Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:
“What is a normal amount of time to spend on preparing pitches for magazine feature stories? I’ve heard people say they spend as little as an hour, and others say they conduct multiple interviews before pitching—and I assume they then spend a good deal of time writing the pitch itself. What’s usually the best approach, practically speaking?”
Bryn Nelson, freelance science writer and editor:
Let me say up front that I have a love-hate relationship with pitching stories. Selling an editor on an idea, especially if I don’t know the editor well, is very stressful for me and I sometimes have to force myself to just take the plunge. That said, pitching a feature-length story for a magazine should never be taken lightly—even if the first one doesn’t land, you want the editor to remember you the next time around.
For me, that often means doing at least some pre-reporting and a fair amount of online research to be sure that (a) the story is compelling and on target with what the magazine would normally do, (b) it’s sufficiently different from what’s been covered before, and (c) I can grab the editor’s attention within the first two sentences and establish my ability to write an engaging narrative.
Maybe other writers can do this in an hour or two, but I certainly can’t. If I had to estimate, I’d say I’ve spent closer to 6–10 hours on some pitches, though that depends quite a bit on the publication’s expectations for a pitch and how familiar I am with the topic (taking a look at TON‘s Pitch Database can save you a TON of time by giving you a better feel for what editors want). Even for shorter features, it may be a good idea to contact one of the main sources by email to make sure that the idea holds up and that you’ll have the access you need to pursue it.
Yes, it can be a lot of work and it’s clearly much more of a time investment than pitching news stories, but I think it’s worth it if you want to break into a new publication. Once you’ve proven yourself with an editor, subsequent pitches often don’t demand nearly as much time and energy. And once you’ve done the heavy lifting, it’s not as much work to recast a pitch for a second publication if the first try fails.
Cheryl Platzman Weinstock, freelance health and science writer:
I am a little embarrassed revealing that I do as much work as I do on pitches. Honestly, I line up all my interviews, read as much as I can on the topic, and conduct brief chats with everyone to try and gather vivid quotes to use in my pitch. By the time I’m done with the pitch my editor has a very good idea of who I will interview for the story and why, and any sidebars or art that can also be used. When the pitch is approved, then writing the story is that much easier. It’s tedious, but when the pitch is accepted I feel great and can just literally follow the outline I’ve created. It can be disappointing when a pitch isn’t accepted after I’ve done all that work, but usually I can rejigger it then and pitch the story to someone else. I don’t think you have to be as fastidious as I can be about getting all my ducks in order, but for me it works. My editors really appreciate my thoroughness. And by the way, I make sure I’m honest with my contacts about being in pitch mode and tell them that the story may not run. That being said, I try to feel an editor out first about a potential story before I get started in pitch mode, so when all is said and done I don’t put in all this work without having a good feeling that a story will pan out. All the homework I do before I pitch can take anywhere from an hour to three hours or more depending on the complexity of the story and what an editor wants to see before an assignment.
Nicholas Jackson, editor-in-chief, Pacific Standard:
A lot of people will tell you to stick to a three-paragraph pitch structure: introduce yourself and explain why you’re the best person to tell this story, explain the story, and get out by convincing the assigning editor that this story is right for his or her publication. The first part is easy—I hope; the second two call for more work, and time. But this is silly. All publications are different; all editors are different; and, most importantly, all stories are different (or they should be).
There is no normal amount of time to spend on a feature-story pitch. Put as much time into it as it needs to get you the assignment; that’s your ultimate goal here. I’ve accepted everything from pitches as short as a couple of sentences (these obviously work better if you already have a relationship with an editor) to pitches that run nearly as long as the pieces they’ll eventually lead to (avoid this, most of the time). And that’s just at Pacific Standard. At Outside, The Atlantic, and other outlets I’ve worked for, my process was slightly different. It’s evolved over time.
The most important thing—I think—aside from having a compelling story that’s worth telling, is that your pitch makes it clear why this piece is right for this magazine (that third paragraph, if you try to graft my advice to what you’re hearing elsewhere). Getting that part right is where you’ll spend the most time if you’re not as familiar with the publication you’re pitching as you could be. Or, getting that part right might take no time at all if you’re attempting to place a story with a title that you’re already a regular reader of.
All of that said, I would argue that it never hurts to do some of the legwork before you sit down to put together a pitch. Make some calls, find a character to build a narrative around, figure out who the important players are. It’s only through the use of these practices that you’ll know whether you even have a story.