If you subscribe to the pop culture version of freelance writing, it’s easy to believe that someone will stumble on your story ideas by osmosis and instantly share them with the world. Sure, Rory Gilmore attracts assignments in The New Yorker while flying business class to London and Girls’ Hannah Horvath lands lunches with editors without sending a single email.
For the rest of us, learning how to craft a pitch that conveys your strengths as a writer as well as the significance of your story is seriously important. But like any other form of writing, pitching is a muscle that gets stronger the more you train.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned about pitching through my own freelance writing career. With any luck, they’ll help you too.
1. Look for an idea that truly excites you
There’s no point pitching or writing a story unless you know, deep-down, that it’s something that you would be burning to read. It’s impossible to know in advance whether an editor will love your story or if readers will re-tweet it. But if the prospect of putting the idea into words truly excites you, then chances are that you could be onto something worthwhile. If you’re not sure what you should be pitching, noticing the writers that you keep returning to, and paying attention to the ideas that you keep obsessing about, can give you some clues. I keep a running record of these ideas as they occur on my Notes app so there’s always something that intrigues me on those (inevitable!) days I feel stumped.
2. Ensure that your hook is original
The world of online journalism often prioritises speed over substance. Frankly, that model has never really worked for me. Of course, timeliness is important, especially if you’re writing something in response to the news of the day. But finding a hook that’s original, that spotlights an element of a story that’s being overlooked or adds something new to the conversation is crucial. It’s also part of our responsibility as writers. As Rebecca Solnit put it in a May 2016 article in Lithub, “There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories.” It’s our job to find them and make editors and readers care.
3. Outline your story idea in a succinct paragraph
When it comes to pitching your story, it pays to keep it short and sharp. Writing one to two paragraphs that outlines the angle of your story, summarises the main elements of your argument and identifies the hook or peg is more effective than an unstructured email. If you can showcase your writing voice and write a clever headline that shows the editor you get their publication’s style, bonus!
4. Learn the difference between a topic and an angle
Once you learn the difference between a topic and an angle, it gets easier to vet and pitch your ideas. For example, a piece about sexual harassment in Hollywood is a topic, not an angle. Pitching a piece about how Weinstein illustrates a culture of silence around male predators in industries that think of themselves as progressive? You could be onto something interesting.