I’m in my studio away from studio, traveling 38,000 feet above sea level on my return to Seattle from the Alaska Media Roadshow in Santa Barbara, an annual speed-info feed with the tour operators and destinations of Alaska. Like Canada Media Marketplace and Go Media, travel media are flown to a wonderful destination like Santa Barbara where we are feted and presented with inviting details about kayaking off the Kenai Peninsula or small boat cruising through Glacier Bay. I consider these events, eight hours of 15-minute meetings, a cauldron of pitches brew.
What is pitches brew? It’s the magical potion that successful freelancers call upon to keep churning up stories worthy of an editor’s nod, the first ingredient to getting paid for writing, as essential as salt in a professional writer’s cupboard. In the ever changing world of freelance writing, where editors change more often then my teenager changes his socks, if you can’t conjure up a pitch from the time the elevator door closes on the seventh floor until you reach the lobby, making it as freelancer is going to be mighty tough.
Speaking of my eleven year old, all of his blurt outs in 6th grade that are driving his teachers nuts come from the same synapses that now serve his father everyday as a freelance writer: the randomly abstract mind. (Full disclosure: math isn’t my subject but I’m rather confident I spent 50% of my elementary school years on a stool in the hallway.) What was once a deadly potion that combined an inability to sit still and disquieted mind in elementary school (and, let’s be honest, all the way through college and, for that matter, last night’s dinner party), now provides me with the skills to conjure and craft pitches at a wicked swirl.
I give this example when I speak to high school and college journalism classes, student newspapers, etc. We’re usually sitting in a classroom when I ask, “How many stories are in this room?” The students, used to chasing bigger fry, valiantly try to find a story After a few minutes, I share the story about how each of them probably possesses an interesting story one relative or friend removed, an uncle who fishes in Alaska while attending law school or some such. But I also tell them the very desks in which they’re sitting is a story. I then recall the story I wrote, after wondering where school furniture goes to die (or in Seattle, to be recycled into new office furniture) that I researched and wrote eight years ago for Washington CEO. That story, “Where do overlooked industrial necessities go?” led to four similar-themed stories and a roundup. (We’ll talk about bundling another time.)
Whatever technique you use is fine. When I am in pitch mode I unleash, clear my desk and run like a lab rat until I’ve exhausted the fount. Sometimes I have a “Pitch Tuesday,” when all I do is pitch, forcing myself to create ideas. At other times the ideas come at napkin (or iPhone notes) writing time, typing during a men’s room interlude during a romantic dinner with my partner. Whatever it takes, I take.
The second part of successful pitching also stems from school: homework. You have to know, not just your target publication, but your actual quarry, the editor.
Unfortunately, no two editors are the same, even if they work for the same publication. One may like a single line pitch, one may prefer a paragraph with supporting links and demographic targets. He may prefer to know why you are the right writer to research and compose this piece, she may wonder why the hell you’re selling yourself so hard and lose interest in the story, worried the destination will become a first person narrative that only your mother would enjoy. There are lots of ways to find out about an editor, I like Media Bistro’s “How to Pitch” pages because the examples are right before me and then I don’t have to ask a colleague for the insight that he’s worked hard to cull himself and deserves to keep in his own Rolodex. (Yet another subject for another time.)
The third and final ingredient for good pitching is persistence. When I first started, following up on pitches was embarrassing, so I spent many hours staring forlornly at my “in” box wondering if I would ever hear from anybody. I considered follow-ups to be badgering and my grandmother taught me never to badger. But more than a few editors have told me they appreciate being pestered (their word), as it lets them know I am excited about and committed to a story. (Disclaimer: see part two for mention of how no two editors are exactly alike.) But honestly, what’s the worst that can happen? They can say “no way, go away!”
Getting rejected may sting our egos, but at least we know where we stand, which saves on wasted energy and creates more time for, you guessed it, stirring up more pitches brew. Good luck.
Award winning travel writer, radio and television commentator Crai S Bower estimates he sells about half of the 200 pitches he brews up every year.