Journalism 101: Pitching a feature

by

Reporter

I’m going to share three of my real life pitches that worked with various degrees of success.

The first is a very informal pitch I sent to Smokey Fontaine at GIANT. I was writing for GIANT regularly and I had a relationship with Smokey. So I didn’t need to introduce myself or explain why I was the right person for the project. This style of pitching is ONLY when you have a strong relationship with the editor. I’d run into Smokey a few days before and he told me to send him a few ideas. This was one of them.

Hey Smokey:

I have a story I want to pitch to you: Miseducated: The Rise and Fall of Lauryn Hill.

I want a few months to do something explosive and really find out what’s wrong with this chick. Is she bipolar? on drugs? Need drugs? I don’t even know how many kids she has… Since we’re from the same area, I am kinda obsessed with finding out what happened. We have a lot of mutual friends who’d be willing to talk. I don’t know if you remember but one of the very first stories I ever wrote for you at The Source was about my friends from high school who sued her. Remember? It was a damn good story.

Anyway, I’ll send you a more formal pitch if you are interested. The ten year anniversary of the Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is August, 1998. So that’s when I’d want the story to run. August of next year.

Now, this is a story I am going to write. And I plan to get my second ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for this joint. I am pitching it to you first because you are my peoples. But if you are not interested, (and of course it’s TOTALLY cool if you don’t think its right for GIANT), then I am pitching it elsewhere.

Let me know. Talk soon!
-A

Okay. So this is mega-super-informal. I even told him that I could write a formal pitch if he needed me to. There are a few key things in this pitch that I would like to point out.

1.The story has a title. I think that title really hooked Smokey. It tells him exactly what I’m trying to do. And it sounds like a book. Which makes it feel like the story would be weighty and exhaustive. Smokey loves that kind of stuff. And he knows I’m capable.

2.  To “peg” a story is to target when the story will run. Notice how I told Smokey that I thought the story should run in August ’08, for the ten year anniversary of her debut solo album. It’s so important to peg your features properly. In last week’s post, I told you that editors have a template they need to fill. Do your homework and figure out where and when your story works. That makes editors happy.

Notice how I get all hardcore at the end. I told him I was writing the story, whether he accepted it or not. Bold! Again, use this tactic at your own risk. I do this with Smokey because he tends to take forever to get back to me when I pitch him. I’ve learned to threaten him with losing the story. It works. But it’s risky.

End result? Smokey said yes! He assigned me the story at three thousand words for the August ’08 issue. Alas, he traded the print mag for the online gig soon after and the story didn’t happen.

Moving on…

Here’s a formal pitch I sent to Serena Kim. She was the Features Editor at Vibe. And she was my go-to editor for long form investigative pieces. Now, I know Serena well. And she was always receptive to my pitches. But notice how super formal this pitch is.

Hi S.!

Hope all is well with you! I’ve been working on a story idea I’d like to share with you…I’m sending my pitch within the body of this email and as an attachment. When you have a chance, give it a read and let me know what you think…Look forward to hearing from you!!
-A

Black Girl Lost

Seven-year-old Jacob Magot was tending cattle with other children in his village in Sudan when he heard gunfire and ran into the jungle to escape. He never saw his parents or other family members again. Dominic Arou watched fellow orphans swallowed by crocodiles as he crossed rivers on a thousand mile, year-long journey to a Kenyan refugee camp. John Anyak lost his right leg after he was shot while sleeping with other orphans on the desert floor. Peter Dut and Santino Chuor survived lion attacks and militia gunfire in their journey to reach Kenya.

These young men—and thousands more—who made their way to the United States from war-torn Sudan were dubbed “The Lost Boys” by aid workers and journalists. (The nickname is a reference to Peter Pan where a group of young people avoided adults to remain safe.) And these men have some frightening stories to tell.

Five years ago, a soft-spoken, unassuming woman named Mary Williams found herself listening to these stories while working at an Atlanta-based non-profit organization that assisted international political refugees. Having heard about their horrifying experiences, Williams expected the incoming group of Sudanese refugees to be unruly and wild. They were gracious, intelligent and eager to re-start their lives. Williams was so moved that she quit her job and started the Lost Boys Foundation, dedicated to getting education, housing and employment for “The Lost Boys.” For five years, she has been on the front lines, helping to raise money for the organization.

