Pitch Fix: Before Submitting Your Story Idea, Consider Your Research Options

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Welcome back to Pitch Fix, our ongoing column where we look at real pitches from freelance writers and offer suggestions for improvement.

This month, we look at a pitch that presents an interesting thesis but doesn’t include any sources to back it up. We also look at how to pitch a story even if you don’t have your sources in hand.

Meryl Williams’ pitch to The Atlantic

Meryl Williams is a freelance writer you might remember from her work at The Write Life and her contribution to my piece about managing a part-time freelance career.

She recently sent a pitch to The Atlantic that got rejected, and asked me if I had any insight into how she could fix her pitch.

Williams’ pitch is already pretty strong. It focuses on why her story is important and what makes her piece a good fit for the publication. Is this a case of “sometimes even good pitches get rejected,” or is there something missing from Williams’ pitch?

Here’s her pitch to The Atlantic:

To the staff at the Atlantic:

Rainbow Rowell has been having a good couple of years. The Omaha-based young adult author had her first adult novel come out last year, but on October 6 she’s going back to her roots with another YA work.

The Atlantic interviewed Rowell in 2013 for a piece about YA authors who are doing it right, and she truly is. I’ve read her four books and I have been impressed by her handling of delicate subject matter, including domestic abuse, mental illness, and addiction. But even more so, I love the way Rowell consistently sets excellent examples for young girls and women in each of her books. I appreciate the power and agency her characters display, and the strong voices Rowell gives each of them. Some of them are described as being overweight but this aspect is always a non-issue — In Rowell’s books, being body positive is queen, and standing up for yourself and your loved ones takes precedence over appearance every time.

I would like to write about how Rowell writes women for women, and about what I hope to see in her book coming out next month, Carry On. You can see previous work I’ve written on The Billfold, HelloGiggles, and the Addison Recorder. Please let me know if you have any questions. Thanks for your time!

-Meryl Williams

http://tinyletter.com/TheSleeperHit

http://MerylWilliamsMedia.com/

This is a solid pitch, and there is a lot to like about it. Williams references The Atlantic’s previous Rowell coverage, drawing a connection between her pitch and a story that worked for them in the past. She deftly works in references to her own clips, letting the editor know she has what it takes to get the job done.

The biggest issue with this pitch is that the story Williams proposes is too speculative. Writing an article about what you hope to see in an author’s next work might be a great fit for another publication, but it doesn’t feel right for The Atlantic.

As a comparative example: Colleen Gillard’s recent Atlantic article “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories” includes interviews with three literature professors to help back up her thesis. Adding additional sources to a story can lend validation to an idea and give it more credibility.

It’s also what The Atlantic requests in its pitch guidelines:

We’re more interested in writers who’ve done research and reporting rather than those offering up half-baked personal observations.

So that’s how to fix Williams’ pitch.

Pitch Fix: Cite your sources

Deciding at what point to contact a source — before you secure the pitch, or afterwards? — is one of the most difficult parts of the pitch process.

When I was a new freelance writer, I often got very nervous about approaching a source before a pitch was accepted, because I felt like the source would think I was unprofessional if I couldn’t place the piece.

Likewise, it’s going to be difficult for someone like Williams to reach out to a well-known author like Rainbow Rowell without having a well-known publication to back her up.

With that in mind, here’s how I’d improve Williams’ pitch:

To the staff at the Atlantic:

Rainbow Rowell has been having a good couple of years. The Omaha-based young adult author had her first adult novel come out last year, but on October 6 she’s going back to her roots with another YA work.

The Atlantic interviewed Rowell in 2013 for a piece about YA authors who are doing it right. I’d like to follow up that piece with a story about how Rowell’s work has continued to grow, and how her ability to write strong female characters influences both her readership and her commercial success.

I’d reach out to librarians, publishers’ sales reps, and women’s studies professors to speak to the three aspects of Rowell’s success: among readers, among booksellers, and among feminists. I’m also getting in touch with Rowell’s publicity agent in the hopes that Rowell will also be able to contribute to the piece.

