Magazine pitches are an elusive species. You hear talk of them at journalism conferences and in freelancer forums. You see evidence of their existence in the stories they beget. But it’s rare to catch a glimpse of a specimen in the wild.
This all manages to give the narrative pitching process an almost mystical quality. Freelancers in particular are often firing blind, having only a vague sense of what the magazine is looking for and no idea what the next guy is doing. Editors — whether because of overcrowded inboxes or avoidance or politesse — rarely offer constructive feedback. Often they don’t reply at all.
That’s why Nieman Storyboard is launching a series that will look under the hood of the pitching process. We’re interviewing writers and editors about their tips, tricks and pet peeves. And we’ll dissect — a riff on Annotation Tuesday! — real pitches that led to published stories.
Jason Fagone, a magazine writer and author who lives outside Philadelphia, knows a lot about the topic. He’s spent the last 12 years freelancing for magazines, including The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ and Huffington Post Highline, where is a contributing editor. His new book, “The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” came out on Sept. 26. He also has a podcast called Kill Fee; for one episode, he interviewed five top editors about pitching.
“If you can’t sell it in a couple of paragraphs, you can’t sell it at all. My rule of thumb is: Have three paragraphs, and they should be short.”
Below, he shares a pitch that landed him a story called “The Willy Wonka of Pot” in Grantland. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How much pre-reporting do you recommend doing for pitches? You want to do enough to hook an editor but minimize the time spent working for free.
You have to do enough reporting to know who the characters are and what your access will be. It also helps if you know the story has a beginning, middle and end. You want to know how long it’ll take to report and show that you see a clear plan for executing the reporting and delivering it to the publication. You don’t have to spend the money to travel up front, and the plan can change based on what you find. But you have to give the editor some sense that you’ve drawn a boundary around the possibilities. I’ve found you have to do more work up front than you would like, but without that, it’s just harder to sell the pitch.
What’s a good length for a serious longform pitch?
To me, 1,000 words is insane. If you can’t sell it in a couple of paragraphs, you can’t sell it at all. My rule of thumb is: Have three paragraphs, and they should be short. In the first paragraph, you introduce yourself. In the second paragraph, you explain the idea and why you’re the right person to write it. (Maybe it’s the way you frame the idea or the access you have to a person.) In the third paragraph, you say, “I’m happy to tell you more if the idea intrigues you,” maybe link to some of your clips and give your contact info. I’m convinced that editors decide within the first 30 to 60 seconds of reading a pitch whether they’re able to do something with it (that doesn’t mean they respond right away). So I just don’t think you have a lot of space or time to make your case.
How do you decide whom to pitch at a given publication?
Editors’ social media feeds give a good sense of what they’re interested in and what they might respond to. Sometimes editors are now credited in stories. You want to pitch the person you’ll be working with directly, usually an associate editor, features editor or sometimes a senior editor. Unless the publication is really small, you don’t want to be pitching the editor in chief. You can also find out from writer friends whether they’ve had a good experience with an editor.
How long do you wait to follow up on a pitch, and how many times do you reach out?
I have a radical position on this: You shouldn’t wait. If you don’t hear back within 48 hours, then move on. Don’t waste time. I really do think if an idea excites an editor, he or she will at least send you a quick email saying, “This is interesting. Let’s find a time to talk about it some more.” If you don’t get that, there are so many other places to pitch. Often a writer will get fixated on landing a story in a certain publication or catching the attention of a certain editor, and they just wait and wait. That is time they could’ve spent working with an editor that likes the idea and wants to work with them.
If someone doesn’t have longform clips, what should he or she say in the pitch?
I don’t think it matters as much as people would think. That’s the good news. The bad news is you have to do a lot of work on the front end to flesh out the idea, draw a box around it and convince the editor that you have a plan to execute it and deliver a good story. If the idea is strong, that’s the coin of the realm in this industry. Yes, connections are helpful, but the most important thing is the idea. In my conversations with editors, I find that the idea of working with a new writer and discovering a new voice is actually really exciting. It’s not something you should apologize for.
My questions are in red, his responses in blue. To read the pitch without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button.
The Willy Wonka of PotHow important is a catchy headline like this? That ended up being the actual headline of the piece as it ran. I think it helped because it was easier to visualize it landing in the magazine. That’s what you really want to happen when an editor reads your pitch.
