The first freelance pitch I ever sent was terrible. The kind of trainwreck that would embarrass other trainwrecks.
Just out of college, I emailed a top editor at my dream publication, the sports and culture website Grantland. My idea focused on a longtime high school basketball coach in New Jersey who had a knack for developing dozens of players who made it to the NBA. The circumstances were perfect: He hadn’t received much press coverage over the years, and I had a guaranteed interview since I played for him growing up. Sounds promising, right?
Well, I managed to wring out all of the promise in my pitch. I remember sitting in a co-working space, writing massive blocks of text in the body of an email that would make me cringe today. I spent too much time on the idea. When I finished, the pitch had swollen to 700 words. As you might expect, the editor never responded. (I don’t blame him.)
Eventually, a good-natured freelance acquaintance explained where I went wrong. He shared examples of his pitches that had been accepted by prestigious publications. They were so short. Just a few concise, precise paragraphs that teased the idea and showed off his writing skills.
To this day, I still use a similar template when forming my freelance pitches. The real trick—which I learned the hard way—is that crafting a great idea doesn’t need to take forever. After enough practice, I can complete one in about an hour.
Now, I’m here to pay it forward, just like my freelance friend did. You can find hundreds of how-to-pitch tutorials online, but they rarely go over how much time to spend constructing the right email. Here’s how to fit everything into one productive hour.
Fleshing out the topic (20 minutes)
It’s hard to predict when inspiration will strike, but when it does, explore the topic right away.
I find that a lot of ideas often show up as little kernels. They’re more like topics or taglines that you have to unfurl. The movie Speed famously started as “Die Hard on a boat.” The TV version of Miami Vice originated from a cocktail napkin that allegedly read “MTV Cops.”
That kind of thinking led me to a New York Times byline last year. One day on LinkedIn, I came across a profile for a professional athlete. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was a legitimate account or a dummy profile, but the details seemed to check out after some cross-referencing on Google. Then I noticed LinkedIn’s algorithm recommending more pro athletes as possible connections.
There was no cocktail napkin on my desk, but I made a mental note: “Athletes on LinkedIn.”
Ideas often show up as little kernels.
The idea took shape from there. Fans interacted with players all the time on Twitter and Instagram, but LinkedIn was an unexpected and undervalued social network for sports figures. There were retired players and current players. Some were stars; others weren’t as well known. And they used it for everything from philanthropy to business ventures to networking. Altogether, this seemed like a cool trend story that combined two popular categories—sports and business—that aligned with my interests.
Every pitch is unique, but after about 20 minutes, you can have a pretty good idea of whether or not there’s a story worth pursuing.
Landing on a unique angle (10 minutes)
This step doesn’t take long, but I’ve seen a lot of freelancers skip it. Once you have a compelling story, research whether it’s been done before.
I wasn’t the first person to write about pro athletes on LinkedIn, but fortunately, there wasn’t much out there on the topic. I scanned the top search results and found that the existing coverage was very straightforward, with listicles highlighting which athletes had active profiles. My take was more of a feature story, and I figured I could stand out by highlighting some humor in the concept. Regular working stiffs like us could “network” with world champions and MVPs. Plus, some players had given themselves bombastic job titles, like Shaquille O’Neal crediting himself as “purveyor of fun.”
Next, when you have a target publication in mind, do a quick Google site search. One of the most deflating feelings a freelancer can have is when they ship a precious pitch and have an editor reply with, “Sorry, we published a similar story last month.” Website search functions are notoriously unreliable, so I always do a keyword search in my browser to feel confident that I’m not wasting effort or the editor’s time.
For my Times pitch, I Googled “site:nytimes.com athletes LinkedIn.” (My byline at the top didn’t exist when I did this.)
When I saw I was in the clear, it was time to move on to choosing interview subjects.
Finding potential interview sources (10 minutes)
Depending on the story, you may know everyone you need to talk to as soon as you flesh out the topic. However, I like to save this step until after I research what’s already out there, because it can help differentiate a pitch.
For example, one story on Bleacher Report overlapped a bit with my original LinkedIn premise, so I consciously avoided reaching out to any of the people quoted in that article. Knowing constraints can be a good thing. They can help steer the narrative to a new place.
Knowing constraints can be a good thing.
As far as securing sources, just be realistic. Reaching out to sources ahead of time strengthens a pitch, but don’t spend too much energy lining up every interview before an idea gets accepted. And don’t overpromise. Odds are, you won’t get Beyoncé for a sit-down. For my pitch, I mentioned that I was talking to a few high-profile athletes but kept it open-ended in case I’d need to track down alternates.
The only exception for interview subjects is if you’re pitching a profile—in which case, you have to know if the main character is willing to participate.
Writing the pitch (20 minutes)
Teasing a great story is the most important part of any pitch, but it actually doesn’t require that much time. When you get to this point, you should have a clear understanding of who the story is about, what makes it unique, and why you want to write it. In some ways, putting these ingredients together may be the easiest part of the entire editorial process.
Most freelance guides I’ve seen suggest capping this part of the pitch at around three paragraphs. That gives you just enough space to describe your thesis without over-explaining. Each paragraph serves a distinct purpose.
1. Lede: Here’s your small window to show off. I like to begin with a sentence or two that sets up tension or conflict, and could potentially open the published version of the article: In college, Josh Martin struggled to answer a question that stumps plenty of students: What’s next? Think of this as a headstart on the writing process, so don’t be afraid to flex your creative muscles.
2. Context: This section spells out why the editor should care. What big ideas are you trying to tackle? What’s special about your angle? Why would this publication’s audience care? You don’t need to know the entire story upfront—that’s what the reporting is for. However, you should know what questions to ask.
3. Status: Lastly, go over logistics. Name the sources you want to include with some background on why they’re essential. Briefly cite research that backs up your thesis. Propose a rough publication date if there’s a timely news hook.
Freelancing can get frustrating when pitches don’t work out or don’t even get a response. But don’t think of this as wasted effort. Well constructed pitches will save you time later on when you get the green light. Plus, using a formula like this can protect you from going down the rabbit hole on flawed ideas.
If you’re looking to send more pitches and receive more assignments, practice putting your ideas together in less than an hour. For me, it was the perfect way to turn trainwrecks into triumphs.