Pitch Me!

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I’d like you all to meet Rosalyn. She’s an up-and-coming writer trying to break into national magazines.

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Here’s Rosalyn. See her working so hard on her trusty Macbook, staring intently at the screen, surrounded by all her favorite magazines. Do you know what she’s doing?

She’s trying to write the perfect pitch.

If you’re trying to break into magazines, a good pitch is essential. And Rosalyn needs a bit of help.

A bit of background on Ms. Rosalyn.

She’s from Chicago. She’s been published in smaller publications and on a few local websites. And she’s ready for the big time. Or at least she thinks she is…

Rosalyn had an idea for a story that she thought might work for Latina or Vibe. Here’s the pitch she wrote and sent to editors at both magazines:

Dear [editor]:
“Platanos & Collard Greens” is a play by David Lamb that uses the
romantic relationship between an African-American male and Dominican
female to explore the tension between the communities from which the
lead characters come.  But while the two biggest minority groups in
America struggle to carve their space within a nation that has long
treated them as outsiders, there exists a small population that has
the potential to serve as the bridge that links them together.

I am proposing the feature “Black, Hispanic” to discuss the growing
population of Afro-Latinos in the United States and their social
realities.  Results from the 2000 census showed that Hispanics
outnumber African-Americans as America’s largest minority, but
aggregate data does not account for the diverse ethnic and racial
backgrounds of its members.  According to “How Race Counts for
Hispanic Americans,” a report from the University of Albany’s Lewis
Mumford Center, there are about one million black Hispanics, many of
whom identify more with African-Americans than other Hispanic groups.
The report also notes that Dominicans and Puerto Ricans are most
likely to identify as black.  For this 1,500 word story, I plan to
interview Afro-Latinos about their experiences as darker-skinned
Hispanics and how they view themselves in a country that seeks to
define people in narrow terms.  I will also get their perspective on
the differences between Latinos and black Americans and whether these
differences are as significant as some perceive.  Since most
Afro-Latinos reside on the East Coast, my goal is to speak to Latinos
from the Midwest, as growing up in a region with a smaller social
network will yield a unique perspective for the article.

There is no doubt that the Hispanic population in the U.S. has grown
considerably since the last census was taken.  Census data shows that
the Hispanic population grew 120% between 1990 and 2000, with the
Dominican population increasing by almost 80%.  With less than a year
left until the 2010 census arrives on our doorsteps, I believe this
story will keep [xyz publication] ahead of the curve, as publications
will inevitably discuss population trends once the newest census data
is made available to the public.  The lack of information about
Dominicans and other Latinos of African descent will likely change as
these populations become more visible in our country, and this article
will not only speak to Latinos who are familiar with their culture’s
diversity but also African-Americans and others who may not be aware
that black Hispanics exist.  This topic can be used as an educational
tool that breaks down stereotypes, combats ignorance and promotes
solidarity between marginalized groups who have been led to believe
that their similarities are few.  A freelance writer who is dedicated
to raising awareness about issues affecting minorities, I would love
the opportunity to bring this story to the pages of [xyz publication].

Thank you for taking the time to consider “Black, Hispanic.”  Please
let me know if you are interested in this idea and what additional
information is needed before deciding if this is a possible story.  I
can be contacted by phone at 708-502-4203 or e-mail at
rosalyn.yates@gmail.com.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Very truly yours,
Rosalyn Yates

The story was turned down by both Vibe and Latina. Here’s what the editor at Vibe had to say:

Thanks for this pitch. Unfortunately I don’t have anything I can do with this at this time so please feel free to shop around as needed.

Wishing you the best.

Her response from the editor at Latina was a bit more encouraging.

Hi Rosalyn,
Happy new year. I got your clips, thanks. While I like your writing-you even made logo design sound interesting!-I’d like to try you on a few shorter pieces before moving on to features. And I think that Hispanic, Black is a little too specific for us. I’m probably going to go with my original, broader idea about the concept of Latina beauty and identity.

To that end, I’d love it if you pitched me items that could run in my Lifestyle section. I’m specifically, interested in pitches for Cool jobs, My Favorite Things and Party.

