A young videojournalist friend of mine asked me to send him some sample "story pitches"—ideas sent to editors to convince them they'll want to publish a story you haven't yet written or even researched. It's a tall order when you think of it. And it keeps some people from even trying. Which is good, because that keeps the competition down.
But for people who are simply mystified by the pitching process—and at the risk of offering something useful here at Writing Boots—I thought I'd deconstruct a successful pitch of mine, and try to figure out why the editor bought it.
It's my most recent pitch, actually, to Automobile Magazine; they took it, and the article hits newsstands later this month.
Hi Jackie, I appreciate your forwarding this to Jean, who I hope will remember some correspondence with me a few years ago about a profile of her. We never got it together, but we tried hard.
Why risk reminding the magazine's publisher, Jean Jennings, of a failed project? Because it's better to be a partial failure than a total stranger. Without any connection whatsoever, it is hideously rare to get an editor to go for your story. Conversely, any introduction you can get, even through an editorial assistant, seems to help your chances an inordinate amount.
For the last few months, as Mitt Romney’s nomination has slowly begun to look inevitable, I’ve been wondering why there’s so little coverage of his Detroit upbringing, and the influence his father George, and his attitudes about the automobile industry, must have had on Mitt’s worldview.
And I’ve been thinking maybe a car magazine could turn over some fresh soil in this area.
Quickly establish your story idea, and your relationship to it. Editors do not sit around wishing they had good story ideas. They rush around fixing the stories they have coming in, and wrestling with designers and fact-checkers to get issues to bed. They don't have time to savor your pitch, so don't fuck around.
Also: One advantage an editor does have in assigning a story to a stranger is a measure of control, the editor's feeling that this is her story, acquired outside the editorial bullpen. In fact, that's one reason you're sending her a pitch and not the finished story—so you can make the editor feel involved in the process. Indicate in your pitch that you're open to her guidance and even in some need of her help.
This angle hasn’t been well covered because most reporters are not from Detroit, not of Detroit, and don’t understand how car-centric a universe Detroit is, and certainly was in the 1950s and 1960s, when Mitt was growing up. (I understand, because my dad Tom Murray wrote ads for Corvette in the 50s and was creative director at Campbell-Ewald in the 60s.)
Here I begin to answer the editor's next question: Why should I hire THIS writer to do this piece? I've never heard of the guy. Sometimes the answer is obvious—I had all these Detroit connections and can talk with some authority about the city's golden years. Other times, all you bring to the equation is a desperate thirst for the subject and a requisite willingness to put in way more time than any other writer. Go with what you got—but don't leave the editor thinking she can just as well put one of her staffers onto the story. I did once—and that's exactly what the editor did.
When you look at the world from Detroit, you have a few questions about Mitt Romney that don’t occur to other people: How could he have so brazenly called for the death of the American automobile industry? Is he so disloyal to his roots? Or did he actually grow up hostile to the Big Three because his dad ran American Motors, and so calling for the abandonment of the Big Three tasted like revenge?
Here I'm getting the editor curious to read the story, by sharing my own genuine curiosity. I'm an editor, too; and the stories I green-light are the ones that I myself am excited to read. (I once got an editor to agree to let me write about life on a little small-town nine-hole golf course. Do you think his "yes" to what became an award-winning piece had anything to do with the fact that he himself grew up on a little snall-town nine-hole golf course?)
I’m personally curious about Mitt and his Detroit years because my Democrat mother, a copywriter who worked for my dad, was briefly assigned to do some speaker-coaching for presidential candidate George Romney, who was a friend of Campbell-Ewald’s chairman at the time. (How did she like it? I once asked my dad. “How do you think she liked it?” he replied.)
This story offered me a rare chance to make the case that no one but me could write this story. Usually you can't get there in a pitch, but you really should be pitching stories that connect with your life's experience.
As for me, I’d like to explore George and Mitt and American Motors and the Big Three and ask Mitt and anyone else who might be an authority, to talk about those years, and how they may have affected Mitt’s economic and social thinking today. I actually think he might be interested in talking about that, and we might see a direct connection between the car industry, the father, and the son.
The one thing I didn't do well in this pitch was demonstrate my endless willingness to work, by showing off what work I've already done on the subject and spelling out all the people I plan to talk to along the way.
The authors of a new book The Real Romney speculate that the interchangeable planks of Romney’s political platform stem from his Detroit upbringing: “Having grown up around engines, Romney adopted a kind of car hobbyist’s mindset. Almost anything, he believed, could be taken apart, studied, and re-engineered.”
Surely, Jean, we can do better than that.
That's okay, but generally in a pitch I like to include a taste of original reporting. E.g., "I've already talked to one former AMC CEO, and he says Mitt Romney is nothing like his father. 'George was terribly charismatic,' says so-and-so. 'You'd get lost in his hand.'"
Let me know if you have any interest in a story along these lines.
P.S. A brief bio on me follows:
I'm editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a 75-year-old collection of the best oral communication in the U.S. and the world.
I also write feature stories on politics, golf, murder, hairpiece making, boxing, ballet, homelessness, motorcycling, the state supreme court, sailing, dinosaurs, professional poker and other related subjects.
My work has appeared in publications and media outlets including The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Sailing Magazine, Golf Magazine, Car Collector Magazine, Chicago Magazine, Advertising Age, Vibe.com, the Huffington Post and Chicago Public Radio. (In all candor, my work has also been rejected or ignored by such august publications as The New Yorker and Modern Drunkard Magazine.)
1508 W. Ohio #3
Chicago, IL 60622
It's good to have a blog (where your clips can be found), because editors get to snoop on your stuff at their their leisure.
In short, every pitch should tell the editor: I'm not a total stranger to you (or you at least know the publication well). I have a story idea that's clear enough to be stated in one paragraph. Beyond solid, my story has a chance to uncover some real insights (and get attention for the magazine). After all, I've only made a little investigation and look what I've already uncovered. Anyway, I've written bigger stories for better publications than this, and I'm just the guy to do this story. And I've been around the block, so you know I''ll be a pro to work with. And I have a sense of humor, thank God.
That's all you gotta do—and I recommend you do it in under 500 words.
If you can do that, you might get the story on your first pitch or your tenth. (I nailed this one on the first, but I've had good pitches go through many editors, and die anyway.)
And if you can't do this—well, why should anybody publish you, Stranger?