A Freelance Writer's Life: The Art of the Pitch

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Photo: Flickr/IamNotUnique

My first pitches were rambling, smoke-and-mirrors affairs. They resembled most of the school papers I’d ever written. There was the little voice that said, “If you write long enough and use enough big words the teacher will certainly give you a good grade if for no other reason but because you’re among the brightest kids in the class.” What I soon learned: when you write for a living, everyone was the brightest kid in his or her class. Editors don’t give out grades if the pitch is subpar. They hit delete.

I had one saving grace in those days: I was more than a little nuts. Instead of pitching a story about a city near me, I’d travel to a place I thought no one would get assigned (and one that might be interesting), learn about it and then send in the idea. Really the only benefit moving to post-war Sarajevo, Bosnia, bought me, though, was a guarantee that an editor would read the pitch. Even given the fact that no editor would have sent her travel writers to a conflict-worn city, I still received responses saying (at that point via email), and I quote: “You need to be more clever.”

Then I received an email that changed my thinking for good. I am certain the editor wasn’t trying to be helpful, but he gave me more in one email than nearly every story I’ve ever been assigned: “Please stop pitching me stories. You are sending ideas that have no time peg, no news peg, and are not interesting except to you. In this business, silence means no.”

At that moment, I had two choices: create a system and sell widgets clients wanted, or do what most smart, former freelance writers do, leave this horribly paid existence, marry up and become sane. I opted for the former BUT tried to make a science out of it. The science became the four-paragraph (in journalism speak: four-graf) pitch.

Photo: Flickr/Kerri Lee Smith

The format and the grafs had to overwrite all of my bad habits and get to the point of the idea in a timely fashion. The entirety of what I have learned about pitching, in two decades, I am laying out here in the course of about 15 minutes.

Always begin with “Dear” and then the editor’s name, position and magazine. Never again would I act like a punk and say “Hi Jennifer, do I ever have a great pitch for you!” All business. Nothing cutesy.

First Graf
This has to kick an editor square in the teeth. The clear lead sentence, and then supporting graf, should hook her and make her know that 1) this piece is timely; 2) her readers will need to read about this place; 3) you are an expert (whether you are or not).

So, my dreams of pitches like: “You should really let me write a story about XYZ beach! Everybody loves it!” were thrown straight out the window.

Second Graf
What will actually be in the story? In this graf, I’d give the editor a skeleton, at least, of activities for the locale. I’d provide historical context. I’d back up the idea’s timeliness and why I believed it had specific relevance to her publication. (An editor, by the way, then has to “sell” an idea to a roomful of editors at an upcoming editorial meeting. If my idea was a complete dog, I could be damned sure the editor wasn’t going to fall on a sword for me.)

Again, no more of this: “Hey, I know your mag specializes in boating, but I really think your readers would get oodles out of learning about skiing in Italy!”

Third Graf
This graf ALWAYS begins with this exact phrase: “I propose a story about—” Besides the lead sentence, this is the single most important line of the letter. I was determined to be very clear about what widget I was trying to sell. The editor may not want the story. She may have already assigned a similar story to another writer. She may just not like the name Alex, but she would know exactly what I was pitching.

Fourth Graf
This paragraph explains why I am the right person to write the story. It shows why I know more than the average person about the place; what sources I am planning to contact for the piece; who I have already contacted; what publications I have written for before; and that I have attached clips (previously published pieces) to the email.

“I look forward to your response, Alex Crevar.”

Why would I leave a person I don’t know with Cheers? Frankly, if they say no to the pitch—which is still the norm—I don’t want to waste a “cheers” on them. And if they say yes, it isn’t because they thought I was clanging beer glasses with them. It will be because I provided a clear, attractive pitch to sell my widget.

Do I sell all of my story ideas? Not even close. Do I get respectful responses that sometimes lead to future stories? The results after the implementation of my four-graf-pitch scheme are exponentially higher. Do I hope any of this helps even one aspiring freelancer, who is like me but smarter? Absolutely. I can’t wait to read your stuff and plan my next vacation.

Alex Crevar is Paste’s travel editor.

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