At a time when Sudan is (finally) national news, Williams’ work with The Lost Boys is an interesting facet to the story of what is taking place in the Sudan. Williams and her foundation have been covered by the New York Times, 60 Minutes, and Essence, where I wrote a short piece on The Lost Boys three years ago. Before she died, Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopez recorded some of The Lost Boys singing in their native language for an album she planned to release.

Brad Silverman and Paramount Pictures have optioned the story of “The Lost Boys” for film. Dave Eggers, author of the critically acclaimed memoir A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius has just completed a biography of “Lost Boy” Dominic Arou. Between the movie and Eggers’ book, there will be a lot of focus on the story of “The Lost Boys” in the coming months.

But the one story that hasn’t been told in full is Mary Williams’ own. She has more in common with The Lost Boys than one could ever believe.

Mary Williams grew up in a Black Panther commune in Oakland, California. One of five children, she was born in 1968, the same year of Martin Luther King’s assassination. By 1978, the idyllic goal of self-sufficiency and self-determination in the Black Panther Party was being supplanted by disorganization, disruption and rampant drug use by key members. Her parents split up and her mother left the organization.  By the age of 9, her father was in jail and her mother had slipped into the grips of alcoholism. At 12, she was repeatedly raped by a family acquaintance. When she left home at the age of 15, no one in her family bothered to look for her. Today, she has no idea whether or not her parents are alive. She recently learned that a boyfriend killed her sister Deborah, a crack addict and prostitute, several years ago.

As a young teen, Mary attended a theatre arts camp funded by actress and activist Jane Fonda. Fonda befriended her and the two kept in touch over the years. By the time Mary’s family life was completely dismantled and she had left home, Fonda informally adopted her. Fonda put her through college and graduate school, along with her then-husband Tom Hayden and later, her third husband Ted Turner.

Williams’ story closely parallels those of the Sudanese refugees she has devoted her life to assisting. Some of these “lost boys” owe quite a bit to a woman who came very close to becoming a “black girl lost.”

Jane Fonda’s visibility has been extremely high lately, due in part to her recently released autobiography, My Life So Far and her return to film after a fourteen year hiatus. But in most interviews and press, Williams’ relationship to Fonda is often glossed over or completely omitted. On one website, Fonda is listed as having two children and Williams is described as “an Asian woman Fonda informally adopted.”

The story I am pitching, “Black Girl Lost,” is an inside look at the woman behind “The Lost Boys” Foundation. In the past, she has only talked about her life before her adoption in brief soundbites. I recently had a conversation with Ms. Williams and she agreed that it was time to tell her own story. She is just beginning to realize that the reason she is so drawn to the plight of The Lost Boys is because she was so close to being lost herself.

I plan to spend time in Atlanta with Ms. Willams and the Sudanese refugees that she assists through her foundation. And I also plan to travel to Oakland to try to find her parents and siblings. (I have already begun this research and have some leads).

I look forward to talking to you further about my story idea for “Black Girl Lost.”

-A

Now, I worked on this pitch for three months before I sent it to S.

Three. Months.

And the idea was actually born three years before that, when I interviewed Mary Williams for a piece in Essence. I knew that S. would want to know that I was thoroughly prepared to write this story.

I couldn’t just say: Hey, this would be a great idea. I knew she would want to feel like I was already in the story and didn’t need any hand-holding to make it happen.

Notice how the pitch begins. It begins like it’s the actual story.

I only suggest this method when it’s a hardcore news feature. If you’re pitching a story on 50 Cent’s new fragrance, no need to be so in depth.

You also have to know your editor well. I know what Serena likes. And I knew she would appreciate a lengthy, well-researched pitch. Smokey’s eyes would have blurred over after the first graf. But I knew Serena was the type of editor who would print this out and read every word. So if I were pitching it to Smokey or another editor, I’d adjust it accordingly.

Also notice that I pointed out all the other press and attention the topic has received, from the books to the movie deals. Editors want to know if your story idea is hot and timely. Make them believe that they MUST be up on whatever it is your writing.

This pitch is actually a bit longer than I think it needs to be. I think I would cut it in half if I were writing it today. But I’m not sure.

