Pitching Long-Form Journalism? Don’t Forget Your Goal

pitch fix
Share to Facebook Share to Twitter

When you’re pitching a complicated story, it’s important to provide enough background information to help an editor understand why this story needs to be told.

But too much background can bog down your pitch, or bury the story you really want to tell.

This time, we’re going to look at a pitch where the author is clearly an expert on a complicated subject — but she needs a little help pulling the story she wants to write out of her background information.

Colleen Mondor’s aviation-industry pitch

Colleen Mondor is an author, blogger, and journalist. She’s written a nonfiction memoir, The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska, and wants to build her long-form journalism portfolio.

Mondor submitted the following pitch to Outside, Men’s Journal, and Air and Space Magazine but hasn’t been able to place her story. What do you think is holding this pitch back?

Dear XX:

In the 90 years since aircraft first flew in Alaska, the bush pilot myth has become synonymous with Alaskan life. Tourists are drawn to stories of mercy pilots and pictures of aircraft loaded with everything from sled dogs to outboard motors are as much a part of the state’s image as the northern lights and Denali. But the harsh truth about aviation here is that while it is consistently one of the most dangerous places to fly in the world, almost all of the accidents are preventable.

Alaska averages about 100 aircraft accidents a year which, over the past decade, have resulted in 194 fatalities. In 2013 there was a particularly devastating crash in the small town of Soldotna. That accident made national news as two South Carolina families were killed after their charter aircraft stalled on takeoff. The recently released probable cause report found the longtime Alaska pilot made multiple errors prior to departure including failing to weigh the additional cargo onboard, loading it behind the aircraft’s center-of-gravity and exceeding the aircraft’s weight limits. He was also killed in the crash.

The investigators with the Alaska regional office of the NTSB are determined to reach beyond pilot actions to find aspects of company culture, flight training or lax federal oversight that might contribute to poor decision-making. They have also joined with representatives of the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association to target specific aspects of the state’s aviation environment and community to affect positive change in pilot attitudes and actions. These are the people who are not willing to dismiss Alaska simply as an inherently dangerous place to fly and I think their story needs to be told.

I first worked in the aviation industry in Alaska over 20 years ago, as a dispatcher for a Fairbanks-based commuter. I also studied aviation in college and graduate school, both in Alaska and Outside, and learned to fly when I was 18. I wrote about my years as a dispatcher in a 2011 memoir, The Map of My Dead Pilots. I have worked as a journalist and essayist on this subject for years including the past three for the Bush Pilot section of Alaska Dispatch News (the Anchorage daily newspaper), and recently in Narratively magazine. Alaska aviation is a topic I am deeply involved with, and I look forward to writing about the people who are trying to change the way it operates.

Pitch Fix: State your story

When I read Mondor’s pitch, I kept waiting for the sentence that began “My story will be about” or “I’d like to write about.” I was impressed by the background information and detail, but I had a hard time figuring out what story Mondor was actually pitching to these magazines and how she planned to tell it.

Mondor has one sentence that alludes to what she intends to write: “These are the people who are not willing to dismiss Alaska simply as an inherently dangerous place to fly and I think their story needs to be told.”

It’s a great start, but I want to know more. Does Mondor have a specific person’s story in mind? Is she planning to conduct interviews for the bulk of her research, or is she thinking about going more in-depth, perhaps embedding herself with Alaska’s NSTB investigators to observe their work — and their challenges — in person?

If you thought “Wait, NSTB investigators? Isn’t this a piece about bush pilots?” I wouldn’t blame you. Mondor begins her pitch with “The bush pilot myth has become synonymous with Alaskan life,” leading the reader to expect that she plans to write about pilots. When you read carefully, you learn she really wants to write about the investigators who look into why pilots crash.

This information should be at the center of Mondor’s pitch, and the entire pitch should focus on the story she wants to tell and the methodology by which she will tell it. Otherwise, she runs the risk of confusing her editors and losing the opportunity to report on an important aspect of Alaskan aviation.

Here’s how I’d rewrite Mondor’s pitch:

In the 90 years since aircraft first flew in Alaska, the bush pilot myth has become synonymous with Alaskan life. However, many people aren’t aware of the other side of the myth: the numerous preventable aircraft accidents. Alaska averages about 100 aircraft accidents a year which, over the past decade, have resulted in 194 fatalities.

