What kind of pitch grabs an editor and will result in a story assignment?
“How do you keep filling up that magazine every week?” people always ask.
Sometimes I wonder too. Thankfully, our writers usually keep us supplied with a steady stream of pitches (and sometimes readers pitch ideas too).
Not every pitch gets accepted, though. Our editorial board meets regularly to evaluate the pitches and decide which to assign. What kind of pitch grabs an editor and will result in a story assignment?
A good pitch should be specific. It should outline the story in brief and delineate what’s unique, exciting, or different about it. It should also clarify why this writer is the right one for the job — how he or she has the knowledge, connections, or access to bring readers a great piece by speaking to interesting, authoritative sources.
Another vital element in a pitch is relevance. Why should our readers care about this issue, person, or event? How is it important or relevant to them?
Currency is important too. Some stories are what we call “evergreens” — they’re always in season, always on target. But other stories need a current hook in order to grab the reader.
Sometimes we’ll get a promising pitch from a writer — promising, but a bit too ambitious. Ambition is a good thing, but so is focus. And too wide a focus sometimes results in too vague of a piece. Think of a camera’s field of view: the wider it is, the fuzzier the resulting photo. Sometimes we really do need that wide focus, if we’re discussing a big, broad issue. But often the more digestible slice — the sharper perspective — will yield the more detailed, vivid, and intimate read.
And lastly, when a pitch promises to deliver emotional impact, that’s a decided advantage. True, this magazine runs news pieces and history pieces, fact-based pieces and how-to pieces. But the pieces that spark conversation and debate are almost invariably those that speak to the emotions.
Here’s an example of a pitch that’s too general, too wide, and too vague:
Inflation is so huge right now, why don’t we do a piece on how frum people are dealing with it?
Now imagine receiving a pitch roughly along these lines:
Inflation is so huge right now. I want to do a story about inflation and the frum middle class — the ones who just about make it through the month and now have this new reality to juggle.
I’m going to speak to people in three different typical frum locations and see how their monthly budgets have been affected. Buying food, filling the car, Yom Tov clothing shopping — dilemmas, conversations, where they are pinching, how it affects the family dynamic and relationships. Then I’m going to get an overview of the issue from someone with economic expertise.
Ideally, I’m hoping to build a well-rounded story that toggles between the bigger economic picture and the individual lives of the interviewees. I want to deliver both information and human interest — a macro look at the problem along with the very human feel of real people who are scrambling to afford groceries.
Why is the second pitch so much more likely to get a go-ahead from the editor? For several reasons. It’s current and relevant. It has a clear focus, a narrower and more feasible slice of the pie than the very general “frum people.” And it holds the promise of a real emotional impact, because it’s going to cover not just numbers but also relationships, family dynamics, tough dilemmas with painful costs.
Confession time: even once the technicalities are attended to, and the pitch checks all the boxes, there’s one more element that an editor seeks. Something more elusive, something that often lies between the lines. It’s the sense that this story excites or moves the writer in some way — that the writer is genuinely curious to learn more about it and share it with others.
Somehow, when I’m working with a good writer and they’re excited by a subject, even if I don’t personally find it fascinating, even if it doesn’t meet all the above requirements, even if I’m not sure how their vision will translate into a feature — I will often tell them to go ahead. Because when you sense that passion in an experienced writer, when you know they’re going to throw their heart into a project along with their brains, then you can trust them to transform that pitch into a worthy final product.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 953)
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