End result? S. said she loved it! Yay!

However, she took it to the staff meeting and it was shot down. The top editors weren’t feeling it–at least not for Vibe.

And looking back, this is not necessarily a Vibe story. I think Serena and I could have worked on making it appeal to the Vibe reader. But it probably would have worked better at Essence or Glamour.

So, the lesson here is that even a great pitch must be married to the right publication.

Okay, now check this out. A few years ago, I went to a book signing for writer Gloria Naylor. And it was clear that she was…a bit off. And I was stunned that no one seemed to notice that she seemed to be mentally unbalanced. The minute I came home, I started working on a pitch. After doing a bit of newsstand research, I decided it would work best at a newspaper. I chose to pitch The New York Observer.

Now this was going to be an ice-cold unsolicited pitch. I’d never written for the paper, didn’t know anyone there. I spent the entire day tracking down the right name and email address. Here is the pitch I emailed to her.

Good morning Alexandra…

My name is Aliya S. King and I am a freelance writer based in New Jersey. I have a story idea I would like to pitch to you.

Gloria Naylor has officially lost her mind. And for some reason, no one is discussing what is obviously a tragic turn of events in this woman’s life.

Gloria Naylor, a native New Yorker and a graduate of Brooklyn College and Yale University,  won the National Book Award for first fiction in 1983 for “The Women of Brewster Place.”  She has also written critically acclaimed novels including “Linden Hills,” “Mama Day” and “Bailey’s Cafe.”

Her most recent book, “1996” outlines what she claims are true events that happened to her ten years ago at her vacation home on St. Helena, off the coast of South Carolina. She believes that after speaking to a small group about the Million Man March, members of the Jewish community and the American government began following her and using mind control to harass her mentally and physically.

I went to a book signing at NYU last night. Ms. Naylor read from her new book and I was shocked at how off-centered she seemed. The book is filled with grammatical errors and is such a departure from her early work that it is absolutely frightening. I did some research on Ms. Naylor last night and while I found other people commenting on blogs about her obvious mental illness, I found no comments in news outlets. Ms. Naylor appeared on NPR and the host, Ed Gordon, seemed to be humoring her.

What happens when one of America’s great women of letters begins to lose her mind? Are we supposed to silently watch? Last night, the audience was clearly confused by Ms. Naylor’s behavior and her unbelievable story of mind control and surveillance, (from the Anti-Defamation League and the National Security Administration, no less).

I got the strong sense that the people in attendance, (particularly those of African-American descent), were afraid to speak about what was happening perhaps because Gloria Naylor is so revered in the  literary community.

I’d like to write a feature about Ms. Naylor, her latest book, “1996” and her current mental health. I’d like to examine why it seems that the literary community is choosing not to address the very obvious mental instability she is going through. I’d like to talk to her former publishers, (I noticed that she is with an independent publisher for this book.) I’d like to talk to friends and family, her agent and of course, to Ms. Naylor herself about her recent work.

I’d love to talk to you more whenever you have a free minute.

I appreciate you taking the time to read this unsolicited query. I look forward to hearing from you.
-Aliya

About me:
I am a former high school History teacher-turned-writer. In 1998, I attended The Radcliffe Publishing Course, sponsored by Harvard University, (where I met Peter Kaplan). I’ve held editorial positions at Billboard and The Source. As a freelance writer, my profiles, news stories and features have appeared in Nylon, Vibe, CMJ:New Music Monthly, Upscale, King, The Source, Ms, Us Weekly, Teen People, America, Essence, Black Enterprise and others.

I am a contributing writer to King, a lifestyle publication for men. I am also a contributing editor and columnist for Upscale, a women’s lifestyle magazine.

My story, “Love And Unhappiness,” (published in Vibe), about the mysterious 1974 death that took place in the home of soul singer Al Green, was awarded ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Award for magazine writing in 2005.

Notice how the first sentence in this pitch is over the top. It’s a spare sentence. Short and to the point. I knew I would have to hook the editor immediately to get her to keep reading. Also notice that the pitch has a sense of immediacy and timeliness. I told her I went to the reading just the night before. I also let her know that I’d already done some preliminary research. The story of Naylor’s possible instability had not been covered–something she should know.

