The reasons good ideas fail to bloom are many: Advancing news overtakes an idea, and renders it dated. Other work demands the writer’s time. Insecurity undermines their ability to deliver. And yes, sometimes they butt up against a recalcitrant and unimaginative editor.
But often the block is more basic: The writer fails to sell the idea.
A quick true backstory:
When I was a reporter, I sucked at idea generation. I didn’t know how to find stories outside the routine of institutional beats. I suffered a bit of shiny-object syndrome; the story someone else was doing often held more allure. And I was crippled by a severe lack of confidence. Fear motivated my reporting once I was in the field and my writing on deadline, but blocked me when it came to fighting for my own ideas. So I became very good at taking editors’ lame-seeming ideas and, after bouts of bratty pouting, polishing them into gems with a bit of sparkle. And I lucked into a few editors who developed an instinct for which stories to send my way.
Then I became an editor. For some reason, I found it easy to believe in the ideas pitched by reporters on our enterprise team, and I was determined to lobby them onto Page 1. That determination deepened when I began teaching: I wanted my students to believe in themselves, and to get published. My job was to help them find their way to the fresh centers of their wandering, overdone story ideas, and get to the nub of something engaging and doable.
Along the way, I learned to pitch. Maybe more to the point (because I still don’t always do it well), I learned what pitches take — and how even the best reporters struggle to do them effectively. It’s akin to writing a good nut graf or section — something that vexes even the best of reporter-writers.
Help with pitching
The imperative to pitch is especially keen among freelancers, who rise or stall based on what they sell, and often have to sell cold. But even staffers in newsrooms, whose skills are known to the editors, have to convince the editors to support their most ambitious ideas. That’s especially true as news organizations contract and collapse, leaving fewer people to do more work. Knowing how to sell a story idea — quick, sharp and compelling — is necessary coin.
Much is taught and has been written about pitching. One of my favorite places to refer writers is the Pitch Database on The Open Notebook. The 200-plus pitches featured there include links to the resulting published story. While the site focuses on science journalism, the pitches hold lessons for all. Recently I was introduced to “Freelancing with Tim” on Substack; he has gathered pitching guidelines from more than 50 publications. One of Storyboard’s most popular features has been The Pitch, in which we interview editors about what they are looking for in a good pitch, and then annotate a pitch that worked — sometimes after two or three drafts.
Our pitch series was suspended for awhile, after the freelancer who proposed and pursued it moved to bigger magazine assignments. (Dare I posit that she mastered the art of the pitch?) Industry chaos also made it hard to know if the publications and editors we featured were still solid.
Now we’re reviving it, urged on by conversations we see on social media, continued pleas we hear from working journalists, and the energy of San Francisco freelancer Carly Stern. Her interview with the managing director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project is a great relaunch; it includes the annotation of a pitch that led to a story we annotated two years ago. (By the way, no one has an exclusive hold on our pitch pieces, so if you have a proposal, pitch it!)
Watch out for common tripwires
As a backbone running throughout, we’ll be posting a series in coming weeks that focuses on the fundamental mistakes writers make when pitching, and offers suggestions on how to override them. I think of them as the Seven Fatal Flaws of Pitching. Forgive that title, but I grew up in the colliding worlds of religion, stories, construction and four-season weather. Numbers seemed to ground all, especially and oddly, religion: The Holy Trinity. The Eight Beatitudes. The Ten Commandments. The Twelve Days of Christmas. And of course, the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Heavenly Virtues. I don’t know if those numbers themselves have some underlying meaning, but I find them helpful memory devices,
We’ll explore each pitching flaw, and solutions, more fully in follow-up posts. As a tease, here’s the list of common problems that can plague any pitch, no matter the specifications of any given publication or editor. Consider cutting it out and taping it to your computer screen.