Keep it brief. In the case of pitching a scholarly article to a peer-reviewed journal, you might add that you understand that the editor’s interest in the idea has no bearing on the finished article’s review or acceptance.
Here is an example of a very brief pitch that I made to a journal in early 2014:
Good morning, (first name) –
Below please find an abstract outlining a possible article that I would like to compose for consideration in the inaugural issue of (journal title). Understanding that your interest in my idea has no bearing at all on its potential review or acceptance, I’m just trying to plan out my winter break writing and would just like to know if this is something that sounds like it might be a good fit for the tone you are trying to set with this first issue?
Many thanks for any feedback! Much appreciated.
You’ll notice that my pitch is incredibly brief. Brevity is your ally when pitching ideas. Get to the point and don’t ramble. Be honest and clear. Clarity is also your friend. In the sample letter above, I included the 300-word abstract summarizing the argument I intended to make. If you were pitching a journalistic feature to a newspaper editor, you would instead lay out your plan for the piece in the second paragraph. You might include the people you intend to interview, the anticipated length (750 – 1,000 words, for instance), your anticipated time line for completion, and whether you will include photos.
Remember that editors want to work with writers who are confident, professional, write clearly, and don’t waste their (or their readers’) time. You can achieve this impression in your pitch letter.
Sometimes, you’ll want to list your publishing credentials, especially for creative publications and those that pay. You would include a brief paragraph listing your publishing record – not all of it, just the most impressive bits, or the most recent – toward the end of your pitch. Establishing yourself as a proven commodity can convince an editor to give you and your idea a chance. But don’t despair if you don’t have that credential list yet. Let your idea and your smart and savvy presentation of it do the work of convincing the editor.
Consider this the business side of writing. Also, think of the old adage: Work smarter, not harder. No matter which publications you approach, there is great value in developing ideas and vetting them with editors ahead of doing the research and writing. Pitching ideas will allow your writing production to be more efficient and will save you time. And when you receive the editor’s positive feedback, you can then tackle the work knowing that you’ve laid the groundwork for possible acceptance.