Back when I was a baby freelancer, pitching felt like a mystery. I knew in theory how to write an article pitch, sure, but they were usually half-baked. I usually didn’t know what the what was yet and wanted an editor to tell me what to do.
In the last nearly two years as a full-time freelancer I’ve come to appreciate how much research and tailoring needs to go into a pitch if you want to place an article in a major magazine. Not only do you need to know why you’re pitching the story to a particular editor at a particular magazine, but you need to have a convincing case as to why they should care. This takes a ton of time to prepare, but when all those elements align, you’ll have a much better success rate.
When you’re just starting out as a journalist, it’s also hard to find good examples of successful pitches. So I thought I’d share this recent successful magazine article pitch of mine:
Hi, [editor’s name],
I’m a freelancer here in Cincinnati, and [mutual acquaintance] suggested I get in touch with you about this story I’m working on.
A man trained as a kosher butcher emigrated from Lithuania in 1886 to serve an orthodox Jewish congregation in Cincinnati. Behr Manischewitz eventually became the patriarch of a mechanized matzo empire that led the world in matzo production — and ruffled rabbinical feathers. The family’s history illustrates the story of Jewish life in Cincinnati: Like many Jews, they settled in the West End in the late 1880s and moved to Avondale as they became more affluent in the 20th century. Eventually, the Manischewitz headquarters moved to New Jersey in 1930, and Cincinnati’s matzo fame waned. But Behr and his wife remain buried in Covedale.
I’ve done extensive research on the family in local archives and would love to tell the Manischewitz story for Cincinnati Magazine. There’s a wealth of interesting historical imagery and maps to go with the story, and I have a few ideas for interview subjects.
My writing credits include Wired, HOW, Family Tree Magazine and other national publications. This story could be great for April 2014 to coincide with Passover. What do you think?
- I had already done about three months of research by the time I wrote my pitch.
- This was a cold pitch — I had never worked with Cincinnati Magazine before.
- I sent this pitch in June 2013, proposing it for the April 2014 issue. That might seem excessively early, but I got a call back within a week and sold the story. It was due in January 2014, which gave me even more time to research.
You can read my piece about the Manischewitz family in Cincinnati Magazine’s April 2014 issue.
This Neil Gaiman commencement speech was mentioned recently on NPR and is now available as a book, “Make Good Art,” designed by Chip Kidd. The thing that really stood out to me in the interview was his two-of-three rule (this “secret knowledge” for freelancers starts around minute 14):
You get work however you get work. People keep working in a freelance world — and more and more of today’s world is freelance — because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
This is so true. I’ve made decisions based on these three attributes, subconsciously, as a magazine editor assigning articles. And I often doubt my abilities as a writer (Gaiman also talks about impostor syndrome in his speech), so I make it my business to always be on time and as pleasant as possible to work with so I at least get that two out of three.
And if nothing else, I can make rad GIFs (jifs):
After hearing Neil Gaiman on the radio, I came up with this hypothetical rule of threes specifically for pitching magazine articles. Everybody knows that to sell a story to a magazine, you need a solid topic with a fresh angle. But you also need at least two of the following attributes:
- Access: Do you have physical proximity to the subject matter, or a personal connection that gets you access where other reporters cannot?
- Expertise: Have you written about the subject before or have an advanced understanding of it?
- Reputation: Are you known by the publication’s audience as a trusted voice or by its editors as a reliable writer?
If you have all three, your pitch is way strong, and you might be a wizard. But if you have two out of the three, you still have a really good chance that your pitch is going to get picked up.
If you’re held in good esteem by magazine editors and have access to people or places, you might get by with being a novice in the subject matter. (Example: Susan Orlean goes to a local cream cheese factory to write about collusion with the bagel industry.) If the magazine’s never heard of you before, you need to have written about the topic before and have access to the right interview subjects. (Example: You’ve been reporting on a local university for years and have all the background info on a recent scandal to pitch an in-depth piece to a national outlet.) Or if you’re a known entity to editors and are an expert in the subject matter, the magazine might help you get access to the people or places of note — or be more likely to straight-up assign stuff to you. (Example: You’ve written about health policy for a magazine many times before, so you’re their first pick to profile the new surgeon general.)
That’s my theory of how to get a pitch picked up. Fellow freelancers, what do you think?