Woman in silhouette with megaphone

Throughout my newspaper career, some of the best writing I ever read could be found in contest entry letters. Those brag pages also could carry some wince-worthy writing, especially, it seemed, when they were written by the same reporter who had produced a stellar project. Gold-star journalists seldom lack for ego. Yet, when it comes to writing about themselves or promoting their work, they would hem and haw and lose control of the very craft skills they bring to their reported pieces.

The solution, usually, was to have an editor write the entry letter. The alternative was to have the reporter produce a draft, then have an editor — essentially a rewrite person — both tone it down and boost it up. In larger newsrooms, some editors become the go-to writer come contest time.

But all of that is moot unless and until you’ve produced a quality story. And you can’t produce any story unless you have landed a pitch. That’s especially true for freelancers who are pitching to an editor who doesn’t know them or their work.

Newsroom reporters have to do a version of pitching, too, but once they have established themselves, they can focus on the story — not their own skills. If, however, they want to pursue a new beat or take on an aspirational project, they need to be able to sell themselves out of whatever pigeonhole they might be slotted in. And given the turnover in the industry, they always need to be ready to sell themselves to a new editor.

That brings us to the last of our 7 Fatal Flaws of Story Pitches: Failure to sell yourself. Along with #6, Failure to focus, it’s often the weakest part of pitch letters.

Let’s start with that word: Sell.  A lot of journalists chafe at it. I know I always did. Our work was too values-based, too noble, to be lumped in with the oft grubby world of salesmanship.

Now let’s add in the rest: Sell yourself. Ego doesn’t change that fact that most reporters, and certainly those in print, spend their lives on the anonymous side of a notebook. The spotlight is on the sources and story subjects. Turn it on themselves — how gauche.

But if you scrub the word “sell,” it becomes clear that that’s what we do, constantly. We sell the imperative of our story to an editor. We sell, sell, sell to sources we want to talk to us. We sell partnerships to our data base and multi-media colleagues. We sell placement and play to the production desk.

When it comes to pitching a story we want to pursue, we need to apply that same sense of purpose — because that’s what it is — to selling ourselves.

That doesn’t mean larding a pitch letter with a long list of other stories or publication mastheads or awards. Were that the case, it’d be easy.

What it means is getting clear (focused) about two things:

  • Why you are invested in the story you are pitching. Why does it spark your interest or curiosity or passion? What do you want to explore that will be of interest to others?
  • Why you are the right one to deliver that story? What background or skills or connections do you bring to a particular subject for a particular publication?

What this boils down to is knowing the story you want to pursue (see Fatal flaw #6). Even more, it means knowing yourself and why your approach, style, experience and access are the right match for the story. Then you have to prove that, in no more than a paragraph or two.

Know thyself

None of that is easy — especially for people not used to writing about themselves. It’s a disciplined process of selection: You want to show you’ve got the goods, but you want to highlight the goods that are right for this particular job. And you never want to sell what you can’t deliver. Can you pitch an aspirational stretch? You can, and should. But don’t brag that your work has appeared in The New York Times if what you did was grab a couple of quotes one day as a stringer.

If all this makes you squirm, here are a few tips:

Read bios on websites of journalists you admire. What do they say about themselves that impresses you? What reads like too much gush?

Report on yourself. Step out of the moment and take clear-eyed inventory. What craft skills are your strengths? What kind of reporting/writing gives you the most joy? Conversely, what do you struggle with, and what kind of work makes you wish you could flip burgers for a living? Now match those lists up with what the story you are pitching will require.

Show your summary of self to a trusted colleague. (We all need editors.) Does it read authentic and appropriate to them? If it’s someone who knows you well enough, lean on your reporting skills: Interview them about what they see as your strengths. Remember to ask for specific examples that back their praise.

You are, in essence, writing a mini-profile of a character in your story. The only difference: You’re the character, and the story is your pitch.

Further Reading