How To Pitch A Magazine Story

An excellent primer from successful freelancer Jennifer Kahn:

Never pitch a story until you know who the characters are going to be and understand the arc of their story: You may not know exactly how the story ends, but you need to know the heart of the story. That’s the only way you can guarantee the piece will be interesting. Otherwise, it’s what I call “junk in the trunk.” As in, “Hey magazine editor, I found a trunk full of junk. How about paying me to go on an expensive trip to rummage through the trunk and hopefully I’ll come back with a gold medallion.”

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Hey, freelancers: What can you add to this? (Or do you disagree?)

10 thoughts on “How To Pitch A Magazine Story

  1. Here’s the pitch I sent for my third freelance story in SI. It’s not exactly brilliant, and I doubt it meets all the standards laid out by Kahn, but it eventually got me an assignment.

    Mar 25 2009

    Dear Chris,

    I’ve got an idea for a story.

    On April 26, 2008, in a Division II softball game between Central Washington and Western Oregon, a light-hitting reserve named Sara Tucholsky cranked the first home run of her career. She was so excited about it that she missed first base and had to turn back to step on it. But as she did so, she tore a ligament and fell to the dirt, unable to finish her home run trot. The umpire said her teammates were not allowed to help her; the best she could do would be to return to first base and be credited with a single. Then Central Washington first baseman Mallory Holtman asked the umpire a surprising question: What if we carried her? The umpire couldn’t think of an objection, and so Holtman and shortstop Liz Wallace carried Tucholsky around the bases, thus contributing to their own team’s elimination from playoff contention.

    In the months that followed, the story drew extensive media coverage. But as best I can tell, no major publication has done an in-depth profile of Holtman or anyone else involved in the game. I think it would be worthwhile. Here are a few reasons:

    * Something about this story seems to have a lasting and extraordinary power. I remember being nearly moved to tears when I first heard about it on television, and just the other day, when I brought it up again, my mother-in-law nearly broke down herself. As a matter of fact, I was just talking to Holtman on the phone tonight and she told me something like that happens at nearly every public appearance she makes. For example, at a recent autograph signing, a middle-aged, tattoo-covered man approached her and tried to say something on behalf of his daughter but the words wouldn’t come out and he had to put on his sunglasses so no one would see what was happening in his eyes.

    * This may be the story around which Holtman builds her life. She now travels around the country along with Tucholsky, giving motivational speeches about sportsmanship. They’ve started a scholarship fund together. Holtman is on a crusade to change the way America plays sports. She is trying to get schools to demand that their coaches talk to the kids less about winning and more about playing the game with class and dignity.

    * Much of what she knows about sports came from her parents, but quite a lot came from her Central Washington coach, Gary Frederick. In the first practice of each season, he outlines his priorities to his players. First comes family. Then schoolwork. Sports is third. Frederick is 72 now, and in nearly 40 years at Central Washington he has also coached basketball, baseball, football and wrestling. Holtman is now an assistant coach for Frederick on the softball team and his likely successor as head coach. She has a surprise planned for April 18, the team’s last home game of the season. They’re going to name the field after him, and the team is going to wear yellow, because that was his late wife’s favorite color, and she’s expecting nearly 300 of his former players to show up for the game. If I were there, I could interview dozens of them to get a sense of Frederick’s legacy of sportsmanship. That way I’d have a better perspective on how Holtman will carry on his tradition.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Thomas. I don’t have a successful pitch to add here — my freelance career is far too young for that — but I do have a suggestion: The Open Notebook’s pitch database.

    I’m not going to include a link, for fear of drawing the attention of Gangrey’s spam sentinels. (Just Google it.) And what you’ll find there are exclusively science stories, which I realize don’t exactly fit this site’s m.o. But what you lose in the dissonance of reading story pitches on flesh-eating bacteria, you more than gain in the ability to see, like Mr. Lake’s e-mail here, the primary documents that led to an assignment.

  3. I do a decent amount of freelancing, and I’ve found that different editors want different things. Some editors have told me they want to be able to imagine the “movie poster” in the first sentence or two. Some editors want to see the character arc and the changes people go through — maybe the same thing as the “heart” of the story, maybe not. Some want a paragraph, some want a page. Some want you to have contacted all the sources involved before a pitch, some don’t care about that nearly as much. It helps immensely to know the editors.

    This was the pitch that turned into my first story at Outside. Definitely not brilliant by any standard, but it got me the assignment (and a pretty awesome trip).