And of course, because it is a cold pitch, I had to include some information about myself. An editor needs to know who you are, where you’ve written and why you’re qualified to write the story.

Notice that I did a bit of name dropping too. I met then editor-in-chief Peter Kaplan and included that tidbit in the email. Though, in hindsight, that was unnecessary. Why would the editor care that I met her boss a million years ago?

I fully expected my email to go ignored. I was pleasantly surprised to get a response within an hour!

She said she was intrigued by the pitch. Interested in the story. And passing it along to her editor. Yes!

And I never heard from her again.

Sigh.

I followed up via email and with a few phone calls. Nothing.

However, I still stand by the pitch. It was strong and got someone’s interest. Albeit briefly.

Hmmm. Did I just share three pitches for stories that never ran?

I swear, I also pitch stories that actually get published. I’ll share those too. Ha.

Dear readers: If you’re a new writer, please tell me what parts of this exercise will prove useful as you begin to pitch stories. If you’re a veteran, can you tell me your thoughts on the above pitches. How would you have crafted them differently? What did I do right? What did I do wrong?

I’d love to hear from you…

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16 Responses to “Journalism 101: Pitching a feature”

  1. Maurice Bobb Says:

    Aliya,

    I got soooo much from this post. Although I’ve been writing for quite a few years, I’ve never been good at pitches. I’ve been lucky to have relationships with editors that I’ve written for and was able to pitch informally. This was very educational and I will definitely take from it and learn to pitch to editors that I have no relationship with.

  2. Landis Says:

    I enjoyed looking at the different levels of pitches. I took special note on the unsolicited query. It’s a nice look at how people with no connections, like myself, have to do things.

    When I pitch stories to my publication, the level of formality is even more colloquial than your first one. I really need to learn to pitch a story for real.

    Thanks.

  3. PaulCantor Says:

    The 2nd pitch is more in line with what I’d like to present to an editor. I just feel like it completes the “sale.” You’ve got it all there, it’s just a matter of finding a buyer. If I’m selling a car, I’m not going to just sell you the frame. I gotta give you the wheels too lol.

    Of course the more informal stuff works when you’ve got a solid relationship with an editor. In most instances, I notice if I pitch… well, anything… maybe my idea won’t work, but at least I’m on the editor’s radar again (via that pitch) and I end up getting something else assigned to me.

    It’s difficult pitching for smaller sections of magazines. I find that to be the most challenging thing.

  4. Belle Says:

    OMG! Why did a blog like this not exist when I was starting out as a writer? I had to learn all of this the hard way!

    The pitches are great– one thing I would like to add is that I read pitches to see if the writer can write. Published pieces aren’t always reliable. They could be heavily edited. So I’m reading your letter to see if you really have a way with words. Make whatever you write sound exciting.

    The About Me is really important too. I like new writers, but I want to know you have some experience writing and this isn’t some “I can ask questions and I know how to type. I think I’ll be a writer” moments.

    Last thing, new writers rarely write features out the gate. If you’re new, pitch small stuff and work your way up– If you’re good, you can rise pretty fast.

  5. Brian B.Dot Miller Says:

    Great post!

  6. Dionne Says:

    Your blog is such a great resource to new writers and those trying to polish their pitch letters. I’m so excited to read your posts and am learning so much! Thank you for being so open and candid.

  7. serenakim Says:

    First of all, thanks for the shout out! But I also have a few questions… When you are laboring over a pitch for three months, how do you support yourself in the meantime? Do you stagger out stories so that checks are trickling in as you formulate others? And how many hours a day does it take to create a pitch as exhaustive as any of these? I guess my question is about finding the right balance of time management along with pacing yourself with the flow of checks. Thank you sooo much for sharing this information. It’s inspiring and takes a lot of leadership. God Bless.

  8. DonyaBlaze Says:

    Aliya,

    First off, I’ve read many of your stories and you do such a great job. (Al green story, Malcolm X’s grandson) But I’m going to second Serena’s statements on this one. THREE MONTHS on one pitch?? Kudos, because seriously, I don’t know if I could spend that long honing one idea. Because freelancing is such a grind, I find myself going to the stories that I think will have the best chance of selling like your Lauryn Hill piece.

