Ask a Freelancer

Ask a Freelancer: How Much Should You Research Before Pitching?

By Nicole Dieker December 9th, 2014

How much research do you do before you pitch? Sometimes I just send out a short paragraph with a rough idea, a list of experts I’d get in touch with, and the angle for the magazine. Other times I do a few hours of research and actually talk to the experts so I have quotes and studies to pepper into my pitch. I prefer the first style where I can gauge if an editor is interested in the topic before I do a bunch of work, but sometimes I worry that not having done enough pre-work makes them pass over the pitch. What’s the “right” amount of research to do?

—Pitch Perfect

I generally don’t do a lot of research before I pitch, but that doesn’t mean the research-free pitch is always the right choice.

As you noted, figuring out whether an editor is interested in a topic before doing a lot of work is generally a smart move. It doesn’t make sense to do a lot of work and potentially waste time before you know if you’ll ever get paid to publish a story. Pitch first and work on the story once you have a contract.

It also doesn’t make sense to send long-winded pitches to editors who are hoping for just a few lines. For many outlets, especially online publications that publish dozens of stories (and receive many, many pitches) per day, the ideal pitch contains just enough information to communicate your idea in an interesting way. It explains what the piece is about, why it is important, and how you’re going to approach it.

As The Toast editor Nicole Cliffe writes: “I’d love to see a clear, well-outlined paragraph about what you want to write your piece about, and either links to your previous writing, or a few paragraphs of the proposed piece.”

Garance Franke-Ruta describes how to pitch The Atlantic: “Don’t pitch topics. Pitch stories. That can take anywhere from one sentence to three or four grafs, but it’s rarely longer.”

So how do you pitch without doing a lot of research beforehand? I often use the sneaky method of turning my pitch into a question:

— Is Kindle Unlimited good for writers?

— What distinguishes a good creative project from a great one?

— How do you write a good headline that can hold its own against clickbait?

I didn’t know the answers to these questions when I pitched them, but I knew the questions were interesting—and so did the editors who ultimately accepted. Once I got the go-ahead, I dove into the research and found the answers that turned these questions into engaging stories.

When you develop a really good relationship with an editor, you can often skip the formal pitch and just email over an idea. “How about I interview musicians and find out how they make money on tour?” was a one-line pitch I sent to my editor at The Billfold. (I didn’t even email it; I sent it over online chat.) That idea expanded into an interview series called “The Business of Creative Careers,” but I didn’t know when I started typing.

That’s another good reason why you should avoid over-researching your pitches. You never know what shape your story might take on. If you say your pitch is just going to be about musicians who tour, you lose the opportunity to talk about the complexity of earning money as a musician. If you say your pitch is going to be about why Kindle Unlimited is bad for writers, you lose the opportunity to learn why some writers like the service.

Now that you know all of the reasons why you shouldn’t put too much research into your pitches, let’s take a look at a few situations in which you should research before pitching.

There are still some places, such as national magazines, that expect more than the short email pitch. Some pitches still need to be written in four or five paragraphs, and pre-research is required.

As journalist and Berkeley professor Jennifer Kahn told Stanford University: “I do hours of research and probably 10 one-hour phone calls before I pitch a magazine story. And I probably only pitch one in five or one in ten of the stories I start researching. I know who my main character is going to be and roughly what the structure is before I pitch, and I probably have 25 percent of the reporting done before I pitch.”

However, Kahn also notes in the same interview that she often sends a pre-pitch email which sound just like the short email pitches I described above. “Summarize the idea in two sentences and ask the editor to email you back if he’d like a full pitch,” Kahn explains.

How do you know if the publication you’re trying to pitch wants a lot of detail? Take a look at their pitch guidelines, do some quick online research to see if other writers have pitching advice, and consider sending a short pitch email that ends with “Let me know if you’d like to see a more detailed outline.”

If an editor is interested in the story, you’ll know—regardless of whether you’ve sent a short pitch or a long one. Then you can throw yourself into your research and get ready to write the best story possible.

And, as I covered a bit in my earlier column “Should I Make Sure My Sources Are Available Before I Pitch?” there are certain situations in which you need to secure your source before you pitch the piece.

If you are pitching a story about how to make a holiday budget, the odds are you can work on the story as you search for a personal finance expert to interview. But if you’re pitching a story about how Martha Stewart makes her holiday budget, you need to get Ms. Stewart to agree to the interview before your story can go anywhere.

Or, as Franke-Ruta puts it: “Make sure your major story source will work with you before you pitch. You don’t have to have everything locked down at the pitch stage, but if it’s a profile, it helps to know the person you want to profile is gettable. Your worst case scenario is having your pitch accepted and then having to tell the editor you can’t deliver because you can’t get the interview your entire pitch was predicated on.”

In the end, it comes down to quickly communicating why a story is important to an editor who probably has to examine at least a half-dozen pitches every day. There’s a way for you to sell your idea in a few sentences, and a little research will help you figure out the right angle, but make sure you give editors a teaser trailer, not the whole movie.

A NOTE ABOUT THE NEGOTIATION CHALLENGE: In October, I invited all of you to take the Negotiation Challenge and re-negotiate your freelance rate with at least one of your clients before December 31, 2014.

I have successfully completed my Negotiation Challenge—how about you? If you have done any type of negotiation recently (successful or unsuccessful) and you’d like to share your story with The Freelancer, please email me.

Nicole Dieker pitched the idea for Ask a Freelancer in 107 words. Sometimes, that’s all you need. Send your Ask a Freelancer questions to dieker.nicole@gmail.com.

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