"Follow the path" sign

You have a great idea. You’ve vetted it with trusted friends. You’ve done your pre-reporting — or at least some. You are jazzed and ready to pitch, and have a publication in your sights.

Then you hit the tripwires: Which editor do you send your pitch to? Is email OK? How long should it be? What do you start with? How much backstory or sourcing should you include? Should you include references or links to your previous work?

The first answer to all those questions is usually the first answer to anything that trips up a reporter: Do more reporting. In this case, it means reporting on the publication to see if it lists submission guidelines, or names the submissions editor, or has an online form to fill out. Lacking that, it means finding someone who has written for the publication in the past and asking their guidance.

Whatever protocol seems to be at work, follow it. That may feel like a buzz-kill. But it demonstrates your commitment to your idea, and your readiness to do the necessary work.

Why it can work for you

I’m all for a little creative outlawry. I bristle when I have to fill in the blanks or hew to bureaucracy. And I don’t much like those online forms. It feels like they squeeze anything special into a one-size-fits-all box. They don’t leave enough room to really sell an idea. And I always fear they land in some dark e-void rather than in front of the editor or agent I want to dazzle.

Or so it seems. But consider this:

Those editors — the ones you’re trying to dazzle and who never seem to respond quickly enough to your query — are busy. Most are juggling multiple roles, trying to keep their publications sue-proof and lively — even alive — while they manage an array of writerly egos. Book agents have to plow through piles of proposals to find the marketable gems that fit their expertise.

Not all publications, editors or agents use those forms, or provide clear submission guidelines at all. They are happy with a quick, clear email that gives them the essence of an idea — especially if they already know your work. From there, they decide if they want to see more.

But it’s your job to find out as much as you can. (See the #1 rule of pitching.) If there are specific pitching guidelines, follow them. If there is a form, use it. Here’s why:

  • It shows you have done your homework and respect the publication, editor or agent you want to work with. You might think you and your idea are so special that a case can be made for bending the rules, but on the receiving end, that just smacks of cheek.
  • A formula pitch form, with limited space, shows whether you can boil your idea down to its essence, and whether that essence fits the mission of the publication you’re pitching. Too many ideas are presented as a smattering of information and sources, rather than as the heart of a wow story.
  • It’s a way to test out whether your idea is right for the magazine. If the form asks what “how-to” info you plan to include in your story, and you don’t have any, maybe you’ve got the wrong publication.
  • Remember those busy editors? The quickest way to identify what might be special about one pitch among dozens is by seeing them all in the same format. That might seem counterintuitive, but when an editor scans through forms — or emails that follow some general outline — s/he doesn’t have to first figure out, with each one, the structure at work. The highlights stand out. It’s why bulleted and numbered lists have value; there’s nothing to distract from the content.
  • Those forms likely go into a dedicated inbox so they won’t get lost in the daily email tsunami. Maybe they are screened first by an intern or editorial assistant. But even then, they are being screened to determine if they meet the basic criteria an editor needs — things like whether the topic or voice suits the publication, whether that topic is fresh or has already been done, whether the space and time needed for a story is justified or even possible.
  • Being creative and engaging in a tightly structured form shows you might be able to do the same in a tightly structured story.

Lecture over. So here’s a little of that creative outlawry: Follow the protocols. But unless those protocols say, in no uncertain terms, not to email the editor directly, then consider sending a brief — and I mean brief — email letting that editor know you sent in a pitch. It’s best to have a bit of an in — the name of someone s/he knows and respects who has given you permission to use that connection. And that email really needs to get to the point fast, and in a way that isn’t hyped but can’t be ignored.

Next up in our Fatal Flaws series: A riff on clean copy. Stay tuned.

Further Reading

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