When I was a writing student at RMIT (twice), I was told that if I ever worked as a freelance journalist (an ill-advised career path), the best way to get published was to send a pitch to an editor.
Send a pitch first, was the mantra and Never write the piece before your pitch was the follow-up refrain. But then the first two articles (one research journalism on a father who forgave his son’s murderers; the other an opinion piece on Kurt Cobain’s death) I had published were written, sent off and accepted without a hitch. Or a pitch.
Many writers and some normal humans ask me whether I pitch my ideas to an editor or whether the editor comes to me with an idea and then I write it. After I’ve finished laughing about (and secretly hoping for) the second scenario, I tell them that pitching is essential and non-essential. Writers look at me quizzically. Normal human beings change the topic to football, or they pitch me their idea for a novel. I tell them I don’t write novels and we both fall asleep.
But the truth of pitching is pretty simple. It starts with reading the journal, mag, or newspaper’s (whether print or digital) fine print. Some say send pitches. Some say nothing. Obviously you should send a pitch to the former, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t send a pitch to the latter. What you should do is send a query to ask whether they like pitches or if they like you to just send the entire article. And, to confuse matters, some journals, etc. call pitches ‘queries’ – so maybe pitch them an article on queries you have in regard to the different uses of the word ‘pitch’ in world sporting parlance, not forgetting to pitch the pictures you’ve taken.
Unlike the previous paragraph, pitches should be short. Very. They should contain what you plan to write, how you plan to write it, why you above anyone else should write it, and show, through the pitch’s excellence, that you can write it. You should not show any fear of your idea being stolen. But you will still feel that fear. If it is a piece of research journalism for which you have the best contacts, just tell the editor you have them. You don’t have to reveal who they are. But if you are writing a profile piece on someone to whom you have exclusive access, of course tell them that you are the only one who has that person’s ear.
Does pitching work? Yes. And no.
Example one: I pitched to the former editor of The Age’s Epicure an article about making healthy muffins for my teen daughter. The editor got back and said she loved muffins, go for it.
Example two: I had a ‘Two of Us’ article in Fairfax’s Good Weekend. I sent a pitch, they liked it, and I got it in. I pitched another ‘Two of Us’ to them recently, on two Australian sisters, both media professionals, one of whom has a high profile. They had both had careers making a difference for people (in different ways) after growing up in apartheid South Africa. One of the media sisters said my pitch was brilliant. The Good Weekend didn’t reply. I took this as a no.
Even though it is the most economically stupid thing you can do, I sometimes write freelance pieces (opinion, creative essay, even reportage) without pitching it to anyone. Many pieces have been published. Some haven’t. But I think I grew through the writing/research process. Though my bank account didn’t.
And I’d do it again. If I believe in a piece enough, I just keep going, pitch or no pitch.
Another truth about pitching is that some editors of some publications don’t want pitches from writers they don’t know. Even if the pitch is brilliant. I can only speculate as to why: perhaps because they want ‘names’ in their publications to attract readers, or perhaps they don’t trust new voices (this is not a question of age or qualifications by the way).
Busyness can get in an editor’s way, too. I don’t take a lack of reply to my pitch as meaning I’m an idiot. It just means no (I take other things to mean I’m an idiot, such as realising I’m writing on and on and on about a process that should be sharp).
In short, pitch short, pitch snappy – pitch without pride or prejudice (pitch a piece on Pride and Prejudice, why costume dramas about it should be banned!). But don’t imagine pitches will always be read or that they’ll lead to publication. They might. But you will get better at writing – and the whole business – just by learning to pitch properly.
Paul Mitchell is a freelance journalist, fiction writer, screenwriter and poet. He’s also a past Going Down Swinging contributor, featuring in issues No. 19–No. 23, No. 28 and No. 30. His latest collection of poetry is Standard Variation (Walleah Press, 2014).