Every seasoned writer has a pitch letter or two that they regretted sending off. I’ve probably committed every pitching no-no in the book: failing to address the correct editor, sending off a half-baked idea, even overlooking a grammatical error or two (cue my cowering in shame). The truth is your pitch letter is even more important than the first draft of your piece.
You only get one chance. You have to sell both your idea and your credibility as a writer in roughly 250 words. Fortunately, there are only a handful of must-haves for your pitch letter— and if you master these elements, you’re on the road to earning a readership and getting that check in the mail.
Ready? Here’s what you need.
1. A hook.
A good editor will know at the beginning of a pitch whether she’s interested in the story or not.
Author and book doctor David Henry Sterry says the beginning of your pitch letter is “like when you walk in the grocery store and there [are] those little pieces of cheese with toothpicks in them, and you pick one up and you eat it and you go, ‘Damn, that’s some good cheese. I’m gonna buy me some of that cheese.’ That’s exactly what you want in the beginning of your pitch.”
I like to get right to the point in my pitch letters: “You probably think bobby pins are just a hair accessory, but I have 20 more uses for the basic bobby pin that will blow your mind.”
Or how about, “I nearly drowned on my first attempt at scuba diving, and I can’t wait to get back in the water.” A shocking statistic, a new perspective or a turn of phrase are all great ways to start your pitch letters and convince that editor to buy the whole chunk of cheese.
2. An angle.
Now that you have the editor’s attention, it’s time to show him your angle. Your angle can be any variety of things, but it has to be easily explained in about a sentence.
It’s like your thesis statement (did I just bring back memories of writing term papers at 2 a.m.?). For instance, my angle on this article would be: “You need four essential things to craft a killer pitch letter and land a paying assignment.”
On the other hand, here’s an example of something that wouldn’t work as an angle: “Writing a pitch letter is a grueling process.”
Think of an angle in terms of your readership. What will my readers learn from this? How will this piece make them think differently? How will this piece entertain, infuriate or enrich them?
For the first article Maria Guido (blogger at Guerilla Mom) sold, her goal was to entertain her readers. She reflected it in her angle, which was to write “about how not reading Fifty Shades of Grey made me feel like a total prude. And I think that I just got my voice across… I know what my strength is, and my strength is I’m a storyteller.”
Play to your strengths. If you’re an entertainer, your angle should be entertaining. If you’re a muckraking journalist, your angle should reveal some dark secret.
3. Interesting stats.
Season your pitch letter with statistics, sound bites from experts and bold statements that inform the editor about the essence of your piece.
I like to put my supporting information in bullet points. Here’s a real, concise example of a personal essay pitch that I sold recently:
It took me a year and a half after having my child to realize what I needed most out of life: The sense of purpose, influence and creativity I could only get from pursuing my abandoned career. My essay will cover:
- The societal guilt I felt in transitioning from the “perfect stay-at-home mom” to the full-time worker
- The hellish months it took to acclimate my daughter to daycare during the peak of her separation anxiety
- The steady building of my confidence through work, creative endeavors and a new, intense hobby—rock climbing
- The sense of fulfillment I have now that I’ve put myself first, and how it has nearly eradicated my postpartum depression and strengthened the mother-daughter bond
My goal with this piece is to help other depressed women stop martyring themselves, and to really pause and reflect on what’s missing in their lives.
I want to remove the stigma from the term “putting yourself first” when it comes to being a mother because the only way you can love your child fully is if you take care of yourself first.
Now, if I had been writing an informational piece detailing a new study that has proven that PPD women can overcome depression by going back to work, I would have included an expert quote and the basic conclusions of the study. My supporting information would’ve looked something like this (this is all invented, of course):
- According to 2013 University of America Research, 85 percent of PPD moms saw improvement of their depression symptoms over a two-month period of going back to work.
- Dr. Jane Doe, the leader of this study, states that “For these particular women, their depression has to do with feeling like they’re missing something in their lives… and some of them actually responded better to a lifestyle change than an increase in medication.”
4. Market knowledge.
Sending a stellar pitch to the wrong publication or editor won’t get you anywhere. Before pitching a publication, freelance writer C. Hope Clark studies the masthead to find out who does what.
She also reads archives of articles. “I will also glance at the advertising in the publication or online to get a strong feel of the readership,” she says.
I’ve had the best luck selling articles to publications that I read regularly. But getting a feel for the tone of a publication is only half the process. The other half is being aware of how much of a magazine or website is freelance driven.
There are both large and small pubs that rarely accept submissions from freelancers—and many from which the majority of their writing comes from freelancers.
Email or write (don’t call!) an editorial assistant at the magazine to find out if it takes pitches from freelancers, what the guidelines are and to whom you should address your pitch.
Subscribe to magazines like Writer’s Digest and Poets & Writers to stay informed on publishing trends and changing technology. There are plenty of websites and newsletters that alert you to paying markets in need of stories, like the ones found at FundsForWriters.com, WritersWeekly.com and WritersDigest.com.
The format of the pitch is up to you. While a couple of plain-text paragraphs is often all you need, sometimes it helps to incorporate bullet points for your content ideas below an emboldened headline and dek (the little summary of a piece you might see on a website) to help the editor visualize what the live article might look like.
And always adhere to a publication’s specific guidelines: some require you to fill out a form rather than email them directly, while others would rather you include your finished piece rather than sending a pitch.
Whatever your story, go forth and sell it—and when you do, turn around and pitch them again!