Selling a story to a magazine can seem impossible, especially if you’ve been sending out email after email with no reply.
The good news is it isn’t personal. The problem may be with your pitches. Luckily, there’s a formula to help you get them right.
To write pitches that sell, make sure you include the following elements.
Are You Sending Your Story to the Right Place?
The number one reason pitches get rejected—or the dreaded non-response—is that they haven’t been sent to the right editor. Many writers even send pitches to the wrong publication.
Before you hit send on your pitch, ideally before you start writing it, you have to figure out the right publication for your story. How do you know which publication is right for you? You have to read—a lot.
Becoming acquainted with the subject matter and style of your favorite publications will make you better equipped to write for them. If you want to submit to a publication you don’t already read regularly, take the time to get to know it better. Read several stories like the one you want to pitch. You’ll start seeing patterns. Use this to your advantage later.
If you don’t see any stories like yours in your target publication, you’re in the wrong place. Don’t waste your time or the editors’ by pitching them.
What Kind of Story Are You Pitching?
Knowing the kind of story you want to write will inform more than just the pitch’s content and where you send it. Knowing the kind of story will tell you how to write the pitch.
Every once in a while, a disagreement erupts in an online writers’ forum about the perfect length for a pitch. Some say shorter is better. Others say a paragraph is enough.
Even though length and pitch style preferences vary by editor, some common themes apply to most.
- Shorter stories require shorter pitches. Pitches for very short listicles or news stories won’t require more than a paragraph or two of explanation. A hundred words or so should be enough to get your point across.
- Personal essay pitches should be short and in the essay’s voice. For more on personal essay pitches, see “My Writing Process: From Pitch to Final Draft,” which contains an example that was used to teach pitching at the 2019 Writer’s Digest Conference.
- Longform story pitches need more substance. Unless you have a relationship with the editor already, most will need a more substantial pitch to give a story the go-ahead. For some editors, this means a few hundred words. For others, the best longform pitches top over 1,000 words. If you don’t believe me, check out The Open Notebook’s pitch database to see how long successful pitches really are.
You Need a Killer Headline
Before you can wow an editor with your writing chops, they need to actually click on your email. That’s where your killer email subject line comes in. No, a simple “Freelance Pitch” won’t cut it.
Get more descriptive. The best email subject lines mimick headlines themselves. They give the reader important information, often who and what the story is about, or they’re just a damn good title.
Here are some of mine:
[PITCH]: The Radioactive Town That Poisoned Florida
[PITCH]: The Great Python Hunt: Saving Biodiversity in Everglades National Park
[PITCH]: Zombie Moths, Dying Gods & Murder in the Himalayas
Before you write your subject line, think: What would I click on? If it sounds like the title for a great story, you’ve hit the mark.
Your Pitch Needs to Answer These Questions
While less is more in some shorter pitches, most pitches for medium-to-longform stories need to answer some basic questions—and do it in an enticing way. These questions start with the basic who, what, where, when, why and go beyond that.
Before you send your pitch, make sure it answers these questions:
Who Is Your Story About?
The best pitches begin with characters. In your first sentence or so, you need to tell the reader who the main character is, their job, and their place in the story. Try to start with a mini-scene or action if you can.
Use this opportunity to hook the reader like you would in a story. The first paragraph of your pitch can double as a lede.
What Is Your Story About?
Unless you’re writing an analysis essay (or listicle or whatever), your story has a plot. What is it? Figure out what your main character needs. What are they trying to accomplish? What is standing in their way? What are they doing to overcome that obstacle? The combination of these basic elements will make up your plot.
Where and When Does Your Story Take Place?
Where are the scenes in your story going to happen? Did they already happen or are you reporting on an event? This is an easy one. You might be able to accomplish it with a clause in the first sentence.
Make sure your story is grounded in time and place even if you’re describing something that will happen in the future. Things may change when you do the actual reporting, so don’t worry about this part of the pitch being perfect. It just needs to be there.
Why Tell This Story?
This is a hard question to answer, especially because most of us write about topics that already feel significant to us. One of the biggest jobs of a pitch is to convince someone else a story that is important to you will be important to the publication’s readership as well.
If you’re having trouble answering this, consider the implications of the story and its action:
- Does your story illustrate a widely debated issue?
- Does your story shed light on unknown injustice?
- Does your story connect to issues of national concern?
- Could your story impact political policy decisions?
- Who does your story affect? How? Why?
If you’re writing for a national publication, think about a reader from another part of the country or the world. Why would this story matter to them? If you’re unsure the editor will grasp your story’s importance, you can explain your reasoning.
What Are the Stakes?
A story’s stakes are tied to its importance, but these aren’t necessarily the same thing. Stakes are more often internal to the story. To discover the stakes, consider your plot, especially your character’s main goal. What does the character stand to lose if they fail? What will the world lose?
Why Tell This Story Now?
If your story has been going on for a long time, the publication will need a reason to bring it up beyond the fact that it’s interesting or important. Consider your story’s relationship to national news, sometimes called the news peg. For investigative stories, breaking the news itself is the why-now factor.
What Makes You the Writer to Tell It?
Is the story about your community? Is it about your field of study? What made you interested in the first place?
Think about your connections with the material, and include pertinent details that will help convince your editor you’re the right person for the job. Including links to related stories you’ve written will also help you answer this question.
How to Be More Convincing
The heart of pitching is persuasive writing. Beyond clear prose, there are many techniques you can employ to make your writing more convincing.
The top three are imagery, emotion, and factual support.
- Imagery: Include descriptive language and scenes that help your editor feel immersed in the story. Just don’t go overboard. The pitch is a sample, not a full meal. It should give the editor a taste of your story without unloading the entire buffet.
- Emotion: Beware of using gimmicky tactics. That being said, there are a few elements most of us find irresistible. Skip the emotional language but include features with obvious emotional impact. Families, children, pets, romance, drama, and peril all tug at our heartstrings. If you can deploy one or more of these well, you have a good chance of capturing your reader.
- Factual Support: As writers, we’re already big fans of facts. But when it comes to pitching, we often forget to back up our work with references. Citing journal articles and specific subject matter experts or linking out to other citations in your pitch will help back up your point. However, use this technique sparingly. Don’t give away all of your work, and don’t waste your editor’s time with unnecessary information.
Perfect pitches don’t always sell, and, in my experience, mediocre pitches on exciting subjects often get picked up by editors.
The common factor behind most meh pitches that go on to become published stories is that they actually have stories behind them. They have potential. They sound entertaining. The editor reads the pitch and wants to know more.
This tells us that the pitch isn’t really the beginning of the story as many of us perceive it to be. The pitch is the midpoint. Before crafting the pitch, you’ll need to do some pre-reporting and research.
Most pitches that fail have missed because they’re not pitching a story at all. The best ideas in the world can’t stand in for a developed narrative.