Now the first thing we need to realize is that these rejections actually means that Rosalyn is doing something right. I sent out lots of pitches when I was first starting out that received no response whatsoever.

The fact that both editors even bothered to respond is encouraging. An editor should always respond when they receive a pitch, no matter how bad it is. But the truth of the matter is, they’re busy. So if you get a response at all, it’s a good thing.

So why’d they turn down the story?

Here are my thoughts. (And keep in mind, Rosalyn volunteered for this. And she knows full well that this might get a little ugly. But it’s all for the best. Right Rosalyn? Right!)

My first thought when I read this pitch?

My eyes! My eyes!

It’s just way too long. As an editor, I might not even read the whole thing. Way. Too. Long.

If you can’t hook an editor in one concise paragraph, your story is not hot.

After I took a deep breath and read the first sentence, I saw an immediate problem. She mentioned the play Platanos and Collard Greens, a local play about Black and Latino love that plays off Broadway in New York City.

This is a problem. Latina and VIBE are both national publications. Their readership comes from a million places that have never heard of this play and will never see it. Rosalyn should not start off with a mention of this play. It makes the pitch seem amateurish. She needs to open with something that illuminates the story in a larger way. And also speaks to the readership of the magazine. Would Latina or Vibe review the play? Probably not. So it doesn’t belong in the pitch.

The pitch is also overloaded with stats. It’s good that Rosalyn researched the piece. And a few key stats would be fine. But this reads like a doctoral dissertation, not a pitch for a consumer magazine. Especially not one like Vibe or Latina.

I reached out to Benjamin Meadows-Ingram, the editor at Vibe that Rosalyn pitched this to. He gave a bit more insight on why he turned down this piece:

It sounds more like a sociological survey/college paper/thesis than a commercial magazine piece. Yes, there are some clear, interesting trends in the shifting demographics of America, but as we’re a commercial magazine, we need a stronger hook than a play likely to only be seen by a limited population, and very few of our readers. Basically, we need a real hook and I don’t see that in this pitch.

I also reached out to Serena Kim, former Senior Editor for VIBE and currently a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. [Serena edited my award-winning Al Green story for Vibe. She’s a strong editor with a sharp eye for a good pitch.]

Here’s what Serena said about Rosalyn’s pitch:

This is a lovely pitch, chock full of great research. But it needs a sexier lede, which I would write just like a feature lede with action, color and emotion. Think a great, dramatic scene from a novel. In the nut graph, I would sprinkle in some celebrities that live the experience and offer to track down quotes from them as well.

I also submitted Rosalyn’s pitch to the members of the Superhero Secret Society, (my online crew of creatives that I communicate with in a private email thread).

Now, Rosalyn. You might want to sit down for this. Because my Superhero Society remains anonymous. And because of this, they aren’t as sweet and encouraging as Serena and Benjamin. They are hardcore and harsh. Bordering on mean. But helpful. Here’s what they had to say about your pitch (all emphasis mine)….

This from a novelist and freelance writer:

one of the problems that jumps right out is that her pitch reads too AP and if the pitch reads AP it’s likely that the writing’s gonna read AP.
she woulda shocked me with a title like “When black ain’t Black” or something along those lines then went right into an interview with a dark-skinned Latino that despised Black people and didn’t at all see him or herself as Black or linked to Black people. then went on to explain the differences and… blah, blah, blah.

the end result of a pitch should always be to get those being pitched to wanna know more of the story not have them feeling like they already do…

Followed up by this, from a long-time editor, writer and professor.

Eh, the pitch fails in even more basic way. Not only does her pitch suggest a story with nothing new to add to the issue, she doesn’t illustrate the piece with PEOPLE. The playwright and presumably the actors in the play are good. But if you’re pitching young people’s magazines, I want the pitch to start with names of people in places that are flashpoints for this issue. Readers don’t care about issues. They care about people dealing with issues.

The pitch also fails in way that used to be common for non-fiction books but is also important journalism. It didn’t answer the question: Why is the writer the person to write the story? If I’m at a national magazine, I got famous writers on my rolodex. The writer forgot to tell the editors why they should hire her/him and not, say, Junot Diaz?

