For a freelancer, how you pitch an editor can determine landing your next big story or even how you pay your rent.
“The pitch is the most important thing in your career when you are trying to get published and trying to establish yourself,” said Jorge Arangure, metro senior staff editor at the New York Times.
“The Art of The Pitch,” had a full house of attendees at this year’s Excellence in Journalism Conference. They had many questions as editors from the New York Times shared the in’s and out’s of crafting the perfect pitch.
“The one thing that I would stress to all of you as freelancers is to remember that your pitch is as much of a reflection on your writing ability [and] on the way that you structure things, as the story itself will be,” said Arangure.
Here are some do’s and don’ts to help you master the freelance pitch.
DO: Be upfront about money and expectations
It can be scary to inquire about money when pursuing stories as a freelancer, but that shouldn’t stop you from asking. Being upfront with your editors early on about pay for a story and and the desired expectations makes for a greater outcome in the end – and is always good to know before you commit to a piece. It’s also great to check to see if the publication has any submission or pitch guidelines prior to reaching out to an editor.
If you’re not sure how to approach the money conversation with your editor, here are some questions to get you started:
- I’m curious, what is the pay for this kind of story?
- Is this pay rate negotiable?
- Is there a kill fee for a story that doesn’t run?
- Do you accept freelancers who expect late fees for stories?
- Is there a pay rate for a rush-job story?
- What’s the payment process for freelancers?
- What is the timeline for payment after a story is published?
DON’T: Underestimate the importance of pre-reporting
“There is a difference between a subject and a story,” said staff reporter Rick Rojas.
Pre-reporting is crucial for any successful pitch. Honing in on a subject you are interested in can be a great starting point, but you shouldn’t end there. Dig deeper to think about what’s a niche, focus, event or person within that subject that can translate into a story. Don’t spend a lot of time blabbing on the background context of you pitch.
Arangure suggests to think of your pitches as mini stories. From there, it’s important to convey to your editor “why they need to read your story?” and “why you need to tell it?” Being able to demonstrate a knowledge of the subject matter in a way an editor hasn’t read before is a sure way to catch their attention, engagement and receive potential approval of your pitch.
Other great tips include linking to your research in the pitch from the pre-reporting process. And for those writing about a trend, aiming to include two-three examples that show the trend you’re pitching.
DO: Be aware of what’s out there and what the publication has published
“When you are pitching stories, also be aware of stories already out there,” said Aisha Harris, assistant TV editor on the culture desk.
Research is all a part of being a good reporter. During the pre-reporting process, be sure to do a hefty search of prior stories on the subject matter that you’re pitching and most importantly, making sure the publication hasn’t already ran that story or one fairly similar.
However, in some cases there are opportunities to expound upon what has been written or provide a reaction to what someone has already said. In these cases, be sure to illuminate in your pitch how what you’re saying is different from what previous coverage has mentioned.
DO: Keep it simple and specific
“Your idea should be so sharp you can deliver it to your editor in one sentence,” said Jenny Medina, a national correspondent based in Los Angeles.
When crafting pitches, simplicity and specificity are key. It’s important to start with a small idea rather than a big idea. Typically, great pitches consists of a sense of the lede and the nutgraf and can be fully summed up into a paragraph. In most cases, if you can’t narrow your pitch down, it’s a great indicator to take another look. Asking yourself questions such as these when formulating your pitch can help:
- What’s the conflict? Great pitches need a source of conflict that will propel the story. A great way to narrow down on the conflict and tension in your piece is to think about: “what is the verb in your headline?” or “what are the consequences?” and then building from there.
- Who are the characters? Oftentimes, when you are talking about tension, you are more so talking about characters. Characters can take the form of a person, place or thing. It’s important to think about how your character fits within a narrative of beginning, middle and end for your story.
- What’s the path that your story is and/or will take? Thinking about the structure and organization during the pitch process is a great set-up for fluidity when getting into the actual storytelling after your pitch is approved.
And if you’re aiming for that front page story, staff reporter, Rick Rojas shared his top six ingredients:
DON’T: Fake your interest in what you pitch
“One thing you can’t fake is that you actually care about the story,” said Arangure.
It’s no secret the freelance lifestyle is a hustle. Many freelancers take assignments to pay the bills, oftentimes negating their passions for a subject matter or faking it all together. Pitching and writing about the stuff you care about, makes a difference. Not only does it come through in your pitch and your story but it makes the storytelling process a lot smoother.
DON’T: Go ghost!
“Every story is your reputation on the line and it’s not going to go away. It’s important to remember that when you are starting out,” said Medina.
There’s nothing worse than a freelancer that goes ghost on a pitch they’ve been approved to write a story on. Great communication with your editor is the best way to make sure that nothing slips through the cracks. After all, it’s not just about building up your byline but also building relationships and a reputation as a freelancer that you can deliver when you say you’re going to.
Sometimes that doesn’t always happen, however, there are effective way to navigate even when obstacles arise that can affect the submission of your story.
- Let your editor know in advance if you need more time. It’s never good to miss a agreed-upon deadline with your editor and then ask for more time after.
- Being transparent about the timeline of things that you are working on or any critical updates along the way that may impact your story, both negatively or positively.
- Good execution of time management and responsibility with your time.