One of the constant struggles of freelance writing is finding work, and gigs in the print world (and, increasingly, online) require writers to pitch their stories to editors.
As a freelance writer, your pitch is your greeting card, your foot in the door, and, hopefully, your meal ticket. Because editors don't usually have time to review full articles, those queries will likely affect the bottom line more than your writing itself.
That said, it pays to know how to sell yourself and your ideas: in other words, how to quickly craft compelling pitches.
Step 1. Start out strong
Think about your proposed article. What is its driving force? Is there some intriguing question which the story is trying to address?
Distilling the article's focus is essential, because this is how the most successful pitches begin. Hook your audience by stating the main thrust of your article in one or two irresistible sentences. You learned about the importance of capturing your reader while in middle school; only now your income—not just a grade—depends on it.
Step 2. Tell a story
All the work spent determining the essence of your article in step one will come in handy here. Briefly outline the proposed story while keeping the basics of narrative in mind; this is likely your only chance to sell this editor on the idea. As you flesh out the specifics, be sure to mention key points: central issues, what you already know as well as what you can figure out, and (when appropriate) if you have contacts who can lend their authority or add new dimension to your story.
Step 3. The 3 whys
a. Why here? If it's not immediately apparent why your story belongs in the publication to which you're pitching, clarify that now. Editors want to know you've thought about their audience. What makes your article interesting or useful to this publication's readers? If your target is a smaller subset of the publication's demographic, explain how the publication as a whole will benefit from running the article.
b. Why now? Just as many publications are aimed at specific groups of people, so too are many driven by time-sensitive content. Skiing articles should be kept for winter months (or whenever is appropriate due to editorial lead time—i.e. the delay from pitch to publication), while news-centric stories should be pitched as quickly as possible, while still allowing for a well-crafted query.
c. Why you? By now, just from your pitch, the editor should be able to see your ability to weave a story. But word-wrangling will only get you so far. In the Internet Age, when anyone with a computer can turn out content of dubious quality, credentials matter. What makes you uniquely qualified to write this article? Do you have certain school/job/life experience which makes you, if not an expert, at least credibly informed on the subject? Don't be modest; here's your chance to sell yourself as the guru you are.
Step 4. Back it up.
If all the self-flattery you did in the last step wasn't enough, you're in luck! Now it's time to present the priors: the names of prior publications as well as prior published articles called "clips". If the publication to which you are submitting has writers' guidelines, check them to see if clips are preferred via URL links or as attachments. Also, keep your priors down to 2 or 3; listing too many publications for which you've written will make editors' eyes glaze over, while any clips over 3 or so will at best go unread or at worst show off less than your top work. Remember, if you have good clips related to the article you're pitching, by all means include them. However, quality clips always trump related ones, just as a few quality clips are better than a vast quantity of them.
A final tip: Know your buyer. Directing your query to "Whom it may concern" isn't your best bet for making a good first impression. Then again, neither is sending material to the editor-in-chief when it should really be addressed to, say, the entertainment editor. Always verify which person at your target publication deals with the subject of your pitch, and then look up their name; "Dear Ms. Austen" sounds a whole lot better than "To the Entertainment Editor." If your idea is strong and you follow the steps above, that editor may just call you back.
Haidn Ellis Foster is the editor for the general-interest web magazine The Hatchet.