How to Write a Killer Magazine Article PitchBy Grace Bello May 8th, 2012
Proposing article ideas to magazines is part inference, part research, and part storytelling. In short, it’s work with a dash of luck and there’s no such thing as a magic pitch that will land a writer the cover story. However, there’s an alarming amount of under-reported stories waiting to be told. And if there’s a writer that can go tell them then, cool, they’ve got a pretty good shot.
That said, the freelancer should pitch topics in which they are an expert or have unique access. New Yorker writer Patricia Marx says, “I think the most important thing for a writer is to be distinctive and write something that only she could write.” So don’t cold-pitch a profile of an A-list celebrity. Instead, the freelancer should cover an everyday hero or a trend that only their community knows about.
Once they’ve nailed down a topic, they should flesh it out with dramatic elements. New York Times Magazine culture editor Adam Sternbergh said via Twitter, “Pitch a story, not an idea. [A] story has characters, timeline, conflict. Like a movie!” If a writer reports on unemployment, it makes sense to find a main character and focus on her daily life against the backdrop of the bleak job market. The goal is to to explain a concept and make it relatable for the reader, giving her someone to root for.
Next, provide research up front. Sorry, digital natives, but a few basic Google searches won’t suffice. Writers should gather sources, census data, quotes, and archival research for the pitch to show the editor that they did their homework and, thus, that passing on the fleshed-out idea would be silly, just silly.
Fourth, be concise. Sternbergh said, “[Beware of] too-long pitches. One graf max.” Mike Sacks said in his book And Here’s the Kicker, “A good idea is a good idea, and it’s easy to spot. So that should be the first part of the pitch. The credentials should be at the end.” If the pitch exceeds 300 words, then further hone the story.
Lastly, the writer should pitch where they’ll have the best odds. Reach out to an associate editor rather than the editor-in-chief, an online or independent magazine rather than one on every newsstand. Don’t worry about how long it will take to get to the top of the totem pole. Focus on shaping each story and finding the publication that is the best fit.
As awkward as pitching seems at first, it does get easier with practice. And because editors read dozens of pitches every day, a writer shouldn’t worry that theirs is the worst that she has ever read; undoubtedly, it’s not. It only has to be more distinct, developed, and in line with the magazine’s brand than the other ones in the editor’s inbox.
So get off the Internet. Talk to potential sources. And tell an editor a story that she has never heard before.