I love the way Rowell consistently sets excellent examples for young girls and women in each of her books. I appreciate the power and agency her characters display, and the strong voices Rowell gives each of them. I think your readers will also appreciate a closer look at her work and why it resonates with so many people.

You can see previous work I’ve written on The Billfold, HelloGiggles, and the Addison Recorder. Please let me know if you have any questions. Thanks for your time!

-Meryl Williams

http://tinyletter.com/TheSleeperHit
http://MerylWilliamsMedia.com/

As you’ll notice, I completely changed the subject of this pitch. Instead of being about what one person hopes will be in a future book, it is now about how a writer found success by writing strong female characters that connected with many people.

This is the first step I’ve taken to help Williams verify her thesis. I also gave Williams a paragraph where she outlines the research she plans to do to ensure her thesis is correct.

Notice the wording of that paragraph: I don’t identify a specific librarian or professor, but I assume Williams will find at least one willing to talk to her about Rowell’s work. (There are a lot of librarians and professors, after all!)

I also write “I am also getting in touch with Rowell’s publicity agent.” The use of present tense is key. If the pitch doesn’t go through, Williams does not have to contact the publicity agent; if it does, she can send the email.

Williams’ response

I asked Williams what she thought of her Pitch Fix, and here’s her response:

Thanks for taking a look at this pitch!

This email pitches a more interesting story, and one I feel like The Atlantic would have cared about more. Plus, it would have been totally doable (and super fun!) to interview a bunch of librarians and academic folks about Rainbow Rowell’s work. I also like the loose wording about getting in touch with Rowell’s people, while making no firm commitment. I’ll need to keep that in mind for future pitches.

Maybe someday when I’m wildly famous, The Atlantic will pay for my thoughts on feminist fictional characters — but until then, this is an article I would have loved writing and reading. The good news is that Rowell has written a book a year since 2011, so maybe I’ll get another shot soon!

To our readers: Do you agree with this month’s Pitch Fix? What advice would you offer Peterson? Also, how do you address potential sources when you pitch?

Got a pitch that’s striking out? If you’d like to be an upcoming Pitch Fix subject, please contact Nicole Dieker at dieker.nicole@gmail.com.

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Nicole Dieker is a freelance copywriter and essayist. She writes regularly for The Billfold on the intersection of freelance writing and personal finance, and her work has also appeared in The Toast, Yearbook Office, and Boing Boing.... .

Nicole Dieker | @hellothefuture

Nicole Dieker
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Comments

  1. Good fix–slightly changing the angle to be more ‘newsy’ I guess. This is a tendency I have, so I appreciate the view of improvement.

  2. I have an odd question. Is it OK, or advisable to use a paper that I’ve written for school in a pitch? I just looked over this paper that I wrote for a class several years ago and I think that with a little reworking it could be a very interesting article to use in my pitch. It’s edgy and deals with a controversial subject, as that’s kind of my niche and I may have found just the right publication for it. So is this at all OK? I want answers from everyone BTW. Chime in… 🙂

    • Your best option is to rework your paper into a new piece. If you’ve already done research on a controversial subject, you can absolutely use that research to write something new.

      I wouldn’t recommend pitching the paper you wrote for class, for three reasons:

      1. Was the paper published anywhere? Some publications won’t accept work that has been published ANYWHERE on the internet, even if it’s your personal blog or a school website.

      2. No editor wants to hear “I wrote this for class.”

      3. Your paper is probably not written in an appropriate style; it’s right for a classroom, but not for a blog or online magazine.

      Take what you’ve learned from the paper and rewrite it into something new, that’s my advice! You can also pitch the idea first and then write your new story once your pitch gets accepted!

      • Thank you for the advice. I will definitely rewrite it to reflect my article tone, voice, and style, not classroom style. And yes, it was online school. So I guess it was sort of online. Here’s to happy pitching! 🙂

        I enjoy writing articles so much more than school papers. I feel that I can be a bit more creative.

  3. Very interesting of all your, comments .. and questions.
    I’m also aspiring writer … specializing in comic book character..
    I created.. any advice you can give me?
    Would be most and gratefully appreciated..

  4. thanks Nicole.

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