Last year, I pitched a story to a major women's magazine, which I won't name but let's just say it rhymes with Hood Mousesweeping, that recounted the harrowing experience of a Spokane, Washington mom. Angel Fiorini risked her life to save her daughter from a horrible house fire.
The story hadn't been widely reported, and it fit right into Food Spouseleaping's sweet spot: They often published stories featuring "real life heroes," and Angel was similar to their readership—married, mom, 30s, heartland. Check, check, check, check.
I wrote up a proposal and fired it off to the appropriate editor, confident that I'd struck gold. When I didn't hear back right away, I was surprised. I waited a few weeks than I contacted the editor again. She said liked the story, but in order for her to sell it to her boss, the editor-in-chief, she needed it to fly off the page. Like the reader flipping through the magazine, this editor needed a reason to stop on this story and start reading—immediately.
So I rewrote the pitch. I added a catchy headline, included a family photo, and tweaked the intro so that it put the reader right in the middle of the fire. In short, I pitched the story as a mini me version of how it might read in the magazine.
As a long-time editor and writer, I've had the opportunity to be on both ends of the pitch process. I've fielded hundreds of pitches (at one time I was in charge of a magazine's so-called "slush pile"), and I've fired off just as many story queries to various magazines, newspapers, and websites. I'm still learning how to to pitch perfect.
While every publication has different guidelines, if they have guidelines at all, there are still some tried-and-true techniques that will help improve your chances of getting your pitch seen, considered, and hopefully assigned.
Unfortunately, too often I've seen the same mistakes made over and over again. So in the spirit of helping you understand what to do, here's what not to do.
Canvas the Town with Your Idea Sending your story idea to multiple publications at the same time, is a big no-no. Target the specific pub you want to run your story and send it there. If you don't hear back in two weeks, move on to your next choice.
Send Pitches Blindly I can't tell you the number of times I received pitches at Glamour about gardening, or submissions at Stuff about poetry. It's as if the person pitching never read the magazine. Study the publication you're pitching. Know their tone, style, and subject matter. If you're targeting a website, look at their content categories to understand the topics that interests them. If you're pitching a magazine, take a look at the different sections/columns. If there are no pages dedicated to, say, first-person essays, don't expect them to make an exception just for you.
Pitch a Copy-Cat Story I always do a google search before I pitch, just to make sure the publication I'm hitting up hasn't run the story already. In fact, I usually do a broader search to make sure that no major national publication or competitive pub has run the same story.
Pitch a Dated Story In an age where information moves faster than any time in the history of our planet; it's hard to be first to break a story. Unless you work at a daily, I wouldn't recommend playing that game. Being topical and relevant is important, but you don't have to be first. Instead, try approaching a story from a fresh angle. Have an original take or an original piece of reporting.
Pitch the Editor-in-Chief Don't pitch the people at the top of the masthead. Although they sign off on all stories, they rarely, if ever, assign them. Instead, target your pitches at assigning editors or even editorial assistants, who may be hungry to make a good impression at work. Don't know who these people are? Do a LinkedIn search for names, then a social media search for contact info. If someone has an assistant next to their name, they might be a good place to start.
Ok, so now that I've told you what you shouldn't do, here are some examples of what you should do. I'm not trying to boast—trust me, many more of my story pitches have failed than sailed. But I thought it might be helpful for you to see some story pitches that got me jobs.
You can read the final story here
New York Times
Last month, I pitched three stories to the New York Times Arts section. Guess which one they chose?
Marcia Clark’s Second Motion
Twenty years after disappearing from the public eye, the infamous prosecutor is back in a new role as TV detective in Marcia Clark Investigates The First 48. On the show, she examines the first 48 hours after high-profile murders, such as the death of Casey Anthony’s daughter, the murder of Robert Blake’s wife, the fatal shooting of Jam Master Jay, etc., trying to get closer to the truth. Clark will also be hosting a true-crime docudrama.
As The Americans Bows Out, Holly Taylor is Just Getting Started
Holly Taylor, who plays Paige Jennings on The Americans, is perhaps the most underrated but polarizing character on the show. A few seasons ago, she outed her parents as Soviet spies to her minister, incurring the wrath of the show's fans. On the sixth and final season, which premieres in late March, she may join them in the family business. Would you consider a profile of her as a fresh new face?
Is David Chang the Next Anthony Bourdain?
Celeb chef David Chang’s new docu-series “Ugly Delicious” premiers on Netflix on February 23. On the show, he travels around the world with celebrities, food critics, etc, exploring different cuisines and talk about cultural barriers and misconceptions around food. It’s sort of a Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee meets Anthony Bourdain.
You can read the final story here
And here's the Facebook live video I recorded!