Building Confidence for the Big Pitch

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We’ve all been there: dying to send your killer idea to a dream publication, but paralyzed with fear. What if the editor hates your pitch? (Hint: move onto another market) What if she laughs in your face? (unlikely) What if you get the assignment and then realize you’re in over your head?

That last one is a quandary many freelancers would love to have. Most of the time, you can break an assignment into more manageable, bite-sized portions and work through it bird by bird, as Anne Lamott would say.

But if you don’t give it a shot, you’ll never have the chance to prove yourself and write that dream assignment.  Here are five ways to boost your confidence for a big pitch.

1. Keep a fan mail file.
Whether you write a blog, a newspaper column, or just post quirky musings on Facebook, you’ve probably had someone (your mother, your fourth grade teacher, or possibly a random stranger) say, “hey, that was pretty good!” That feeling is pretty darn good to boot. As blog comments or emails come in, move them to a special email folder so you can psych yourself up later when you need it. And if you’ve ever gotten good ol’ fashioned letters, even better. Someone took the time to handwrite a letter praising a magazine article I wrote and the magazine was kind enough to forward it to me. I saved this missive in my stationery box so I can refer back to it later.
2. Do your homework.
The more you know your target publication, the better equipped you’ll be to craft a winning pitch. For online publications, this is pretty easy. You can score magazine subscriptions by cashing in airline miles through MagsforMiles.com or buy subscriptions through sites like Magazines.com. Alternatively, check for back issues at your local library. These should give you a sense of what the publication covers and the writing style it uses, which can help strengthen your pitch and give the confidence of knowing “this magazine last covered X in 2008” or “they typically use anecdotal leads, so I’m going to start my pitch in a similar fashion.”
3. Sleep on it.
Taking a second look at your pitch with a fresh pair of eyes should help you catch errors or come up with better ways to phrase things. Ask yourself if you’ve given the editor enough information about the story idea (and about you and your credentials) to make a decision but not so much that he or she gets overwhelmed.

4. Get feedback.
I tend to trust my own instincts, but many writers find it helpful to use a query buddy or a critique group. These trusted confidantes can make suggestions on what details to add or subtract, what sections might be confusing, and more. They can also suggest alternate markets if your first one doesn’t work out. If you conflicting advice from different members of the critique group, then go with your gut instead of trying to please everyone.

5.  Just do it.
You could research and rewrite and workshop your pitch indefinitely, but at some point, you gotta let it go. There’s a point of diminishing returns, because too much fiddling with sentence structure or second-guessing yourself will not make the pitch any better. So, send it out into the world and move onto the next one. That’ll give you something else to focus on instead of fretting over the some pitch ad nauseum.

How To Make Your Pitches Perfect

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As a freelance writer, you have to be a strong salesperson. Maybe the strongest salesperson of all—because you are selling yourself. When pitching an editor, you need to sell not only your story idea, but yourself and your work.

Editors are often bombarded with queries and manuscripts, and they don’t have much time to spare. You need to be able to catch their attention quickly, and get them interested in your story idea. The best way to do this is to have the perfect pitch letter.

I’ve been on both sides of the editor-freelancer relationship. I’ve freelanced for several publications, both in print and online. I was also the managing editor of a print, monthly magazine for college students in Southern California. I received pitches daily, and while some were solid and caught my eye immediately, many were rambling or not right for my publication.

When sending a query letter to an editor, there are several do’s and don’ts to make your pitch as powerful as possible.

What Works:
1.Know Your Target

Before pitching to a publication, you need to read that publication and become familiar with its message and voice. Your query letter should accurately reflect this voice. For example, don’t write for a teen audience if you’re pitching to Time Magazine. You also need to explain in your pitch letter why this story would be of interest to this publication’s readers.

2. Personalize
Figure out who the editor of the publication is, and make sure you contact the correct editor. Your letter should not start with “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Editor.” Direct the letter to a specific person and use his or her name. When the first words of a query were “Dear Mr. Editor,” I was not only annoyed, but I was definitely not going to be accepting that pitch.

Even if you are pitching the same idea to several outlets, you need to make your pitch letters specific to the publication. As an editor, I received pitch letters that had the names of other publications instead of mine. Of course, I stopped reading those letters at that point. Tell the editor why this story is a fit for this specific publication.

3. Make An Entrance
Your intro needs to be strong or the editor is going to stop reading. Pique the editor’s curiosity, and then get to the point quickly. Editors are often short on time (and therefore patience), so you need to get to the point before he or she loses interest. Reread your letter looking for dull words and replace them with more vibrant ones. Make every word count.

4. Keep It Short
You need to be thorough, but your pitch letter is not your entire piece. It should be shorter than one page because no editor wants to read more than that. The basic outline for your query should be: a strong intro, the basics of your story, why it’s a good fit for the publication, what section of the publication it could possibly fit into, and your qualifications as a writer. A short query letter proves that as a writer, you can edit your own work, which is a valuable quality to an editor.

5. Know Your Material
If the editor is interested in your pitch, he or she may follow up with more questions. You should try to anticipate any blanks that were left in your original pitch. Since your pitch isn’t the whole pie, you should be ready to provide the rest of the ingredients in case the editor has more questions.

What Doesn’t Work:

1. A Lack of Self Confidence

Whether you’re new to pitching or a pro, you need to have confidence. Because I worked with younger writers when I was an editor, I got quite a few pitch letters that started out with “I’m not sure if this is something that would work.” Well, you should be sure! If you’re pitching a publication, you should be confident without being cocky. You should feel that your story is a right fit for this specific publication, and that you have the knowledge and skills to get the piece done.

2. Been There, Done That Pitches
Some ideas are pitched over and over again to a publication. At my magazine for college students, writers would pitch the same ideas repeatedly: “How to Lose the Freshman Fifteen,” “Studying Abroad, ” etc. While no editor expects you to have read all the previous pieces in a publication, you should have some idea of what’s been done (and done and done) before. Try to look for new angles to old stories, or more time-sensitive pieces.

3. Vague Pitches
“I want to write about golf” is not a pitch. Your pitches need to be very specific. It needs to be an actual story idea, not a story subject area. Coming up with a unique story is what is going to catch the editor’s eye.

4. Spelling Mistakes and Typos
You’re a writer. If you can’t write a one-page pitch letter without spelling mistakes, how would you write an entire piece? Read that pitch letter over and over—your livelihood depends on it.

5. An Invisible Writer
You need to make sure that you explain your own credentials as a writer, and what makes you qualified to cover this story. List some of the other publications you’ve written for, and explain any expertise you may have on the subject you would be covering. If it’s a travel story on Hawaii, and you wrote about Hawaii for three other publications and lived there for four years, you need to mention that.

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