    Hey Alex,

    Here’s the pitch I’ve been meaning to send. Think it’s worth sharing in the meeting?

    Donny Adair wants the world to know that, contrary to popular belief, African-Americans do, in fact, hunt. Like most African-Americans, Donny didn’t go hunting as a kid. Growing up in the suburbs of Portland, his only exposure to the outdoors was an occasional fishing trip with his grandfather. But he married into a down-home southern hunting family from Anguilla, Mississippi (about 40 minutes from Vicksburg). Now any chance he gets, Donny takes his sons out into the Mississippi mud with his father-in-law, an old hunter named Percy Chocolate. Donny feels a special peace as he sits next to the slow-moving creeks and gazes out at the deer bounding around in the distance.

    Though he’s an outsider, the local African-American hunters welcome Donny warmly. These men are old-school southern outdoorsman who can shoot, skin, string up, and slice a deer all before lunch. On his last trip, Donny, a large, jovial man with glasses and a deep, gentle voice, was wrestling his foot out of the mud when one of the local men took down an eight-pointer.

    At night, a caravan of muddy pickup trucks sputters up to the club house, a modest building with unfinished walls and a worn out pool table. Here everyone can hang out, eat freshly made deer sausage (with hotdog buns and yellow mustard), drink cold bottles of Budweiser, dance to some old soul music, and retell the same stories about the beautiful bucks hanging on the walls. Although African-Americans account for about one percent of all hunters, here it’s a way of life. The men grew up hunting together. For generations they’ve come together to celebrate big kills and share meat with the community.

    When Donny goes to hunting and fishing expositions around the country, he says he’s generally one of only two or three African-Americans in attendance. Sometimes he’s the only one. But he hopes to change that soon. For Donny, hunting isn’t just a wholesome solution to many of the issues troubling the African-American community (“if kids are in the woods with their fathers they aren’t running in the streets, dealing drugs, getting into trouble,”) he sees a market, a business opportunity. Donny sees African-American hunting as a growth industry. A few years ago he started the African-American Hunting Association (aahunt.com). With the help of his 21-year-old son, Donnell, he filmed—and is now trying to sell—an African-American hunting television show. (The opening credits show Donny’s superimposed silhouette disco dancing in front of a snowy cabin.)

    In mid-December, Donny will be staying with Percy Chocolate in Mississippi and he’ll be hunting with two different African-American lodges. And I’ve been invited to tag along. I imagine cruising through the mud with these folks, detailing the hunt, drinking in the lodge afterward, talking about their history with the sport.

    I’d love to chronicle the trip for Outside, following Donny into this world. I think it could be an entertaining, cool way to tell a story of how African-Americans relate to the outdoors. Let me know what you think.

  4. I’m just now trying to edge into freelancing, if just for a chance to do long-form. What I love about these pitches is how you work in the fact that
    _I’ve talked to these people
    _They’re willing to grant me access
    _I would travel to X, Y, Z places
    _Give me money
    without expressly saying so. That seems like a better idea than saying “give me money,” though I’m going that route.

    Is this the entirety of the pitch? Tom, did they ask you for more information before approving it? If sp, what kind? The “junk in the trunk” idea makes me feel vaguely guilty, because that is the nature of pretty much every story I throw at my poor beleaguered day-job editor.

  5. Kahn’s advice is excellent. Follow it and you will sell many stories. At the same time, “junk in the trunk” is kind of a glib phrase. Sometimes it’s your job to just go somewhere and find the story once you arrive. And sometimes it’s an editor’s job to trust that you can find it. So, Nigel, don’t feel guilty.

  6. This is one of the best threads I’ve read on here. So helpful. Likely because I’m a huge junk in the trunk offender and rely far too much on editorial trust and indulgence.

    That said, I’ll offer one small (and obvious) tip: if you can pitch in person, it’s much easier. Particularly if you’re passionate about a story – that can’t help but come across, and I think editors in turn can’t help but respond to that.

    Anyway, big thanks to everyone. Keep the advice coming!

  7. I love the ideas given here. The character’s idea I particularly like. As a stringer, my editor always says, “give me as many options as possible.” She also says, “If a dog bites a human, Will, that’s not news because it happens all the time, but if a human bites a dog that’s news because it doesn’t happen all the time.” From the day she told me that, I apply this to all my stories. I also try to find those nuggets of information that people don’t already know.

  8. Pingback: 6 questions journalists should be able to answer before pitching a story | coppelljournalism

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