Some thoughts on pitching longform

As a features editor, the number one question I get asked by freelancers: is how should I pitch a longform story?*

Well, first a few caveats: the honest answer is there are no true hard-and-fast rules. I get as many well-executed pitches for bad stories as I do awful pitches for great ones. My experience is mostly limited to WIRED, and editors’ tastes are likely to be very different. (As such, we’ll be asking a few UK-based features editors for their own thoughts soon.)

With that said, some general tips:

  1. Read the magazine. Know who you’re pitching to. Read the contributors’ guidelines. At least a quarter of pitches I get fall at this fairly low hurdle.
  2. It’s a story — so pitch it as one. “I’m interested in writing about X” isn’t a particularly compelling offer for an editor. Instead, try imagining the first line of your pitch as the first line of your story: it should have drama, intrigue. “Rodrigo Rosenberg knew he was about to die” is going to get your editors’ attention quicker than “I’m interested in writing about a complex political scandal in Guatemala.” A short paragraph spelling out the story in miniature — characters, plot — should be enough.
  3. A second paragraph should explain exactly how you’d want to report the story. If there’s a foreign trip involved, include a sense of costings, including travel, fixers fees, and translators; be sensible, but don’t underestimate. Finally, a link out to one or two of your best writing examples, ideally relevant to the pitch. That’s pretty much it.
  4. A question isn’t a story. If there’s a question in your pitch, you should already have the answer to it. Otherwise, you probably haven’t done the legwork.
  5. Be prepared to do some reporting before the pitch is approved. The editor may have questions. The commissioning process — like the story — is a conversation. The best pitch I ever got was a full page, meticulously researched and costed. But the second best was one sentence.
  6. Read Jason Fagone’s Medium post on the same topic. There are other decent sources out there: The Open Notebook’s Pitch Database is explicitly for science writing, but the same theory applies. Who Pays Writers? is a decent resource, as is Neiman Storyboard. Podcast wise, try The Longform Podcast and for a UK slant, Always Take Notes.
  7. Lastly: just send it. If you don’t pitch, you’ll never get a commission. Those freelancers who ask how best to pitch? Half of them never get around to it. And even if the pitch fails, if your work is good it might lead to a commission down the line.

*(OK, actually it’s the second, after, “when do I get paid?”)

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