One of the questions I’m most often asked by freelance journalists and PR people is how to pitch a story idea to an editor. It’s a topic I have come to know intimately over many years and from much experimentation. The good news is there’s no real secret to it – it’s not even difficult. Get it right and you’ll likely have a new media partner for life. But get it wrong and you’ll possibly never deal with that editor again.
Here are my top ten tips:
1) Know the publication very well. Don’t pitch to Women’s Health a story about bottled water – their readers are way beyond that. And don’t pitch an idea that was in the latest issue.
2) Think only of the readers. Who are they? How old are they? Are they men or women, boys or girls? How much do they earn? What are they interested in? What will enrich their lives? What information will they actually use?
3) Narrow down your topic as much as possible. Nobody wants to read a story about world peace, but everybody loves to know about the young lady who finally earned a one-on-one meeting with Nelson Mandela. They’re the same topic but on very different scales.
4) A story pitch should contain a catchy headline (to help the editor imagine the story on the page) followed by a one-paragraph summary. That’s all! Don’t over-cook it. Editors are increasingly busy and don’t have time to read your extended thoughts on the topic.
5) The pitch paragraph should include the topic, the types of people to be interviewed, the reason for the story (what will the readers get out of it?) and possibly the desired effects of the story (is it educational, informational etc?).
6) Under promise and over deliver. Don’t promise an interview with an astronaut unless it’s guaranteed.
7) Pitch three story ideas at a time – no more and no less. Editors love to reject ideas, so give them a few to reject.
8) Never pitch on a Friday. Fresh minds are more receptive to fresh ideas.
9) Don’t write a story before being commissioned to do so. Features should be crafted for the specific readers of a specific title, not pre-written and sold to any bidder.
10) Remember that your job is to make the editor’s job easier. That means writing well, in their title’s style, for their title’s audience, utilising well-researched facts and coming up with unique ideas that their audience will appreciate. Do that and the editor will love you forever.
And here are a few of my own examples that met with success:
It’s Never Too Late To Live
(for a retirement magazine)
With the kids gone and the career over, a chasm can appear in the lives of retirees, one that no amount of golf or gardening will fill. But why sit around and wait for the family to visit? Take charge of your retirement and make something happen, such as volunteer work, further education or travel. Including advice from experts and from retirees, this feature is filled with practical strategies to escape the retirement rut.
The School Canteen
(for a food/family magazine)
We speak to three generations from one family about what they were/are served at their school canteen. As tastes change and health and allergy issues become more important, we compare today’s offerings to those of the 1970s and the 1950s. We then speak to a nutritionist to tell us how good/bad each offering was and how far we’ve come, if at all.
(for an upmarket magazine)
A look into the life and careers of three modern masters, such as a composer of symphonies, an artist and a ballet choreographer. They should each be at different stages of their careers but all successful in their fields. What is life like for those who choose to walk the artistic road? How does being a composer today compare to Mozart’s time? How does the life of a modern playwright compare to that of Shakespeare? Does technology make their jobs easier or more difficult? This feature is a walk in the artists’ shoes.