When these tragedies take place, the investigators with the Alaska regional office of the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) look beyond pilot actions to find aspects of company culture, flight training or lax federal oversight that might contribute to poor decision-making. They have also joined with representatives of the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association to target specific aspects of the state’s aviation environment and community to affect positive change in pilot attitudes and actions. These are the people who are not willing to dismiss Alaska simply as an inherently dangerous place to fly and I think their story needs to be told.

I’m developing a long-form article in which I embed myself in the Alaska regional NSTB office for one month to give readers a clearer picture of the daily challenges and struggles these investigators face. I’ll follow the investigators as they visit crash sites, document accidents, and work to understand the bigger questions: What went wrong? Was it simple pilot error, or were there larger forces at work here? Why does Alaska have so many aircraft accidents, and how can these accidents be prevented?

This article will be written in a nonfiction narrative style, viewing the investigators and the pilots through a human lens. Readers will finish the piece feeling as if they were there in the NTSB office with me, watching coworkers make jokes and talk about their families before they’re called out to investigate yet another accident. They’ll also learn how this type of work affects family and personal life, and what a career based on analyzing tragedy does to a person over time.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic or discussing how this story might fit into your publication, please let me know.

A bit about my background: I first worked in the aviation industry in Alaska over 20 years ago, as a dispatcher for a Fairbanks-based commuter. I also studied aviation in college and graduate school, both in Alaska and Outside, and learned to fly when I was 18. I wrote about my years as a dispatcher in a 2011 memoir, The Map of My Dead Pilots. I have worked as a journalist and essayist on this subject for years including the past three for the Bush Pilot section of Alaska Dispatch News (the Anchorage daily newspaper), and recently in Narratively magazine. Alaska aviation is a topic I am deeply involved with, and I look forward to writing about the people who are trying to change the way it operates.

Mondor’s response

I asked Mondor if she was planning to rework her pitch based on my fix, and here’s her response:

This is really really funny. I was reading over some pitches at Open Notebook a few days ago and I started thinking about how I buried the fact that there were very real people involved in my story — the NTSB investigators (and others) who are so committed to changing the statistics. I have been so worried about getting the facts straight and making clear that this would not be another “death-defying Alaska bush pilot” article, that I left out the significant human element. (Who are the point!)

And bam — you saw it too and more importantly, you made it work.

I’ll likely tinker with this just a bit to fit exactly what I want to write about but honestly, I won’t change much. Reading over it again, I’m realizing how much I needed a second pair of eyes on it. Sometimes, no surprise, writers just can’t see the forest for the trees.

I’ll be sending this out by the end of the week — thanks so much.

Do you agree with this month’s Pitch Fix? When you’re pitching a story, how much background information do you include? What other advice do you have for Colleen Mondor?

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.

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter

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
Find Your Freelance Writing Niches

Featured resource

Find Your Freelance Writing Niches: Make More Money for Less Work

If you’re not satisfied with your income from freelance writing, you need to start specializing. This ebook by John Soares will show you why and how.

Comments

  1. Agree — it needed that nut graf where we learn exactly what the story would be about.

    The other thing that’s missing is a proposed headline. I know many editors scan through looking for that, and if they don’t see one, they just move on. If you can’t write a headline for your idea, the editor may suspect you haven’t got your idea gelled yet.

    • Excellent point, Carol. I’ve heard that your editor is likely to rewrite your headline anyway, but I often come up with headline-ish sentences to lead my pitches, e.g. “Would you be interested in a piece on 10 Reasons Why Your Customers Aren’t..” and so on.

  2. I actually have a headline in mind but was hesitant to share it with the pitch because it is really really good (I swear!). I did include it with the new pitch thought when I sent it out again last week.

    Thanks again, Nicole!

  3. Another great example for us to learn from.

    Thanks, Nicole!

    Kevin

  4. Effective article for blogging. I believe, for business these blog tips helps me a lot.

  5. Article that you had shared with us is useful for us. Talked about different conceptual views.

  6. I love this!! It is great to see before and after examples that really drive the point home. Thank you!!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Pitching Long-Form Journalism? Don’t Forget Your Goal [The Write Life] […]

  2. […] Pitching Long-Form Journalism? Don’t Forget Your Goal [The Write Life] […]

Speak Your Mind

*