Sometimes editors assign pieces, and sometimes writers pitch them for acceptance. The principle of successful pitching is the same as for selling things and writing leads: spark their interest.
Editors’ jobs are repetitive and tend to dull their imaginations, so stories start to sound alike to them. But editors do like to read and publish good pieces. So the pitch must ignite their enthusiasm while fitting the template of what they normally publish.
First of all, a pitch must establish your authority by information. Before you try it out, do enough gathering so you know what you’re talking about, at least a few calls, maybe a little searching and reading, and some planning. The more complex the idea, the more preparation you need.
What are the parts of a pitch, keeping in mind that you haven’t done all the gathering yet?
1. The genre and likely scale of the piece
2. What the piece might be about
3. Who might read it and why
4. A tentative gathering plan
5. Graphic, video, and sound possibilities.
So a pitch might begin like this: “I want to write a short, funny column about clothing myself from stuff that students lose on sidewalks near the University, you know, scarves, gloves, Mets caps, strappy red sandals, underwear….”
“Strappy red sandals and underwear,” you got ’em.
Editors think in pigeonholes of genre and size and subject and treatment, so you aim the pitch at the appropriate slots by talking their lingo. When their eyes start to light up, you talk about what this piece might really be about: obscenely rich students, careless or drunk coeds shedding garments, America’s throwaway culture, etc.
Many writers fail by pitching small and dull; their stuff sounds like everything that’s boring their editors to death. So you get your editor to imagine a photo of someone (not you) wearing everything picked up early Monday morning after a football weekend.
You can tailor your pitches more sharply by knowing your editors’ tastes and quirks. Study what they usually publish, how they played it, what they praise, and their hobbies and obsessions. One top editor I knew hung model planes all over his office ceiling; any pitch about aviation would land (take off?) with him. You also need to know editors’ dislikes; some food editors will not let a brussels sprout near their pages.
Most word people don’t know enough about pictures and sound to make that part of the pitch, although every ambitious writer should be learning them now in our dawning age of electronic publishing. But you can talk about how cracking a lobster might need illustration, or how a map of Fort Hood would help readers, or a possible video of repairing Hubble.
The assured way you phrase your pitch should convince the editor that you’ve done some preliminary gathering, know what you’re talking about, and can deliver the piece, superbly written, on time.
Some stories are harder to pitch and require special techniques. Pitch complicated or controversial pieces with a short memo followed by a chat. The editor may have to consult seniors or lawyers, and your memo will get your words and ideas up to higher levels intact.
Sometimes your pitch fails, which doesn’t mean you should abandon the idea. Editors tend to have poor memories (everything sounds alike to them), so chalk it up to bad timing and try the pitch again later in different form. You can try a different editor unless policy forbids such “editor shopping.” Some editors resent it, so be politic.
If you expect your pitch to fail, and you really want to write the story no matter what, do just that. Write the piece without pitching, and submit it. If you do it well, your editor will publish it.
The bottom line: editors want good pieces, and stories written well make pitching the next one easier.
[Got any good pitching tactics?]