    You know who I think would be perfect for the Gloria Naylor article? New York magazine. I have a subscription, and they seem to love those long, in-depth, quirky New York stories. The fact that she’s a literary great, and somewhat member of the “elite,” with a mental illness might just be the bonus that makes them go for it.

  9. spamwarrior Says:

    Definitely the beginning pitches. The hooks. Those are the ones that I think are my weakest… seeing yours sort of gave me an idea of what they would like. And the last one really really made me want to find out what was going to happen. (I wonder what happened to her?)

  10. clove Says:

    I’m stealing that “About Me” section idea. that’s a good format. I just realized I don’t really pitch features very formally because my ideas are usually artist-based and just, hey such and such has an album coming out and this is why they’re interesting now. I need to work on pitching long in-depth features. sigh. thanks for this

  11. Honey Walrond Says:

    The last pitch of Ms. Naylor is how I would like to present a pitch to an editor.

    The boldness, straight to the point from the very beginning,

    the timeline of Ms. Naylor made the writing flow smoothly and was a nice little history lesson, especially if one is not familiar with Ms. Naylor. This is great if you’re writing about a subject or someone the editor may not be well-informed about. It gives a little history lesson, and lets the editor know why you want to write the piece.

    and lastly, the about me section.

    Thanks Aliya.

    Very helpful.

  12. Mignon Says:

    Aliya, this was sooo very helpful!

    Thanks.

    Im currently doing an exercise for my graduate work that includes crafting the perfect pitch and then pitching it somewhere! Needless to say initially I was a little intimidated. You make good points about naming the piece and beginning the pitch as if it were the actual story. But, I most benefited from the Gloria Naylor pitch. That first sentence had even me hooked. I was thinking “… did she just say she lost her mind to the editor?” It really had me hooked from start to finish. Regardless though, these gave me really good example of a jumping off point so to speak.

    Would you mind sharing what your brainstorming process is for generating new ideas to pitch? Do you allocate time for brainstorming or do you most times write about things that spark your interest as you run into them?

  13. Golianopoulos Says:

    The second pitch is a bit long but all of these work: You are pegging the story, showing confidence in your idea and also selling yourself. Most importantly, the editor sees that you have done your research. That is so key.

    Last summer, I thought I had a slam-dunk true crime story. It was a cold pitch and I basically regurgitated a nugget from the police blotter but the editor was into it. Over the next month, as the pitch clawed its way up the masthead, each editor wanted more info, more detail. I conducted four preliminary interviews with potential sources and spoke with the investigating officer in the case at least a dozen times. Ultimately, the book passed b/c it wasn’t the right fit. But it was a good lesson: If you are pitching an investigative piece, you need to do some investigating. Lesson learned. Last week, I landed an investigative piece and I’m pretty sure it’s because I proved that I’d been on this story for months.

    Of course, there’s an easy way to avoid the time consuming practice of crafting the perfect pitch. And that’s by building relationships with editors. Nothing beats being able to pitch over IM or the phone.

  14. Russell Nichols Says:

    This post has been crucially helpful! As a writer, I always feel like the pitch has been my biggest challenge. I know once I have the assignment, I’ll put my all into it and it will be dope. But convincing an editor to give me that assignment is the hard part.

    The first thing I noticed in your pitches is how in-depth they all are. I know that’s important and the advice you gave about the peg is useful. But what about length? I always read that a writer should try to keep a pitch to a page. I’m not sure, but I would guess that all three of these were longer than a page (whatever that equates to visually on e-mail). But you still got responses which is great!

    Some questions:
    How did you go about deciding where to pitch a certain idea?
    What about subject lines? I have read the Query: Possible Title Approach is the best. Is that the method you use?

    Thanks for the great post. Can’t wait to read more.

  15. S.Smith Says:

    Hi Aliya,
    I enjoyed reading this because it truly opened my eyes to how much research and determined hard-wrok go into just having your pitch considered alone. Thanks for the inside scoop!

  16. KillaHills Says:

    This is a great post that I’ve been saving to read for two months and it was well worth the wait! One question:

    Are you ever scared to pitch an entire idea because it will be stolen by someone else and written without you?

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