‘Unecessary Syllables’

Not too long! Five paragraphs! Be formal! Be informal! Pitch the same story to multiple editors! Never call. Always email.

This is some of the ‘how to pitch’ advice I’ve received since starting to freelance as a foreign correspondent. Many times the advice I get about pitching to an editor is contradictory. So how do you do it?

Knowing how to pitch is crucial for a freelance foreign correspondent. It’s the way a correspondent sells his stories. A pitch is part of selling, not necessarily writing.

I like the way Emily Bobrow, The Economist‘s Book & Arts Editor, outlines her expectations for pitches. Here are some of her rules that I like to play by too:

It’s essential to follow up. With a backlog of pitches, new arrivals enter a no man’s land, with most editors thinking that if a writer was interested or hungry enough, they would follow up. Also, they’ve then shamed their editor, for not emailing back soon enough – and shame is a very useful currency.

How long should a pitch be? Short. She suggested two or three short paragraphs, and two is better than three. Perhaps “an awesome haiku”?. The art of writing for The Economist lies in stripping away not only unnecessary words, but also unnecessary syllables – and if writers can’t do that in an email, they can’t do it in filed copy.

Stay professional. Be a bit more formal than you may be used to. It “can be weird when writers presume a certain level of familiarity when really that’s just not the nature of the dynamic”.

Be a reader. You really need to know the magazine before you pitch. Editors find it irksome, in a media environment where everyone’s hustling, to get a pitch that indicates lack of knowledge of what the magazine does and where a story would fit in, or what its value would be to the magazine. Editors find it especially insulting to receive a pitch for something like a piece they’ve already run recently – or that just indicates a lack of familiarity with their product.

For me, Emily’s last suggestion is the most important: Be a reader. As a foreign correspondent, you straddle two very different worlds: the world of the story and the world of the reader.

When you sell, you have to be thinking about the reader, not the striker or the single mother you just interviewed. And yes, it might be painful when you realize that the story your editor wants is the one that could force you to cut out the single mother’s voice. She was so sweet, too.

If I had to add a piece to Emily’s list, it would be:

Build a conversation. Editors want to know what’s going on. And you as a foreign correspondent have the eyes that they don’t. So pitch. But also develop a conversation via email over what is happening, what you as the correspondent think is important, and what the editor’s readers think is important. You’ll find common ground this way. Don’t be stiff. Make it a conversation.

When you pitch you are a salesperson, not a writer. That means you have to build conversations with editors, not just dream up stories to tell.