The Art of the Pitch: Tips for Crafting Successful Feature Story Queries

September 1, 2015

Freelance Files

By SUSAN MORAN

Even the most powerful person in the free world has to prepare his pitch carefully. Southpaw Barack Obama practices throwing out the first pitch before the start of the MLB All-Star Game in St. Louis on July 14, 2009.
        Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Let me set the record straight: I don’t like pitching.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved having freelancers pitch me. When I was an editor at a magazine years ago, it made me feel important, wanted, abundant with options.

But I hate feeling obsequious and solicitous toward editors when I pitch, knowing my position (bottom) in the professional hierarchy. I also don’t like to admit how easily I fall into the ego trap of pitching. My mental tape goes like this: “Editor X accepted my pitch, ergo, I’m OK.” Conversely, “Editor Y rejected my pitch, ergo, I suck.”

As a journalism instructor at a university for seven years I cautioned students repeatedly that they must have thick skin, that they shouldn’t go into journalism to be liked.

Still, nearly three decades into this profession — the past 12 as a freelancer — I sometimes leave my “thick skin” at the front door. For me, the hardest part is not the rejection but the silence.

“Waiting for an editor’s response takes me back to sitting against the wall at seventh-grade sock hops,” says fellow freelancer Jane Braxton Little. “And while the proverbial nudge often gets results, I find it humiliating to have to do it.”

If you have worked with an editor successfully before and earned their trust, you might get away with brainstorming story ideas via email or phone.

But for those who are launching their freelance career — and for that matter, for most veteran writers when they try to crack a new publication — you can’t escape writing a refined, convincing, colorful query letter, aka, The Pitch.

Taking the time to craft a well-reported and elegant pitch has an important upside: You’ve done a good chunk of the work upfront, mapped out your course. Assuming you get the green light from the editor, you can now use your time more efficiently. You can let your creativity and curiosity loose and have more fun.

Pitch a story, not a topic

Finding a story within a topic is for me still the most challenging step in pitching.

No one wants to read an “information dump.” Topics are as plentiful as dandelions on your lawn in the summer. My electronic file cabinet is full of hundreds of them: carbon sequestration, endangered species and nitrogen, for instance. I often add news articles, scientific reports, legislation and other relevant material to these files.

Eventually, some fresh angle, a news peg and/or a surprising and colorful character can become the ticket to turning that broad topic into a real story.

So, how do you shift from a topic to a story? A feature story (news articles are less nuanced and in-depth) contains key journalistic elements: characters, a narrative arc (with a beginning, middle and end) and a news hook.

Let’s say you want to write about advances in radio and GPS telemetry for tracking wildlife. You may find that really cool, but it’s a topic, not a story.

You need to ask yourself — and explain to the editor — why people would want to read about radio telemetry, and why now? What’s new, in terms of technology, scientific findings, etc.? Are these discoveries changing prospects for declining species, such as tiger sharks in Hawaii?

With more digging you may learn that a new technology is being piloted by a paraplegic scientist who was paralyzed after his surveillance plane was shot down in Afghanistan. In graduate school after the war he developed classified GIS technology, which he had created while serving in the U.S. Army, into a satellite-based tagging device for commercial use. Now a growing cadre of wildlife biologists is using the technology and thanks to it, more wild critters may be saved from the brink of extinction.

Now that’s looking more like a story. You’ve introduced a news hook, a strong character, the broader impact and relevance.

Thomas Hayden, who teaches writing at Stanford University, offers many helpful pointers in his must-read chapter called “Making the Pitch,” in “The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age.” [Disclosure: I contributed to the book.]

“You won’t always know the end of the feature story you’re pitching, but you do need to know enough to show that it is a story, not just a hunch,” he writes.

Ready, aim…

Before writing a pitch, I find it useful — necessary, even — to identify a particular publication and tailor my pitch to that publication.

For example, some (Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, MIT Technology Review, etc.) are very technology-focused and thus might be keen on a story centered more on technology than on charismatic creatures or a paraplegic Army pilot-turned-marine biologist.

Many publications have an archive search function on their website. Use it. If they don’t have one, go to the library and read past editions.

Otherwise, you run the risk of receiving this dreaded reply from editor X: “If you had read the magazine you would have known that we published a similar story a year ago.”

Further, if the publication has published something similar in the past year or two, indicate lower down in your query letter how your story is different from those.

Let’s say editor X says your pitch is interesting but too similar to something a writer is currently working on. If it were me, I’d take a deep breath, nurse my ego and try to trust that the editor hasn’t instead assigned my idea to another writer (freelancers’ greatest, but largely unsubstantiated, fear).

Then I would gear up to pitch it elsewhere, while it’s still a timely subject.

Useful Resources

I call this the “iterative pitch.” If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I take heart in inventor Thomas Edison’s praise of failure: “Negative results are just what I want... I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.”

With story pitching, it’s not a matter of success or failure, necessarily, but of finding the right publication (and editor) for your story. And of striking the right blend of  “patience, persistence and luck,” as colleague Douglas Fox writes in Hayden’s chapter in “The Science Writers’ Handbook.”

Then again, there are great story ideas executed poorly in a query letter, and there are well written query letters about weak story ideas. Sometimes a rejection does mean it’s time to fold and move on to the next story idea, or at least let the query sit for a few weeks or months before a new entry point emerges.

Are you a sea urchin or a shark?

Every species has its own long-term survival strategy. Some freelancers pitch several stories a week. Others take several weeks to cook each pitch. There is no one “right” strategy. Follow the path that plays to your passion, talent and financial needs.

I’ll steal Hayden’s apt metaphor of sea urchins and sharks. Sea urchins are “famously fecund,” casting millions of eggs or sperm into the sea at once, hoping that a few will collide and grow into mature adults.

By contrast, sharks “are more circumspect.” They often brood their eggs internally and give birth to just a few pups in their lifetime.

If you’re seasoned and talented enough to write for The NewYorker or National Geographic, you’re likely pursuing more of a shark strategy.

If you’re an early-career freelance journalist, and/or you prefer covering news, you likely live more like a sea urchin.

Whichever survival strategy you pursue — shark or sea urchin, or some combination — aggressively hunt story ideas wherever you go, and channel them into query letters. And have thick skin, a child’s sense of wonder and the tenacity of a Chihuahua after a bone.

Susan Moran is a print and radio journalist based in Boulder, Colo. She covers energy, the environment, agriculture, biodiversity conservation, climate science and business for The New YorkTimes, The Economist, Popular Science, Discover and other publications. She is a host and producer for KGNU radio’s “How On Earth” science show and a co-founder of Bracing for Impact, a crowd-funded independent journalism project hosted on Beacon.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer/Fall 2015. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.