No One Can Agree on the Ideal Length of a Pitch, so Here’s How You Figure It OutBy Connie Jeske Crane May 18th, 2015
I’m going to forgo the jokes about how size matters, but as most veteran freelancers know, the length of your pitch has a huge impact or whether or not an editor will accept it.
However, even though freelancers can agree that pitch length is crucial, the community seems to be split on what exactly the ideal length should be. In the past few weeks, I’ve seen two heated debates about the topic.
One of the debate played out over a few days on a daily writers’ discussion board I follow. On one side, several veteran, award-winning writers expounded on the merits of the traditional one-page or even two-page pitch, sounding more than a little proud of their sparkling prose and research skills. But in the other corner, a number of freelancers balked at doing that much work for every story. Their counter argument: Times have changed, and clients don’t pay enough for online work. If a freelancer is working on a short piece, is the query supposed to be as long, if not longer, than the actual article?
A week later, I found myself hashing this over with some writer friends, and again the group was divided. An editor of a print magazine told me: “A lot of our pieces are short; we don’t need these long pitches.” While another editor felt just the opposite: “Writers need to prove to me they can do the job.”
Personally, I lean toward a brief pitch whenever possible, say, a nice 300 words. I’ll craft a longer query if I’m trying to break in somewhere new, but it’s pretty sweet when I know an editor well enough to float a story idea with a few quick lines. If I get an assignment, great. But if not, I’ve just saved myself a ton of time.
Yet despite my personal preferences, the standoff from the debates started nagging at me. Am I on the right track? Or have I been getting too casual, particularly with editors I know? Could more detailed pitches boost my acceptance rate?
So what’s the verdict: long, short, somewhere in between? Let’s take a look at the most important factors.
First off—especially if you’re newer to the industry—I think it’s helpful to understand how writers have been wooing editors for decades. Veteran health and wellness freelancer Kelly James-Enger has this great summary of the old workhorse pitch:
I use a four-paragraph format. The first paragraph is the lead, designed to catch the editor’s attention; the second is the “why-write-it” paragraph, where I briefly explain the appeal of the story; the third is the “nuts-and-bolts” paragraph where I include information about who I plan to interview, suggested word count, appropriate section of the magazine, possible sidebars, and the like; and the final one is the “I-am-so-great” paragraph, where I demonstrate why I should write the piece.
To take on another writing cliché, you really want to learn the rules before you try to break them. This traditional pitching structure is universal; all editors will be familiar with the four-paragraph flow. The problem is that if you write too much, you probably won’t receive a response. But for any article that’s longer than 800 words, this option is a safe bet.
I think the biggest reason people disagree over the nuances of pitching is because they’re operating in different pockets of the industry. Many new types of gigs have sprouted up over the last decade, so when two freelancers are discussing their processes, there’s more of a chance for the comparison to be apples and oranges.
For many print publications, word counts are down, which means pay is down. And what if you’re churning out online articles and blog posts that pay $100 each? Or even 300-word shorts for slick consumer magazines? At what point does a traditional pitch become overkill?
I asked Brandie Weikle, a writer and editor who used to run Canadian Family magazine, about the hard numbers. She estimates that the standard pitch of at least 600 words could take the better part of a day to complete. “It’s a lot of work to put together a magazine-style pitch where you have researched the piece,” she said,” and there’s a lot of good writing that goes into that.”
And as writers are painfully aware, all that work doesn’t guarantee a response, let alone an assignment. “You’re not certain whether it’s falling on deaf ears or getting opened, you know?” Weikle said. “So, naturally, you’d rather see if you can pique your editor’s interest with a paragraph.”
Angela Kryhul, principal of Kryhul Media Group and editor of Adrenalin, a B2B magazine for the sport tourism industry, assigns lots of shorter pieces such as tightly focused articles, Q&A’s, and sidebars. “The pieces we’re running are no more than 1,000 words at the very most,” she told me. Kryhul prefers pitches that are professional but succinct. “Generally I think you should keep it very short, about a paragraph maybe, about 100 to 150 words. And you have to kind of walk a fine balance between having done a bit of research so that you can present an idea in an intelligent way and not overdoing it.”
So how should freelancers proceed? One size just doesn’t apply anymore. As Weikle told me, “I think a lot of it is about matching with the publication.”
A two-step process
If you want to write a longform article for The New York Times Magazine, you’ll need to work out the details of a complex idea at some point. But that doesn’t mean you have to do it all right away. You don’t want to do unnecessary work, and you don’t want to make the editor have to do unnecessary work.
Instead of spending a day working on a pitch for a 2,000-word article, you do have the option of sending a short email, analogous to a movie trailer, for your idea. A few years ago, New York magazine editor Adam Sternbergh gave some smart advice on Twitter when he was working for The New York Times Magazine:
1. Too-long pitches. One graf max. Short pitch does not = reductive. Remember: I eventually have to sum up story in a dek. #betterfreelancer
— Adam Sternbergh (@sternbergh) March 23, 2012
One paragraph might be a little too short for other editors—but the sentiment is something more freelancers should be thinking about. Shorter pitches makes it easier for an editor to read, and in most cases, easier for an editor to respond to an interesting idea by asking for more information.
I’ve had some success with scaled-back pitches of around 300 or 400 words. They still cover the basics James-Enger outlined above. But I present less research and save writing time by putting specifics about interviewees and subject matter in bullet form. Throw in some good links to my previous work and I’m finding such pitches can do the job—or at least get me past the first barrier. And at that point, even if an editor turns down the fleshed-out version of my story, I’ve still made contact and can go back with future ideas.
When you have a rapport
Finally, here’s what I love: Shorter pitches also work well (and are preferred) when you’ve established a good relationship with an editor. Kryhul likened it to a type of shorthand: “If you’ve been working with somebody for a long time, there’s sometimes a good rapport, you may have talked about a few things, or maybe you’ve written for them on a regular basis. So you have a good feel for what the editor may be looking for.”
But, be cognizant of not taking the comfort for granted. There’s one pitch editors still hate to see even from writers they know. Kryhul described it to me as: “The really short version of ‘I’m available, what have you got for me?’ which is actually not a query. Some people might think it is though.”
Ultimately, I think writers need to remember that pitching is a gamble. With each pitch, you need to decide how much time and effort you’re willing to invest. It seems the industry standard is slowly evolving. It’s not that traditional pitches are obsolete—trust me, they’re not—but if an editor is receiving dozens (or hundreds) of pitches per week, a shorter pitch can be a smart way to get your foot in the door before you give your big spiel. Still, try not to get too stressed out over length. Word count is important, but whether long or short, it means nothing without a clear idea.Image by HomeStudio/Shutterstock