How to Really Pitch a Magazine Editor
On one of our very first dates, my now-wife, Hannah, bought me a ticket to hear B.J. Novak read from his then-new book, Stories About Stories. After he finished, the writer you probably know best from his work on The Office took questions from the audience. One lady asked him for his advice on breaking into TV writing.
Novak’s answer, at first, seemed ridiculous. But ever since I heard it, I can't stop thinking about it. That night, Novak changed the way I approach writing. In fact, I’m convinced it’s the starting point for any writer and for any individual piece of writing.
He replied, “Focus on being a great writer.”
Novak told us that among Hollywood types, you'll hear a saying that you could write a pilot totally alone in your house and lock it away in a safe, never having told anyone anything about it. If it’s great, you’ll have agents, networks, and producers lined up at your door by morning.
His point was that the only way to guarantee the success of your writing is to make it great.
The Novak idea holds for any form of writing, I think. There’s no magical formula whereby anyone can sell a TV pilot or write the so-called great American novel--or pitch an article no editor can resist. The only magic is refining your craft.
I edit a national magazine with a substantial readership and massive web presence. The number of pitches and unsolicited submissions we receive reaches overflow levels on the daily. If you want to make sure your pitch catches my attention, the only realistic way is to follow Novak’s advice and send me a great idea.
What Makes a Pitch Great?
This raises a pretty big question: What makes an essay or article idea great?
Your idea makes up the single most important part of any given writing project. This also means it's the hardest part of writing. So, the most important part of your article pitch is making sure your idea is worth publishing.
Seems obvious, probably. But it's not. The vast majority of writers with whom I interact seem more concerned about the idea of writing than the ideas about which they should write. And largely, they're wasting words. When these types want advice on pitches, they're asking questions about page formatting and what information should go where on the page. Now, these questions aren't irrelevant, of course. But if I put a percentage on it, I'd tell you that the form and structure of your pitch matters about five percent, if that.
Overwhelmingly, I'm concerned with the strength of the idea you're pitching.
I know, I know, just telling you to be great doesn't help much. Partly, that's my point: Don't spend time poking around with pitch tips at the expense of forming an idea worthy of publishing.
All great article ideas share at least two characteristics. First, the topic of a great article pitch matters now. Just based on events this week, you can see that an article about police violence pitched a week ago may not at all be as interesting as something about ISIS or gun laws. But today, even the most unaccomplished writer could probably sell a pitch about police violence.
Yes, many ideas matter a lot, but they're not necessarily timely (an essay about pitching articles, for example). That doesn't mean they're not worth publishing. But if a publication is going to run an “evergreen” topic, the editors have time to find the exact best writer or expert to tackle that subject. And it may not be you. For new or aspiring writers, the timeliness of your writing will most likely make or break your pitch.
Second, the credibility of a great article pitch lies beyond you and your experiences. It’s vital that a writer—particularly a young writer—lean on the work and expertise of others in any given article. In most cases, this means citing relevant research or interviewing and quoting experts in the area about which you’re writing. Including voices readers will trust establishes credibility. It’s the difference between “Tips From Aaron Hanbury for Shooting a Basketball” and “Tips From Stephen Curry for Shooting a Basketball.”
A Bit More Practical Advice
The most important part about your actual pitch is also the most important part about the article you’ll eventually write: your thesis. Your thesis is where your idea meets your writing.
Many writers pay little attention to forming a clear thesis and opt instead to “writing” a loose collection of thoughts. Here's a tip: Write with a thesis or don’t write.
If you've already forgotten that freshman English class, your thesis is your idea articulated as an argument.
Something like this:
● Idea: The only way to guarantee an editor will be interested in your article pitch is to pitch a great idea.
● Thesis: The strength of your idea is the most important aspect of pitching an article to a magazine or publication.
Your thesis should be clear--and it should be the clearest part of your pitch. I think that should look like making it the first sentence of the first major paragraph in a pitch. I even like write, “My thesis is …” in a pitch email just to make sure everything is as clear as possible.
If you're looking for hyper details, organizing a pitch like this works well:
1. Greeting: “Hi, Editor.”
2. Summary and thesis: “I'd like to write about pitching an article to a magazine. My thesis is that the strength of your idea is the most important aspect of pitching an article to a magazine or publication.”
3. Support for your thesis (including your outside credibility): Make it brief.
4. You: One or two sentences about who you are. No more.
5. You're done.
The editor reviewing your pitch is probably super busy and skimming emails at an inhuman pace, which is why I think fronting your thesis is the only way to pitch an article. Because it's the only part that matters. If he or she likes your thesis, the rest of you pitch should just confirm that you've put work into your idea and can pull off making it an article. If the editor doesn't like it, the rest is irrelevant anyway.
But don't get too caught up in following a pitch format. An article pitch is a lot like a resume.
I’ve been on the hiring side of the workplace for the better part of the last decade. And here’s the thing, the form and structure and style of someone's resume matters surprisingly little. I've hired some people with ridiculously formatted and organized resumes, and I've not hired people who came off as polished as a Harvard Business School grad. In the end, the candidate got the job or didn't based almost exclusively on the substance of his or her skills and experience--it has nothing to do with some Word resume template or the lack thereof.
A pitch an editor will actually accept is much the same way. Regardless of how many how-to articles you read or how many books or podcasts or whatever you look at, the fact remains, your pitch is ultimately about substance. You've probably already put this together--the success of a thesis-forward pitch will rise or fall on the strength of your idea.
Because just like B.J. Novak said, great writing--which must begin with a great idea--always finds an audience.