The most famous and respected marijuana grower in the world is a guy who calls himself DJ Short. Why did you start this way: A quick description of the subject, then delving into the past? The goal there was to very quickly establish DJ as a person of importance in his world and to ground him in the history of pot in a couple of sentences. It introduces him as someone who’s a major figure in a world that Grantland would probably want to explore. If you’ve ever smoked pot, you’ve probably inhaled a plant that can trace its lineage back to one of his hybrids. Originally from Detroit, he spent much of the ’70s traveling the world, smoking herb, in search of the ultimate buzz. He got hooked on growing his own weed in 1973, after he experimented with a little plastic seed-sprouting chamber that came in a box of breakfast cereal. “I put a whole finger-tip-sized seeded bud into the moistened chamber,” he has written. “A few days later the seeds sprouted and roots shot through the buds—and away we go!” You have this quote from something DJ wrote. Had you talked to him by this point or secured access? I hadn’t, or else I would’ve said that. This pitch really isn’t in keeping with my advice. I had read DJ’s book and may have had an initial email exchange with him. I’d heard him on a podcast, so it seemed likely he would talk, and I felt it was a fairly natural story for Grantland to do. I had a sense they’d spark to it, so I did a little bit less of the scout work on the front end than I otherwise would. I also wasn’t pitching it completely cold, which is a benefit of having a place interested in hearing ideas from you.
From there, DJ Short went on to create some of the most durable and successful marijuana hybrids on the planet, including the legendary “Blueberry” and “Flo” strains and dozens of others. And he was generous in sharing his knowledge with others, becoming one of the first to show Americans how to grow their own weed indoors. Nobody really knows about him outside the stoner world, but connoisseurs speak his name in hushed, reverent tones. “From my research, he is to weed as Willy Wonka is to candy,” a commenter on one marijuana-breeding forum wrote in 2010. “Like Willy Wonka, he is hiding in his factory. His factory is also hiding.” How did you find out about this guy, and what drew you to the story? I was interested in this idea that the world of pot cultivation was becoming legitimate, with a couple of states legalizing the sale of marijuana for the first time. The idea of new pot entrepreneurs set against the older world of clandestine pot sellers and cultivators was interesting to me. I started researching the most legendary and well-respected pot cultivators from the clandestine world, and all roads led to DJ Short. He’s clearly one of the greats, yet I couldn’t find anything that had really been written about him. I did find a small book he wrote about his approach to growing pot, and it was clear that he was bright and thoughtful and had this whole philosophy about what he did. He was like the pot equivalent of a great wine grower from Burgundy. The novelty of the pitch became: I’m going to get an interview with this guy who’s never really spoken before, and it’s coming at this cool moment in the weed industry.
But DJ Short isn’t exactly hiding anymore. He isn’t as public as some other figures in the legalization movement, but he does teach classes in marijuana cultivation in California and Michigan and appears at cannabis-growing competitions sponsored by High Times and others. He gave interviews on two weed-related podcasts. (In a just world, DJ Short would be a tenured professor of agriculture somewhere.) What was your goal with this paragraph? Here the pitch moves into the present: What is the main conflict of the story, and what would we be able to see DJ doing now if we spent time with him? What makes him a good profile subject, I think, is that he’s very old-school in his approach to cultivation—he’s still growing new strains, still purifying and cross-breeding, still seeking that magic high—even as the industry gets weirder and weirder around him. You’ve switched gears here to directly address the reader. Do you do that often? I do. I like to tell a little bit of the story and then address the editor and why it’s a good fit for their publication. Once you set up the idea and frame it, I think you have a little bit of freedom to talk to the editor as a colleague or someone you’re proposing to enter into a relationship with. Now that 19 states and the District of Colombia have enacted medical-marijuana laws, pot-growing is rapidly becoming a big business, and the science of breeding is advancing in crazy new directions (high-THC strains, strains that are enriched for the pain-relieving compound CBD). DJ Short was the progenitor of all this. The OG. I’d die before I wrote “the OG” in an actual story, but a pitch can be a little bit looser or more colloquial. He is the institutional knowledge and memory of pot growing in America. The contrast between the man and the new directions of the industry he spawned is a fascinating one. You didn’t mention your reporting plan. Why not? I hadn’t gotten to the point with DJ where I knew exactly where I was going to meet him or what kind of access I was going to have. It’s a little delicate, because sometimes you don’t want to promise something to a source before you have interest from a publication. I really wanted Grantland to be on board before I went to DJ, but sometimes you can do it the other way around. What happened after you sent the pitch? The response was positive and pretty quick. The editor’s only question was about what kind of access I could get and where I would talk to him. That’s when I started negotiating with DJ about the possibility of a meeting at Hempfest in Seattle.