Freelance AdviceFreelance, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2005

Generating and Pitching Story Ideas

Acey

With the ubiquitous presence of the Internet, coming up with story pitches and finding out where to pitch them has never been easier. There are publications for just about any hobby, industry, quirk, fetish, subculture and subject you could possibly think of. And resources abound for reaching them.

Unlike assignments, with pitches you get to propose writing about something you choose. So think about what you would like to write about—stamp collecting? Minorities in the construction industry? Your personal experience with heartbreak? Whatever the subject is, you should be ready to research it, interview people about it and spend a lot of time thinking about it.

Of course, whatever it is you've thought of pitching, chances are it's been written about before. So you have to find out where and how. Lexis-Nexis, usually available at the local library, is an excellent way to research articles on a certain subject. Google searches on the Web or archive searches on registered websites for major publications (which is usually free, although pulling up the archived stories in full may not be) can also give you a reasonable body of material. And plenty of websites with articles on that subject will pop up for free. Also check for organizations that relate to that topic, because they often list articles as well.

Note: You don't have to search for every story written on the subject since the dawn of time. Let's say it's a pitch about women in the construction industry. Don't worry about the articles written on this subject that date back more than five years ago. That's ancient history in the world of publications. You'll probably find a good selection of stories written in major dailies and small weeklies within the past five years, but that's where the next tip comes in.

Let's say you find that the New York Times has published a story about the struggles of women to succeed in the construction industry. Does that mean your pitch is already taken? Absolutely not. What it means is that you read the story, get a sense of what it did cover, and shape your pitch so that it will cover a whole new angle or idea that the Times story didn't. Did the Times story talk about women who faced discrimination and went on to own their own firms? Then think about interviewing women who don't own their own firms, but who operate cranes or weld iron. You'll look for women whose stories weren't told by the Times. Even if the issue of discrimination is the same, every individual's story is different.

Just as good literature offers new twists to old plots, so you can offer new twists to subjects of articles.

Also, consider "localizing" a story for a local publication. Journalists for smaller hometown newspapers often take a story of national interest and apply it to their hometown readers. For example, the Atkins Diet is a nation-wide trend, but you could interview local bakeries about whether they're losing business, and pitch the story to the editor of a local publication.

Now you have to find publications to pitch your great idea to. Fortunately it's not nearly as tough as pitching your book to publishers. I pitched several stories successfully to the New York Times Money & Business section via e-mail. This was made possible by nothing more than having the right name and e-mail address. A colleague had the email and name of the Money & Business editor. I sent the guy an email with a story proposal that he accepted.

Editors, especially at dailies, will be typically harried and easily distracted from strange e-mails. So you have to get straight to the point, while still being polite. Make it clear in the header that you are pitching a story about thus-and-so. Don't ramble on in the body; if the editor wants to know more about your credentials or history, he or she will ask for it. Just pitch the story, emphasizing why it would be something the publication's audience will eat up with their coffee or lunch. "I believe this topic/angle/knowledge would be of great interest to your readers because…." Attaching your resume wouldn't hurt, and you can offer to send examples of your writing if the editor wants to follow up.

You can also, of course, use snail mail. Be aware, though, that particularly busy editors may take more time to plow through stacks of envelopes than to browse their email inboxes.

If there is a particular publication you want to work for, call their main number and ask for editorial. You should be able to find out fairly quickly whether they are accepting freelance articles or not. Checking the website for that publication may also answer the question.

An excellent on-line resource for insider tips on pitching to specific publications is at mediabistro.com. It does require paid membership, though registration to access job listings that may include freelance opportunities is free. The pitch tips feature a specific publication each day and tells you what the deal is.

Take the time to read through a particular publication to get a sense of what kind of stories it wants. Editors find it very irritating to receive unsolicited pitches that aren't appropriate for their publication. Don't assume! For example, I edit transportation stories for a weekly construction magazine. I look for stories about building major highways, bridges, rail systems and airports. If somebody sends me a pitch about manufacturing the next generation of clean-air buses, that means they didn't take them to glance through the magazine and realize that we don't cover that industry. The pitcher only saw the title "transportation editor" and made an assumption.

That writer, however, could probably do a bit more research and find out that there are indeed several magazines that cater to the suppliers, builders and users of clean-air buses. The writer could also check out publications whose main audiences consists of concerned users—i.e. environmentalists—and pitch the story with emissions in mind. It will be a slightly different pitch to the publication who caters to transit agency officials who buy the buses.

When you show that you've taken the time to find out a little bit about a given publication and thus pitch it a story that would work for its readership, you're inherently advertising that you're a good journalist and writer who does your homework.
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