And this, from the editor of a national magazine:

I didn’t even read the entire pitch. I stopped in the midst of what looked like a long breakdown of census data. But, yeah, it’s missing people. I had a journalism professor who used to call that sort of thing “an unpopulated story”. No one’s living there.

Rosalyn, I think that might be the best advice here. Your pitch is an unpopulated story. And a pitch should always be full of people.

So there you have it. The industry has spoken. Rosalyn has great potential. But this pitch needs to be reworked entirely.

Hats off to Rosalyn for being brave enough to submit her query for dissection. If you are an aspiring writer who would like to submit a pitch you are working on, (whether you’ve sent it out or not), email me at aliyasking@gmail.com. I’ll give you my thoughts…and so will the Superhero Secret Society. If you can take it!

Dear readers, what are your thoughts on Rosalyn’s pitch? If you’re a writer or an editor, chime in on how you think she can make this better. If you are a reader, tell us if you’d like to read this story and where you think it could be published.

I’d love to hear from you. And so would Rosalyn!

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24 Responses to “Pitch Me!”

  1. jay1 Says:

    I have been writing for almost 9 years and I still learned a lot from that.

    Thanks.

  2. Octavia Says:

    Kudos!! Aliya and Rosalyn. As a writer and publicist I know how difficult the art of pitching is and have crashed and burned on many occasion. Great feedback and mentoring Aliya. Rosalyn you seem to have amazing potential as a writer, keep up the good work and don’t get discouraged.

  3. Robyn Curry Says:

    I’m no expert, just a reader. Immediately, I was bored. It didn’t pull me in, so I stopped reading altogether.

  4. Robyn Curry Says:

    (Meaning the pitch, not your blog Aliya. I read your blog daily…because it pulls me in.) ; )

  5. Dimitry Says:

    “Unpopulated story” is a great term. Populate your stories, people!

  6. Del Says:

    Rasalyn you are a brave, brave soul. Good for you for putting herself out there.

    Aliya, Everything I know about pitching I learned from YOU!

    First off, keep it short and sweet. You want to leave them wanting more! Start off with a eye-catching, clever title. Draw in the reader with a short, familiar story or intriguing anecdote they or the publication can relate to. Throw in a quick fact (according to the bureau of labor statistics…). Ask questions in your pitch that would be answered in your story. And if it’s a servicey type of piece, be sure to add that you’ll interview an expert in that field to lend their expertise on the topic. The End.

    Did I get that right? I know you’ll let me know if I didn’t. LOL.

    Good luck Rosalyn!

  7. Southern_Lady Says:

    Thanks so much for this section! I’ve learned a lot already. From the frist line of the pitch, I had a completely different idea of what the pitch was actually about. Collards and plantanos threw me off completely.

    I also started to doubt my lack of stats in my own pitches. I was wondering if I don’t use enough stats or if Rosalyn used too many. I see from the editors, that it’s the latter.

    As a writer, it’s my job to read, but I was slightly confused in the second and third graphs. Too many words!

    I LOVE the fact that you got additional feedback from the editors. Sometimes, even with email responses, I feel like editors still leave me hanging. But those are the breaks. They’re busy.

    Thanks Aliya and thanks Rosalyn. I would be ESTATIC to be offered smaller writing assignments in Latina. You gotta start somewhere.

  8. la negrita Says:

    Thanks everyone! The comments about the lede were eye-opening. I had no idea it read like they play would be incorporated into the story. I was just trying to draw a comparison. Epic fail! LOL, but I learned something. :)

    And thanks, Aliya! I was scared, butit wasn’t that bad. Your Secret Society reminds me of my own. Straight, no chaser!

  9. 1-900 Says:

    Bookmarking this. This is so key man. A lot of writers don’t have a clue. I’ll spread this around to my Secret Society.

  10. Timothy Says:

    Wow, I had no idea I was going to get educated in such a brief period of time. Thanks for that!

    Regarding the pitch, I think the comments were dead on. I literally skipped all of the stats, trying to get to some meat about the story. So I missed a lot of key information.

