Journalism 101: Before you send off that pitch…



I got an email from a dear reader yesterday. And she was a bit frantic.

She’s just published a short piece in a national entertainment magazine. (Yay!)

She sent off a thank you email to the editor, (good job!), and asked about pitching more stories. The editor invited her to start pitching. (Yay!)

And then she freaked out.

What to pitch!? She started flipping through the magazine, hands on her keyboard, ready to dash off an email with tons of great story ideas.

Luckily, before she pressed send, she emailed me:

Hey Aliya!
How are ya? I’m kind of in a bind. Do you have any advice for generating story ideas? I got the green light to start pitching [NAME REDACTED] But I think my ideas are wack or they already have them covered, which means they’re not original. I can write. I know this. Pitching is my problem!!! Ughhhh.

I told homegirl to step away from the keyboard. She was about to make a grave mistake.

When you get the green light to pitch, you may feel pressured to do it right away. You’ve got the precious business card in your hand. You’ve made that connection at a network event. The door’s been opened. You want to sprint, dive and slide through that door before it closes.

But the truth is. You should take your time.

I always tell writers to really explore the publication before pitching. And their eyes glaze over and I can tell they’re ignoring me.

You think to yourself: I know Vibe. I know Upscale. I know Essence. Who needs to explore! I’ve got great ideas for them!

Except. You don’t.

I’m sorry to tell you this. But you don’t.

I asked our dear reader one simple question: How many back issues of the magazines do you have? She had three. And they were not in consecutive order. Big red flag. You need to have at least six months of back issues of any magazine you’d like to pitch. No less than the last three issues.

You need to study these back issues like you’re studying for the bar.

What are the names of the front of the book sections? How long are the stories? How timely are the pieces? Who seems to be writing the stories in each section? Read the bylines. And then compare to the masthead. If the writer is not on the masthead, you can assume it’s a freelancer. If you continually see certain sections of the magazine written by people who are not listed on the masthead, it may be a good section for you to pitch.

When I was starting out, I couldn’t afford to buy the magazines I wanted to pitch. So I spent many Saturdays at the local bookstore. I’d pile up a bunch of magazines, and take notes on who wrote what and what they covered in each issue.

Take your time. It’s better to come correct than to rush.

Your pitches should show the editor that you know the magazine inside and out. Even if they’re not feeling your ideas, they will respect your knowledge of the magazine and perhaps hook you up with something else.

Let’s say your pitching Essence. You’ve met an editor. She’s given you the green light to send along some ideas. You’ve got a great idea:

After you lost your job, you started a Recession Garden. And you grew tomatoes and cucumbers. Which led you to start thinking about how folks did this during the Depression. And voila! You’ve got this great idea about women with green thumbs growing their own gardens for sustenance, not just a hobby. You find several similar women who have also planted gardens. And now you’re ready to pitch.

When you send your email, you want to include lines like:

–This story would work well in the Insert Section Here…
–In June of 2009, you published a story on Blah Blah. My piece would be different in the following ways…
–I learned quite a bit in last month’s story on Blah. My story accomplishes the same goal by teaching women Blah…

Am I making sense? You don’t want to just throw out ideas. You want to show that you’re a student of the magazine.

I’ve been on both sides. I’ve pitched hundreds of stories as a writer. And I field pitches for a few magazines I edit on a freelance basis.

I can always tell when a writer doesn’t really know the magazine they’re pitching. Several times, I’ve received pitches for stories that the magazine has already done. Not cool.

An editor’s job is to fill a template of predefined sections. It’s your job to make that process as simple as possible. Know the word count of the section your pitching. Know what’s been covered in this section for the past several months.

Then, start thinking about what you want to pitch. When you know the sections very well, the ideas will come to you. I promise. Next week, I will post some actual pitches that I have sent and received. Some that were placed. And some that were not.

Dear Readers: Do you have at least three back issues of the magazines you’d like to pitch? Do you know all the relevant sections and who writes what in each section? If you’ve successfully pitched magazines, did you study the magazine first? Fellow editors, how can writers win you over and get that pitch placed? Have you ever had someone pitch you a story that was completely wrong for the magazine? What else do they need to keep in mind once they get the green light to pitch?

I’d love to hear from you!

7 Responses to “Journalism 101: Before you send off that pitch…”

  1. spamwarrior Says:

    Even better, I try to read all issues of the magazine as they come out to familiarize myself with it the best. I haven’t successfully pitched yet, and only pitched to one site which I couldnt’ get a back issue for some reason, but I studied all the articles that they posted online.

  2. clove Says:

    “What are the names of the front of the book sections? How long are the stories? How timely are the pieces? Who seems to be writing the stories in each section? Read the bylines…”

    THANK YOU. I do that with any magazine I pitch for the first time but usually I already have a subscription anyway. Well formulated pitches are so hard to come by – it’s a lost art. When a writer just emails “I want to write about rappers doing clothing lines. what do you think” it’s insulting. what?! How do you even address that as an editor? (I’m really asking) Also, you should already know what type of ideas to pitch if you’re reading the magazine. Usually I’ll just be like, go back and read some issues. Even seasoned writers need to have good pitches. Ugh

    As a writer, I do hate pitching though lol. But it helps to find ideas if you know it’s all about filling the template and finding the right match

  3. Honey Walrond Says:

    “You need to study these back issues like you’re studying for the bar.”

    DEFINITELY!. I haven’t submitted a pitch yet. I am currently working on a few, but I make sure I study the magazines I am interested in pitching for.

    I would have a subscription before I decide to pitch, because it’s a magazine that I really like and holds my interest. Having the subscription long before would allow me to become one with the magazine, really knowing the mag inside and out.

    I study every detail (especially the sections that interest me the most), and take notes as I read – questions, thoughts, ideas, etc.. that way I may be able to follow up with a different spin, and basically just grabbing the main idea / theme the piece sends to the reader.

    This helps me to get an idea of what the editor is looking for content wise.

    Great advice Aliya!

  4. Sunny Dee Says:

    Thank you so much for the words of wisdom! I look forward to seeing some of your samles. You portry a very real perspective of the industry and as exciting as it is to be accepted as a new writer I appreciate you breaking down the reality so we don’t blow our first major shot and are able to enjoy excitement that lasts more than a moment or two! Again, thank you for your wisdom!

  5. alma Says:

    “An editor’s job is to fill a template of predefined sections. It’s your job to make that process as simple as possible.”

    I think this is the key to successfull pitching. Thank you very much for all your advice!

  6. KillaHills Says:

    awesome yet again. these are things folks know, but somehow getting the reminder helps such a great deal. Go team aliya!

  7. alma Says:

    Yes Aliya, you’ve helped me out a lot!!


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