    However, what I did gather, was that the writer was obviously “skilled”. I definitely see why the editors responded. They want to see her doing some story, just maybe not that story.

    Also, following up on another comment, I wondered what would stop an editor from basically hijacking her story for her own. The answer as I learned was that the pitcher has to make it seem as if she is the only one who can write the story. Again, I definitely agree and think that’s very important.

    Thanks for sharing and thanks Aliya!

  11. zuhirah Says:

    great stuff aliya et al.. for writers, publicists, and all sorts of salespeople :)

    Rosalyn: your email moniker way more exciting than pitch– dont hide your title/topic.. pull it forward and make it shine!

  12. Aliya S. King Says:

    @everyone: thanks for all your feedback. I salute Rosalyn for taking the plunge and being the first victim. =) And I’m so glad we all got something out of this! Glad this was helpful.
    @Shydel: yes, you’ve got it. those are all my points for a good pitch. Now when are you gonna send in yours?

  13. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Timothy: I think I’m going to write a post about editors hijacking stories. I know a lot of writers worry about this. But the truth is, it just doesn’t go down like that.

  14. webhost Says:

    these are all the sad stories……..like writers been keep exploited by the editors….it is everywhere.

  15. S. K. Says:

    If an editor was to “hijack” a story I pitched, there are ways to deal with it that are civil and uncivil (I’m just talking about urban publications). The civil way is to pitch another pub, or write a scathing blog expose and email it everywhere; the uncivil way is … Use your imaginations … Sometimes catching a case ain’t a bad thing (ask Kevin Powell)

    IMO, either way there is nothing to worry about but getting that story published and getting a check for your work in a TIMELY fashion.

  16. serenakim Says:

    aliya, this is a great idea. i hope you can continue to do this often. and i would be happy to continue to put in my two cents about what makes pitches work and what doesn’t. and if i ever become as brave as Roselyn, we can get to the bottom of why my Strawberry/Kwame Kilpatrick feature was never able to see the light of day, too.

  17. serenakim Says:

    i also want to add that it’s pure bullshit when editors say they are too busy to respond. they just don’t want to.

  18. Aliya S. King Says:

    @S.K. I’m just not seeing this happen. I’m really not.

  19. RAHZILLA Says:

    Rosalyn I want to commend you on your act of bravery by agreeing to have your writing critique by such esteemed journalist. I read your pitch and it did not start out as a captivating piece. However, it began to intrigue me until I got to all those statistics.

    The overall idea of your story is good and with the right pitch, I’m sure your article will find a home. Moreover, one publisher did express interest in you writing for them so that is a good sign.

    Keep writing,

  20. Raqiyah Says:

    Yes, the pitch was way too long. I stopped reading as well. Besides, Vibe covered and reviewed the play, “Platanos and Collard Greens” in the past, so to start with that immediately turns a busy editor off. It’s important that a writer follow the magazine they want to pitch and work to have some knowledge of what’s been covered in the past or not.

  21. Hassan Munford Says:

    It lost my attention….maybe too many stats but it does sound like an interesting topic.

  22. The Week In Review: February 14th 2009 « Aliya S. King Says:

    […] Wednesday, I debuted a new column, in which new writers send pitches they’re having difficulty placing in magazines. A very […]

  23. K Dubb Says:

    Hmm.. Yeah, I totally got lost in the stats as well, but forget that, man, Rosalyn, you the girl! It takes some major hutzpuh to allow your work to be critiqued in this forum – so kudos to you and congrats on the Latina gig, small or feature, you’re still writing something… As a reader, overall, there’s still a good story here, especially if explored the way the Secret Society suggested.. But I wouldn’t limit myself to mags, I could see this story online or in a Latin-American newspaper, maybe? BTW, Rosalyn, have you read/heard about Revista Caoba? (http://tinyurl.com/cyawlw) Who knows, in time, this could be an avenue for future pitches on the subject – there’s so much that could be discussed when it comes to Afro-Latinas…

  24. la negrita Says:

    K Dubb, thanks for the encouragement and heads up on Revista Caoba. I hadn’t heard of it, but I’m bookmarking!

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